100 years of women in FE and skills. A fairer future with further education at its heart
In the third of our series of posts on the women who shaped further education - marking 100 years of women's suffrage - we assess the contribution of trade unionist and equalities campaigner Baroness Margaret Prosser
Margaret Prosser was born in 1937 into a working class family in Tooting, London. Her father was a builder and her mother a housewife. Like many working class children of the time, she left education aged 15, and married young. It was as a working mum that she became engaged in politics and equality issues, becoming active in local campaigning when her husband became paralysed through illness in 1966, at the age of 29. It led to her involvement in the trades union movement and national politics. What happened to her husband opened her eyes to the ways in which politics affects people’s lives, and much of her early campaigning was about disability rights.
In 1971, Prosser joined the Labour Party. She began studying as a mature student at North East London Polytechnic in the 1970s, emerging in 1977 with a Postgraduate Diploma in Advice and Information Studies and a strong sense of the value of further education and training for women, at every stage of their lives.
Prosser’s interest in politics continued to grow as she rose through the ranks of the male-dominated Transport and General Workers’ Union, taking a number of prominent roles before becoming Deputy General Secretary in 1998. Her experience of sexism and inequality at the front line of trade union activism and as a national organiser shaped her professional commitment to tackling inequality. A prominent advocate of equal pay at a time when the issue was considered, at best, peripheral (many were openly hostile to it), she was a member of the Equal Opportunities Commission between 1985 and 1992 and served on the Low Pay Commission between 2000 and 2005. She was President of the Trades Union Congress in 1996 and from 1996 to 2001 was Treasurer of the Labour Party.
In 2002, Prosser was appointed Chair of the Women’s National Commission and in 2004 was approached by Prime Minister Tony Blair to chair the Women and Work Commission. The commission’s aim was ‘to examine the causes of the gender pay and opportunities gap and to find practical ideas to close it within a generation’. Its report, Shaping a Fairer Future, was published in 2006. It called for action on a number of fronts to enable women to achieve their full potential and maximise their contribution to the economy and society.
It put particular emphasis on education and the need for more and different further education provision for women. More opportunities were needed to open up male-dominated industries to girls and women, it said, with careers advice and guidance available throughout life and more education and training options for mature women wanting to change direction. The report recommended the development of comprehensive plans to tackle segregation in the workplace in different industries, careers advice that challenged gender stereotypes, a more local approach to matching skills and jobs, a more balanced approach to education with a greater emphasis on practical routes, and increased investment in training and pilot measures designed ‘to enable women to change direction, and progress in their jobs and careers, through raising their skills levels’.
The report is still acutely relevant, largely because most of the issues it raised have still to be adequately addressed. More than a decade after the report was published, men still, typically, earn eight per cent more per hour than women in the UK, education funding remains skewed in favour of academic provision, and opportunities for men and women to learn throughout life have collapsed, in both FE and HE. Successive governments have failed to live up to Prosser’s injunction to oversee the implementation of the recommendations and ‘actively monitor and chase progress in closing the gender pay gap in partnership with other players’.
In June 2004, Margaret Prosser from Tooting became Baroness Prosser of Battersea in the London Borough of Wandsworth. When her tenure as Chair of the Women’s Commission ended in 2006, she became Deputy Chair of the Commission for Equality and Human Rights, a position she held until 2012. She continues to campaign for the rights of women, in the UK and internationally.