Sunday, 8 March 2009

Public Services - what do women think about choice and control?

This blog site is a great idea - not least because it is looking to solve a problem most of us know exists, but which we find hard to articulate or support with "hard" evidence. The hypothesis that women don't get involved as much or speak up in political discourse because of the routes through which we force the conversation to take place was a real driver for me in setting up the Fabian Women's Network 4 years ago.

One of the reasons I did it was because I was I believed we could create new spaces in which women could come together to engage in political debate and influence policy, in forums that felt more appropriate and welcoming than our usual political spaces. It was never to replace what exists, but to actually start to reform it - as well as to offer an alternative.

I've recently been reading about work done to support women going into public life, or even move on in the private sector. I found the following excellent quote in "A Woman's Place is in teh Boardroom" by Peninah Thomson and Jacey Graham (p22), which illuminated a lot of what many women 'feel', with an explanation for why. I'm not sure I agree with all the analysis, but a lot of it rings true.

She is discussing different responses men and women make to stressful situations, and the different chemical phenomena that take place in men and women. She then goes on to argue that gender differences transcent cultures, and referencing You Just Don't Understand: Women and Men in Conversation" by D. Tannen and William Morrow (1990) she says: "We talk in different ways too, for different reasons. Male conversation is public, competitive, status seeking, factual and designed to demonstrate knowledge; female conversation is private, co-operative, reassuring, empathetic, egalitarian and meandering."

I remain convinced that we all adopt male and female "types" of conversation at different times, but that perhaps we have our preferred defaults. However in a male dominated environment, those with a preference for female conversation would need much more to adopt male conversation patterns to "fit in" or feel heard.

So perhaps we can feel empowered knowing there are differences, and its ok to be different, and ok to choose which mode we want to be in and when. What this blog can do, however, is hugely important in letting women talk, just in the way they want to.

However if we are to have more quantity of debate, as well as quality, women need to start talking about mainstream political issues in a far more confident way. I'm going to start today with an issue that will get coverage this week, as the Government unveils a new strategy - and that is Public Service Reform.

Women vote a lot on public service issues. So it must mean we all have views. The shift that Liam Byrne highlighted in a Sunday Times interview this weekend was moving the debate from choice to control. So I'm fascinated to kick off this conversation with Labour women. What does this mean to us and for us? I hope you'll find the time to put some thoughts down, and I'll do another blog in a week to come back on the issues raised!

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