Disappointment over Liz Truss decision not to appoint minister for women

Nadhim Zahawi’s new role as minister for equalities ‘covers women’, says PM’s spokesperson

Women have reacted with dismay at Liz Truss’s decision not to appoint a minister for women to her cabinet team, instead naming Cabinet Office minister Nadhim Zahawi as minister for equalities.

A spokesperson for the new prime minister – who held the title minister for women and equalities – confirmed that Zahawi’s role “covers women”.

Caroline Nokes, the Conservative chair of the women and equalities select committee, said the decision was “disappointing” after a leadership campaign in which Truss repeatedly used the word “woman” to brandish her anti-woke credentials in the so-called culture wars.

“Liz Truss spoke a great deal about how she she knew what a woman was during the course of the leadership campaign, we heard the word woman used an awful lot,” she said. “So it’s disappointing that it then gets dropped from the job title.

“After the prime minister has really majored on the rights of women during the course of the leadership campaign, you have to ask the question, does she now think the job is done? Does she think that there is no gender pay gap, that there is no gender pension gap?”

Nokes said the “ball was in [Zahawi’s] court” now and delivering for women was more important than the job title, but added that it sent the wrong message to the UK’s women, who had been disproportionately affected during the pandemic in multiple ways.

“I just think it’s a really strange thing to do when we’ve had two years of – not to put it too bluntly – crap for women,” she said.

“We’ve seen women carrying the greatest share of the burden of carrying responsibilities from schooling and domestic drudgery through the pandemic, and now we are seeing projections that the cost of living crisis is going to hit women hardest.”

The role given to Zahawi has been called “ women and equalities”, or separated into two ministerial roles, for more than a decade. Zahawi is not the first man to hold the brief, but he is the first man to also have responsibility for both aspects of it.

Truss has become the UK’s third female prime minister and has selected a diverse cabinet; none of the four most senior jobs in the British government is now held by a white man.

But the scrapping of the word “women” from the equalities role is less surprising than it may at first appear. While Truss was in the post, she often ignored invitations to attend the women and equalities select committee, and rarely used social media to talk about her role.

At the Conservative party conference in October last year, Truss said it was “dehumanising” to be “treated as a woman”, calling for everyone to be seen as “individual humans” instead.

She told a meeting that using the word “woman” was box-ticking and prevented a proper focus on “talents and ideas and hard work”.

The shadow women & equalities secretary, Anneliese Dodds, said the scrapping of the word woman from the role confirmed that women were “always an afterthought for the Tories”. She tweeted:

“Under the Conservatives: women earn £226 less/year than in 2010; half a million are waiting for gynae treatment; recorded rapes at record highs; convictions at record lows; women are always an afterthought for the Tories. Erasing the role for women in Cabinet confirms it.”

Jemima Olchawski, chief executive of the Fawcett Society, reacted with outrage to the decision. “Women make up over half of the population; we are still paid less than men, face horrific levels of gender-based violence, do the bulk of unpaid care, and have been hit hardest by the pandemic and the cost of living crisis,” she said. “It’s simply unacceptable that with this backdrop of disadvantage, women’s representation is being downgraded within Truss’s cabinet.”

Downing Street denied that Truss was downgrading the importance of women’s rights. “The equalities brief has not changed. The policies which relate to him still apply,” said a spokesman. “I think that actions the government is taking in this space is how it should be judged rather than on job titles of individuals.”