After missing last month’s session, it was great to welcome people back to the Market Hall for another working lunch. Although the cuisine was more modest than the fayre on offer at Jabulani in August, the conversation was vigorous and insightful. Also modest were our numbers, but a smaller group gave much more space for individual voices to be heard. In a conversation about equality, that feels important.

Two new faces joined in. Victoria May (soon to be Dr) & Lea Guzzo from Time For New Ways added their considerable experience to the discussion about  Gender Equality. Ellie Tighe from the Plymouth Charter  and Naomi Walsh from Real Ideas were also present having been regular contributors to our discussions. Being the only man in the room felt significant given the topic.

We kicked off by talking about language. This has often been a theme of these sessions and it was interesting to get some fresh perspective. Deciding on where to place the stress was a source of debate. Is it better to focus on the goal of gender equality or the reality of gender inequality? Lea mentioned “equity” might be a better word to consider as it acknowledges that people then get what they need, not just the same as everybody else. Apt, given the disparity of starting points we are talking about.

This led us to talk about challenging norms. What are the things that have crept into our lives, both personal and professional that are accepted as business as usual? Victoria’s research is vast and provided insight in this area. She has interviewed many care workers who have used language to describe how they felt in the sector. “Commodity”, “Body”, and “Number” pointed to a utilitarian, perhaps even inhumane way of being treated. She went on to say that because people in the sector, 90%+ women by the way, find themselves saying yes to things because they have not got the capacity or even the means to say no.

Why has it got this way? Because women are seen as the carers in society and therefore will just get on and do it. Moreover, as they are not doing it for the money (minimum wage at best), they are easily bullied, led, coerced into saying yes to more shifts because clients need them, and they don’t want to let them down. The PhD is due out in the new year.

The conversation moved along similar themes – trauma, normalised behaviour, profiteering from a vulnerable workforce, the inadequacy of supervision. Rich but familiar territory. What shifted things was the role of business. During a piece where we discussed the need for better training for managers in this space, it was mentioned that these people do not seem to know how inadequate they were. Not their fault – no training or guidance for managers means bad managers. But it was also discussed that the training itself might be inadequate. If the training that exists, even on the infrequent occasions when it is employed, is poor, then it maintains the status quo and blindness from authorities and leadership. The model itself needs an overhaul.

Could it be that the commercial model that already exists can be adjusted to address the problems? A story was shared of a special school, funded by local authority but operated as a CIC has used the same funding as a privately run equivalent, to keep the proceeds in the business, rather than distributing them to shareholders. This school pays well, attracts quality staff, and looks after them professionally. If this could happen in special needs education, why not the care sector? Or any sector that is publicly funded for that matter?

What we agreed was that whilst surface level change was needed, systemic change is essential to having a real impact. That change needs to start with those who recognise it, but it needs to continue by confronting the people who profit from the inequitable system we have inherited. Perhaps, if we can show a new way, others will follow.