An Interview with Harriet Harman

By Eloïse Carey

We were lucky enough to get in contact with Harriet Harman and below she answers a few questions that were prompted by A Woman’s Work.

Do you think that the perception of increasing equality in the workplace has actually been detrimental to women in making them feel their experiences of sexism aren’t ‘serious’ enough?  

There’s always been a resistance to women expressing their concern about sexism in the workplace.  Either they ‘have no sense of humour’ when dealing with sexual harassment, or they are ‘pushy’ in asking to be paid equally to male colleagues, or they are ‘unreasonable’ for complaining about not getting a promotion. And, while it has become less acceptable to openly support inequality, resistance to change comes in the form of saying we’ve got equality now so what are you still complaining about!  Whether it’s active resistance or the new ‘passive resistance’ where men agree with equality in theory but nothing changes, it’s always hard for women when complaining about sexism and frequently their complaints are belittled as trivial.  The important thing is for women to discuss these issues together in a workplace and make a joint approach.

What made you decide that your experiences as a woman in politics needed to be shared? Why now?

Why? Because I don’t want the story of women in politics and the massive change in women’s lives over the last 30 years to be, as Sheila Rowbotham warned, ‘hidden from history.’ My male cabinet colleagues have published their memoirs, but none had written about the 100 Labour women who got elected in 1997, who changed parliament, politics and government forever and for good.  Nowhere is the story of our progress in demanding for women’s voices to be heard in parliament, for women to have an equal say in government, how women’s votes helped labour get elected in 1997, how we brought in childcare, a minimum wage and the Equality Act. Now? Because for the first time in over 30 years I’m no longer on the front bench.

What is one experience that you’ve had in your career that has stuck with you?  

Standing on the South Bank in London as day dawned after the 1997 general election and it became clear that we had won a landslide. After years of stagnating in opposition we were able to start taking the actions that we had only been able to talk about – like saving the NHS, ending pensioner poverty and replacing Section 28 with the right for gays and lesbians to form civil partnerships.

Do you think you’ve had to overcompensate in the workplace because you are a woman? Has this affected the way you pursued your career? 

As a woman with young children I found I had to ‘overcompensate’ both at work and at home. Knowing that you have young children, you have to prove to your colleagues you are working as hard as them. Being out at work so much you have to prove to yourself that you are not a terrible mother.

What would you say to teenagers that don’t believe sexism exists anymore?

Sexism in the world of work is a hangover from when women were regarded as inferior to men and that their domain was the kitchen sink. And it’s still difficult in practice for women to be equal if they are the one who is mainly responsible for the children, older and disabled relatives. The time when it becomes very evident that sexism is still alive and well at work, is when you have children. That’s why we need to fight to extend maternity pay and leave, for all jobs to be available for part-timers, and for higher paternity leave so that men can take time off with their children when they are young.

Illustration: Faye Chua

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