Polly Trenow is a campaigner on gender, economics and education who has worked in women’s rights and gender equality since 2005. She is a freelance campaigner on gender equality working with schools, local government and charities and she currently holds several different roles, including sitting on the Management Committee of the Women’s Budget Group and working as Senior Policy and Campaigns Officer at the Fawcett Society. Last November, Polly became the 2016 Esmée Fairbairn Gender Equality Fellow on the Clore Social Leadership Programme.
“…We’ve…got to change the cultural pressures on men, for whom it’s often still seen as unacceptable to take time off to care. Gender stereotyping works both ways so men are disadvantaged too, and that’s something else that we need to challenge…”
Getting interested in working at the interface between gender and economics and saving the world
I think it was my degree. I studied Social Anthropology and as part of that I did a module on Gender and Trade. That was looking at how societies organise their economies, and what importance they place, if any, about what gender you are when you’re trading. I didn’t realise at the time how interesting I thought it was, but then when I left university I decided: “I want to save the world!” It seemed obvious that I should try and improve women’s equality, so that’s what I went for.
I started off volunteering in the women’s sector, working for a variety of different international development charities and UK charities. I became a trustee of a Zimbabwe women’s organisation (and I hadn’t even been to Zimbabwe!). I felt really at home and I loved what I was doing, and the people I was working with.
I then get my first job working in the Women’s National Commission, which was a quango – a quasi non-governmental equality organisation – and that was fascinating because we were based within the Civil Service, but we were theoretically independent. I got my first understanding of the challenges of talking to people in positions of power and how to manage what you’re saying to them.
No compromising: Making change from the outside shouting in
I had this great boss when I was doing one of my internships – a proper old-school feminist, who said to me: “Polly. There are two ways to make change. You’re either on the inside, or you’re on the outside shouting in. If you’re on the outside shouting in you don’t really have to compromise what you say, but if you’re on the inside you do.” So I thought, “I don’t want to compromise what I say! So rather than doing something like being in the Civil Service or being a Government adviser, I’m going to stick to charities and campaigning.”
So I worked for a variety of different women’s organisations. Lots of them were membership or network based where I got a real appreciation of the power in numbers, and also the importance of engaging members who have so much to give, but who maybe need some guidance to know how they can help or what they can do.
Ultimately the women’s sector is quite small, quite underfunded, and after about five or six years I was quite exhausted from low paid jobs and I didn’t really know where I was going, so I took a career break, which I though was just going to be a year, but it ended up being three years. I did something completely different with my life. I went to America and sang in a band!
I eventually thought I’d had enough of a break. I really missed the women’s sector and I felt I needed to do something a bit differently. I wasn’t that healthy or happy in the women’s sector before, so I decided to develop a freelance career, and I was lucky enough to get a part time job as a Policy Officer at Maternity Action and then at The Fawcett Society, which left me over half my week to do my freelance work, which I’ve been doing for about four years now.
The work of the Women’s Budget Group
I’ve been involved in the Women’s Budget Group for ages. I started off as their coordinator way back in 2008, and then whilst I was in America I was on the policy advisory group because it was a writing and research role, so I was able to do it long-distance. When I got back to the UK I joined the Management Committee, and I’ve been on it ever since.
The Women’s Budget Group is about analysing economic policy and saying: “What impact is this going to have on men and women, and how equal they are?” We have lots of academics who are there to crunch the numbers and to get into the nitty gritty. I’m not an academic, I’m an activist, but I suppose I see my role in the Women’s Budget Group as trying to communicate all of this vital, interesting academic work in a way that is going to engage the public.
At the moment I’m running a series of workshops across the country – so in Bristol in the South West, in East Anglia, in Manchester and in Glasgow. We’re bringing together feminists, because in the last few years we’ve seen a real resurgence in feminism, with lots of new feminist groups starting up and it’s really exciting, but a lot of those people are campaigning on things like sexual harassment or page three, and not really entering the economic sphere.
We’re all part of the economy
I think in part it’s because people are told it’s too complicated and you need to be an economist to understand it or it’s lots of stats, but my message to these campaigners is to say: “We’re all part of the economy.”
We’re all buying things or paying tax and we’re all contributing to the economy in some way, so we deserve an equal say and we have to intervene, as otherwise we’re going to see economic policy made by white middle aged, middle class men, so the economy will only really work for people like that.
The idea is to build the confidence of women to speak out about the economy, and at the same time to take groups of economic activists – there are loads – so people who campaign on the Living Wage, or those who campaign on fair trade or those who campaign on transport, or whatever.
Lots of them are great, open-minded, progressive people, but again there’s lots of white men – not a very diverse field at all, and whilst they may all say that they’re feminists, often they’re just talking the talk and not walking the walk, so we’re going to bring those two groups together and say: “Listen, you guys want the same thing. Feminists need to get more involved in the economy and economic activists need to get more involved in feminism.”
Hopefully this will empower them to start engaging with their local decision-makers about important economic decisions that are going on. So for example, in Bristol they’ve got this big, new Enterprise Zone down at Temple Meads, where there’s lots of offices and retail, and all sorts of leisure facilities being built, but the question we’re asking is: “How do you know this is reflecting the needs of your community?” How can we use this huge investment in Bristol to increase the equality between men and women in the economic sphere? Those are the sorts of conversations we’re having on a local basis about local plans, and how we can make sure women’s needs are reflected as well as men’s.
Is there any such thing as “rational man”?
Classical economic theory had been based on the “rational man” (or “homo economicus”), and it was very much about men because it was only men who were writing and theorising about the economy at that time. The idea is that “homo economicus” makes decisions from a very economically rational point of view, and he’ll only ever do something if it’s going to profit him in some way, and if the benefits outweigh the expenditure.
So obviously, from the very beginning of economic theory, what was completely excluded was the idea of ‘kinship’, ‘relationships’ or doing things out of love or friendship that you don’t necessarily benefit from economically, but you do because you’re part of a community, or you’re part of a family. As economic theory grew, what we increasingly used (and still in fact use today) is looking at households to help us understand how the economy works.
So we measure things on the household level, but the problem with doing that is that theory assumes there is normally one adult person working, and they go off and they raise money, and they bring it back to the household and the household spends it. For most families, in order to have one person going off and working, you normally have to have somebody else caring for the kids, or for the elderly relatives, or for the people who can’t support themselves.
Economic theory and in fact our understanding of households has really failed to understand that’s the way households operate, and just because somebody isn’t going out to work, doesn’t mean that their role isn’t vital for the economy. So without somebody to cook and clean and care for the children, the breadwinner would not be able to go out into the economy.
Relationship between the care economy and the paid economy
It’s what we call the care economy, and the normal paid economy is totally based on the infrastructure that the care economy provides. If all carers stopped doing their care work, the economy would collapse. It couldn’t continue because it’s so heavily reliant on people working for free and caring. Of course we know that this is primarily women. Because of the gender pay gap and men getting paid more than women, often the man’s job is seen as primary, and therefore more important.
One of the challenges is that now we have more women in work than ever before, but often it’s in part time jobs, most of those are confined to lower skilled jobs, even if a woman has lots of training or experience, because even though she’s working she’s still in charge of care, she has to fit her hours in around whatever childcare she’s able to find. It’s her who has to make the compromise and it’s her skills we’re losing.
The other issue is that although we see men are taking on more childcare than they were, actually, the take up of things like paternity leave is very low, and the amount that men contribute to domestic work hasn’t changed in decades. It’s still very much the woman’s job to do the domestic work, so in some ways it becomes more than just about caring – it’s about cleaning, cooking and shopping.
We see that it’s normally women who are the ones who have to take their kids to the doctors, or rearrange their day to pick them up from childcare. So that’s one of the reasons contributing to poor job progression and then earning lower wages than they were when they weren’t caring. One of the challenges in terms of representation of women at the top of organisations is that often senior jobs are inflexible in how they approach people and their responsibilities.
Recognising the role of women and changing the way it is valued by society
The Office for National Statistics has a project where it’s going out and trying to measure some of the unpaid aspects of the economy. It tried to measure how much caring work was going on, and if you paid all those people the going rate how much that would be – so basically how much we’re saving.
The second thing we need to do is to change people’s perceptions of what the economy is. The care economy and the paid economy are intricately interlinked and there’s no way to separate them, so I think we need to stop talking about women who take time off to care as if it’s an individual choice. Some people won’t have kids, but most of us will. As a society we want to continue to reproduce and at the moment it’s only people with ovaries who can do it.
That’s something that we can expect, so we can’t penalise people for doing that a job that’s unpaid and then say, “Well that’s a separate thing. You made a choice and therefore you can’t have such a good job in the paid economy.” We need to recognise the two are mutually supportive of one another, and then when women are caring they’re also gaining skills and knowledge that they can then bring back into the workplace.
Ensuring women’s skills are valued and rewarded in the workplace
I think there’s a couple of key policies: The first is that we need to see greater availability of jobs advertised as job shares, as part time jobs or as flexible working particularly higher up the ladder. We’ve called for every single job to be advertised on that basis unless there is a very good reason not to. As opposed to what’s currently happening in reverse – most jobs aren’t advertised like that, and a handful of progressive employers are the reason for the ones that are.
This would make a real change. It would change employer attitudes: Just because somebody’s working full time doesn’t mean they’ll be more productive. Part time workers are incredibly productive because they have to crack on with what they’re doing to get it done in fewer hours.
Shifting attitudes of employers and big business, and also seeing some people at the top really take the initiative is essential. So for example we’ve just been into Greenpeace and they have two senior female leaders in a job share. That’s really exciting. It’s so important to signal to the rest of community that you can lead a massive organisation like Greenpeace in a job share.
The second thing we need to do is to look at men taking time off to care for kids. Shared Parental Leave, whilst being a positive step, is paid at the woman’s rate, not the man’s, so even though the man has the option to take time off he would only get paid as much as the woman, so in many couples that’s going to involve them losing more money because the man is losing his wages.
So what we need is proper, dedicated paternity leave, paid at the man’s wages, and also what we call a ‘use it or lose it’ block where men have to take time off around the birth of their child, because we know that when that happens they’re much more likely to contribute to childcare in the coming years than they would do if they didn’t take time off around the birth of the child.
Gender stereotyping disadvantages men too
We’ve also got to change the cultural pressures on men, for whom it’s often still seen as unacceptable to take time off to care. Gender stereotyping works both ways so men are disadvantaged too, and that’s something else that we need to challenge.
There needs to be more support for women going back to work and taking time off to care, and also for carers who want to continue to care. The thing we don’t want to say is that people can’t care because that’s something that lots of us want to do. It’s a really important role in life – some people would say more important than working. We need to be able to support those people to make sure they don’t end up in crippling poverty along with the people they’re caring for, because they’re doing such a vital role in our economy.
In some ways we’ve become much better around maternity leave, in a way because it’s seen as a temporary shift before the woman comes back into work, whereas people who have disabled relatives who are going to need ongoing care really don’t have very many options at the moment unless it is one of those few progressive employers who allow people to work part time in senior roles.
For someone who’s going to have to take time off to care for somebody every week for the rest of their life, we don’t have a great understanding they are saving the NHS and the social care services hundreds of millions of pounds, so it’s vital that if they want to work and care that we help them.
Creating flexibility for women and men in the workplace to create economic benefits for the whole of society
The Fawcett Society recently published research showing that in fact men were more in favour of gender equality than women were. There are lots of progressive men who get it and who want to help, but we’re not tapping into that resource. The message out there for men is that if you see people going through these challenges, then to be supportive.
Sometimes the men themselves have to be brave if they want time off or if they want to work part time, they need to do what many women have done before –to be the flag bearer in that situation and be brave on behalf of the whole of society. Many men also want to be able to leave work on time to pick their kids up too, but it’s not going to work if we just ignore unpaid carers.
The economy will benefit much more and we’ll be much more productive if people are working at the skill level that they’re trained to. At the moment a large proportion of women aren’t working to their skill level. They’re trapped in part time jobs, so we need employers to be more progressive, and we need men to be brave and supportive.
We need a culture shift in business. It is happening, but it’s just happening very slowly.
Ensuring women have access to learning opportunities throughout their careers
It’s interesting because so much focus on women in STEM has been on schoolgirls and graduates to get them in. In fact we’ve seen some real improvements, but we need to do more to improve the drop off rate of women later in their careers in areas like academia.
In the corporate world, if you look at Netflix or Virgin for example, they have said that anybody can as much time as they want off on full pay. What they recognise is that taking time off to do things like caring or going on a gap year is beneficial.
These people go out, learn new skills and then go back to their role, so rather than losing the investment that they’ve put into that person, they’re giving them the freedom so they’re much more likely to return.
Doing things differently and thinking practically
In maternity leave we know that the better an employer is at communicating, the more likely the woman is to return, so we need to take a much more progressive approach to taking time out of work. We need to understand the benefits of letting people go off and get new skills and doing things differently.
On a practical level, if you’re going to run a training course you need to make sure it takes place within school hours or that you’ve got a crèche provision, or if you’re targeting the low paid that you have free crèche provision or other support so people don’t have to worry about their caring responsibilities. There’s some real practical changes that we can make quickly and easily to help women access training and employment.
Next for me and my work
I’ve got some Women’s Budget Group projects, which are very exciting. The Fawcett Society is undertaking a piece of research around pensions and we’re looking at why women who earn the same amount as men save less into their pensions. What is it about women’s attitudes to pensions that is preventing them from saving as much?
On a personal level, I’m doing the Clore Social Leadership Fellowship. This year I’m learning how to be a social leader! It’s a real opportunity for me to look at my career and how I’m going to progress. Taking time out and accessing training isn’t something you don’t often get to do as a freelancer, so that’s a really exciting project for me. I’m hoping to work more closely with businesses during that period so I can learn more about a different sector and hopefully bring those skills back into the women’s sector.