Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 6 April 2020

Global Women's Forum Dubai: Former UK Prime Minister Theresa May says gender equality is 'not about outdoing men'

Ms May said there is a need for more female representation in leadership positions

Former UK Prime Minister Theresa May speaks during the Global Women's Forum Dubai. Pawan Singh/The National
Former UK Prime Minister Theresa May speaks during the Global Women's Forum Dubai. Pawan Singh/The National

Former UK Prime Minister Theresa May believes a lack of female leadership could lead young women to become "disillusioned" about their own aspirations.

Speaking at the Global Women’s Forum in Dubai, Ms May said achieving equality in politics and business isn't just an issue for women, “it is an issue for society”.

Ms May, who served as Prime Minister and leader of the Conservative Party from 2016 to 2019, was only the second female to lead the UK in its history.

After becoming a Member of Parliament in the late 1990s, she said most roles back then were dominated by men.

“If young women do not see women in parliament or in senior positions in business, they will not think these roles are for them,” she said.

“Mentorship is an important part of the journey. Every woman in a leadership position should help and encourage others to join them.

“That will set the tone for better participation in the future.”

Ms May said she never viewed her gender as an obstacle to her success.

“I approached politics differently to men. I did it my way and look, I became Prime Minister

Theresa May, Former UK Prime Minister

“I never went in with the view that ‘I’m a women in parliament’. I viewed myself as equal,” she said.

“When many of my female colleagues didn’t get selected for certain roles, they would say ‘it’s because I am a woman’. I never said that.

“Instead, I analysed my performance. What questions didn’t I ask that I should have? What answers didn’t I give that I should have?"

She said it was important that women, young and old, “shatter this mentality” that they cannot achieve something because of their gender.

While the balance of female representation in many sectors around the world, including parliament, has not been fully achieved, it has grown, she said.

“When I first stood as MP, there were about five women in parliament,” she said.

“Since then, the number has gone up and down for many different reasons.

“When I was party chairman, the process of selection for new MPs had a huge emphasis on this big, tub-thumping speech, as we’d call it.

“By in large, men came off better in these sorts of speeches.”

But Ms May helped changed the process to put both men and women on an equal footing.

Her party introduced an interview stage, where members had to respond to questions about policies and future agendas. Selection did not rest solely on a "chest-beating speech".

“That helped changed the balance of approach and more women came through,” she said.

Theresa May, pictured with husband Philip, departed 10 Downing Street last July. Courtesy: Getty Images  
Theresa May, pictured with husband Philip, departed 10 Downing Street last July. Courtesy: Getty Images  

“On the whole, I think women are better listeners. These are generalities of course, but in politics you are trying to improve the lives of people. Being a listener is important."

During her time as Home Secretary and Prime Minister, Ms May helped push forward a number of different polices to protect men, women and children against domestic violence and modern slavery.

And she said the path to gender equality is not about “trying to outdo men”.

Instead, it is about values and creating a level playing field to promote "better decision-making".

“There has been a lot of academic research about the importance of having a diverse group of people in senior roles.

“Different experiences, different perspectives and different backgrounds ensures that everyone has a voice.

“I approached politics differently to men. In the House of Commons there was a huge emphasis on [socialising].

“Some women felt they had to join the men. I didn’t. I did it my way and look, I became Prime Minister.”

To conclude, Ms May said better female role models would help move the global conversation about gender balance forward.

“We need to encourage women when they have aspirations. Teach them that they should not be pigeonholed into stereotypes."

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In pictures: Global Women's Forum

Updated: February 18, 2020 08:00 AM

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