"Man Up At The Back There!"

Article for the Daily Telegraph by Edwina Currie

So it will no longer be acceptable for a teacher to tell a child to “man up”; when boys tease little girls with “Go make us a sandwich”, a gender champion member of staff will tick them off for using sexist language.

I confess that when I read that a Tory Cabinet Minister had approved these revised guidelines, like many Telegraph readers I thought the world had gone mad.

But remember the snorts of derision when racist language was condemned years ago? Today, we’d be horrified at a child calling another “a dirty Paki” or using what is now delicately called “the N word.” We’d separate them and earnestly explain our great British values of Live and Let Live and Respect. So maybe Nicky Morgan has a point: she wants more girls to do science and maths, more boys to take “soft” subjects such as English. Fine – but does that sexist backchat really cause inequality?

The pay gap and the dearth of women in top jobs still produces a lot of head-scratching, two generations after bras were burned in the 1960s. I loathe feminism: the sisterhood, from Germaine Greer to Harriet Harman, have a lot to answer for in my view. They carry much of the responsibility for hindering women from achieving their full potential; theirs are the shrieking siren voices telling women and girls they cannot succeed, as somebody – men, or “the system” – will stop them. That’s a load of rubbish. We women are not victims, as I keep telling university students. We are not martyrs. We are the majority. The only thing that’s holding you back is your belief in yourself.

Some of the gap is due to maternity: women may be able to put their babies in nurseries, but when you hold this miracle in your arms and can stay home for a while, why would you want to? To deny that is to ignore the joyous experience of women round the world. When I said so at an Oxford Union debate in 2013, one feminist, left-winger Laurie Penny, stormed out saying the whole idea made her feel “physically sick.”

Even employers with strong track records on equality are puzzled. I spoke recently at an internal event for the John Lewis Partnership, which has 58% female employees, 45% female senior managers, and 40% women on the main board. Appoint more women, and they tend to slide away before reaching the highest levels. Men are more ambitious, more self-confident, and more persistent if they fail. A woman is more hesitant about applying for promotion, reluctant to travel, more likely to put her family first. More content with staying put: feminists please note. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, unless you feel (as JLP do) that the business is missing out on their talent.

That lack of resilience makes a big difference. When I started looking for a Parliamentary seat I knew it’d be tough: an MP was a chap in trousers. Enoch Powell, however, had tried for 51 seats before getting Wolverhampton South West. OK, I decided, when we get to 50 I’ll have a rethink. Most women, assuming they wouldn’t get selected, didn’t try. When they tried and failed, they gave up. It took a quirky mind-set to see each refusal as a chance to improve.

I’d phone the agent after each selection. One, (male), said, “It’s not you. It’s your husband. As you were speaking, he was gazing at the ceiling, at his nails, everywhere but at you. It doesn’t matter if he’s heard this speech a dozen times, he has to gaze at your left ear’ole in total admiration.” I told hubby, who left for the pub. But next time, he obliged, and I got through to the shortlist.

Then after the 20th, the woman agent said, “You were too pretty. If you want to be an MP, you have to look like one. Go and buy a black suit.” She was right. South Derbyshire was next, and I became one of only 23 women in the Commons in 1983.

Nicky Morgan may not be entirely wrong, but if she really wants more female engineers and mathematicians then she should promote more single sex schools, where girls feel no pressure to be different from boys. And more grammar schools, pushing smarter kids into harder subjects. It’s the girls’ grammar school I went to in Liverpool which took me to science A levels and a scholarship to Oxford. The rest, as they say, is history.