While Boris Johnson poses in a hard hat, the nation is forgetting about its ambitions for women


As Boris Johnson donned an ill-fitting hard hat to talk about rebuilding our economy in a post Covid-19 world, my husband, a man not unfamiliar with a building site, turned from the television to me and said, “Do they purposefully try to make him look stupid with a hat that is too small?” The answer was a sorry “yes”.

The prime minister is back to his full “look at me” clown mode, blethering incoherently and mounting a JCB to tell us how he is going to build loads of stuff that he and his Conservative friends have allowed to fall into disrepair (cheers, mate).

I am married to a man who is not a stranger to a hard hat. A lift engineer by trade, he’s been a building site manager and currently helps to build installations for a tech company that works with big industrial clients. My sons were never short of an oil-smeared high-viz to augment their dressing up. My first house was bought largely on the proceeds of his overtime night shifts and his ability with a spanner, so I get how important these jobs are and how we should be investing in big infrastructure schemes that can provide decent jobs for families just like mine.

But I cannot help but notice that amid all the talk of investment in infrastructure, not only can the prime minister not answer the simple question, “How many jobs will this create?” he and his close circle have also once again completely forgotten again that women need jobs too.

I am not for one second suggesting that women cannot be builders, engineers, site forewomen, electricians, plumbers or people who tarmac the roads. They can, of course, but most of them aren’t: currently only 9 per cent of construction apprenticeships are held by women. The government has offered nothing in this package of spending that will help that to change.

I am co-chair of the Women and Work All Party Parliamentary Group and have been since it was created. In response to the 2017 Industrial Strategy, we researched how much of that would help women into work and the findings were clear: it wouldn’t.

Kath Moore of Women into Construction told us that the UK is facing the worst shortage in construction skills since 1998. Almost three quarters – 73 per cent – of companies report that the shortage of suitably skilled site operatives is having an impact on their activities. So where are the training schemes in these announcements to change this?

Similarly, Dr Sarah Peers, vice-president of the Women’s Engineering Society, outlined the challenges of under-representation of women where the UK is the bottom of the EU league in terms of diversity in engineering. In India, 30 per cent of engineering students are women! So what is the government doing to make sure that the people who lose their jobs in this crisis will be able to suddenly turn their hand to civil engineering and quantity surveying?

Absolutely nothing has been announced by the prime minister to help in the retention of retail and hospitality jobs, which of course are largely done by women. Maybe, girls, we went wrong when we didn’t work in fields with funny hats which politicians could pose in for photo opportunities and therefore take an interest in our work. Note to self: seek to change the law so that all staff in John Lewis have to wear flamboyant helmets and regularly hang from cranes.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies and the UCL Institute of Education found this week that mothers were 47 per cent more likely to have permanently lost their job, so where is the massive announcement about ensuring that nurseries and child carers can bounce back and ensure people who need to can go back to work? My inbox is full of struggling nurseries worried about closing their doors.

I have been a low-paid woman who relied almost solely on the income of a man on a building site to feed and clothe my family. One of the reasons that my husband worked so hard at that time was to help me to study, train and volunteer to build a career for myself. My husband was ambitious for me to succeed, to give our family a better life. To be fair, it paid off and he now tells my sons, “Make sure you marry well kids.” Where is the nation’s ambitions for its women?

These economic spending announcements, while welcome, smack to me of a prime minister who thinks that a household income is the one brought in by a man and that women’s work is a nice little sideline to pay for the holidays.

Women have worked tirelessly in this crisis to protect and care for the people in the UK. A total of 79 per cent of health and social care key workers were women, 81 per cent of education and childcare key workers were women. Women were there when the country needed them, so why, when it is time for recovery, less than 10 per cent of the announced new deal jobs will come their way?

Sounds like the same old deal to me: a lot of big-sounding figures with a wonky hard hat on top.

Jess Phillips is the shadow minister for domestic violence and safeguarding and Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley

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