The War on Women: And the Brave Ones Who Fight Back

In July 2016, Sue Lloyd-Roberts’  The War on Women was published posthumously by Simon & Schuster. The Dangerous Women Project is incredibly grateful to Sue’s family and to the publishers for allowing us to print an extract from this powerful book. We would also like to thank Allan Little, who was a former colleague of Sue’s and currently serves on the Advisory Board of the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities at the University of Edinburgh – home of the Dangerous Women Project.

What follows is a personal tribute from Allan and an extract from Chapter 12 of The War on Women, which we thought particularly pertinent given it was only this week we were once again reminded of the reality of the gender pay gap in the UK.


I had the privilege of working in the same department of BBC News as Sue Lloyd-Roberts. We had similar jobs and shared an office space. But there the comparison ends. You hardly ever saw Sue in the office. An office is no place for a reporter like Sue. She was always out there, somewhere in the world, where real news was happening to real people.

She was unlike any other reporter I have ever known. She wasn’t much interested in the big set-piece news events that dominate the world’s attention for months on end and then recede – the Gulf Wars, or the big presidential elections, or the sudden humanitarian catastrophes. And she wasn’t much interested in running with the pack, or in hanging out in war zone hotels with groups of other western reporters, distanced by each other’s company from the people on whom they are reporting. She was seldom among those rushing and competing with each other to be the first on the scene of some big breaking international story. She wanted to be in the places no-one else went to, among people others overlooked or disregarded.

Sue was quiet by temperament, never remotely self-vaunting, as many television journalists can be, and there was gentility to her that made the ferocity with which she pursued her stories all the more impressive.

She wasn’t interested either, in making herself part of the story or in turning herself into a celebrity correspondent. She wanted her camera trained on others. She wanted to hear voices the rest of us rarely listened to. Some called her, only half in jest, the “lost causes correspondent”. She didn’t care. She went after the raw human experience of those who been on the receiving end of what she came to call the War on Women.

She came home, again and again and again, from her trips to remote and often dangerous places, with an accumulation of evidence of crimes committed against women because they are women – from female genital mutilation in West Africa, to sex workers in the Islamic Republic of Iran and so-called honour killings in Pakistan. She risked her own safety to hear their stories. With quiet, understated determination and enormous courage, she confronted the perpetrators of those crimes. Her reports were powerful, original and often difficult to watch. Who can forget the moment when she confronted a West African patriarch who had explained to her the dangers that would befall a grown woman  who had not undergone genital mutilation when that small, quiet, endlessly civil voice said to him “Well I’ve had a clitoris for sixty years and none of that has ever happened to me”. Her book is a fine testament to the enormous body of evidence this great reporter leaves us.

Allan Little
Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities
16 August 2016

The War on Women: And the Brave Ones Who Fight Back

by Sue Lloyd-Roberts

This extract from Chapter 12 – Sex Inequality in the UK: The Pay Gap

I start work at 7.30. I wash and dress the mainly elderly patients, lifting them out of bed to remove incontinence pads and then I give them a good scrub down. I like helping people, otherwise I wouldn’t be in the job. Trouble is, there’s no time just to sit and chat with them over a cup of tea these days. It’s all work, work, work. We have to deal with family members as well, who can sometimes get quite abusive. We do the best we can but you can’t help but feel undervalued and underpaid. I’ve worked twenty years and never had Christmas Day off. I would never go on strike. How could I just walk out on them? But my back hurts and my neck hurts after all the heavy lifting. I’m on the scrapheap and I know I wouldn’t get a job anywhere else.

I meet forty-nine-year-old Alison in a pub just outside Dudley, in the West Midlands. She’s a good-looking, friendly brunette who nurses a pint of lager as we chat. She’s brought along two work colleagues, Jackie who is fifty-six and Val who is ten years older. They all work as care assistants for a local council rehabilitation home where they look after patients who have just been released from hospital or elderly people who can no longer live alone and are admitted to the home while the council looks for a long-term solution.

No one who becomes a care assistant can expect a bed of roses. It is one of the lowest paid of manual jobs in the UK. It pays £9 an hour and the work is gruelling. The women first took on the job because of the hours. They start early and can be back home in time to see the children return from school. With cuts in local government spending, the work has got harder but it is not the work that the women have met to complain to me about. It is the blatant inequality.

In 1997, the new Labour government under Tony Blair promised to create greater equality in the labour market with a new assessment of the work done by, say, a care worker and a bin man, in order to introduce a fairer pay structure. The evaluation process was supposed to be completed by the end of that year. Dudley Council produced its findings in 2012. Alison hands me over the evaluation sheets with furious indignation. The assessments look at twelve different aspects of a manual worker’s work. ‘Look at these!’ she says. Under the category ‘Responsibility for People’, the care assistant scores the same points as a waste collector. She goes on:

The bin man might have to say ‘good morning’ to a passerby while we are responsible for the health and well-being of vulnerable people. That’s what we do, we’re responsible for people. How can they say we’re the same? And look at the scores for ‘Physical Demands’. The bin man gets 5 and we get 2. I’ve watched them at work. These days, they only have to push the wheelies out to the truck and then the bin is picked up mechanically to tip the rubbish in. We have to collect all the soiled rubbish, put it in bags we can hardly lift and carry them outside in all weathers. And we have to lift patients as well – it is all physically demanding and yet we get a low score.

And then there is the category ‘Mental Demands’. The Care Assistant scores 2 and the Waste Collector scores 3. ‘What is this about?’ asks Jackie. ‘We are the ones who have to deal with confused and scared old people, we are the ones who have to reassure their families and even cope with bereavements. It is a nonsense. I remember the council chappie coming with a clipboard to do the evaluations. He asked us a few questions and did not bother to stay long enough to watch us at work. I tell you it is the men all sticking together to get the best deals for the men.’

The women are right to be suspicious. When the inspectors started comparing wages between men and women in 1997, they came across a scandalous combination of trade union and employer protectionism and discrimination in local council practices in the West Midlands. Paul Savage, a former shop steward and equal pay campaigner who is advising a couple of hundred women in Dudley says, ‘They found that bin men, gravediggers and road sweepers on £15,000 a year were getting £30,000 because of bonuses for just showing up, so-called attendance allowances. It was not a case of jobs for the boys; it was bonuses for the boys and only the boys.’ Such bonuses were unheard of for women on comparable pay.

In the spirit of new fairness promised by the new Labour government, the women were promised compensation for this glaring disparity in pay. In many cases, trade unions negotiated with the council behind the scenes and, as ever, the women were short- changed. ‘I’ve worked for them for twenty years and the council first offered me £9,000,’ says Jackie, ‘but I smelled a rat because I heard of others who got much higher offers for the same amount of work. It seemed so random, as if they were trying it on so I refused. They then offered me £11,200 and I refused again. I finally accepted £16,000. I got no help from my union, UNISON. The union rep kept saying that I should settle because the council was running out of money and could withdraw the offer at any time.’

Sixty-six-year-old Val looks embarrassed. ‘I’ve worked for the council for twenty- five years and I accepted £9,000 and later learned that it should have been £25,000. You know what it’s like. Christmas was coming up, I wanted to get presents for the grandkids and it sounded like a lot of money.’ What is especially galling for the women sitting with me in the pub is that it is now known women who got lawyers to fight for their compensation payments on a ‘no-win no-fee basis’ received payments of more than £100,000. What would Val have done if she had got the £100,000 to which she was probably entitled? Without a moment’s hesitation she says, ‘I would have bought myself a bungalow and retired. Look at me. I am sixty-six and still working. I have been so tired sometimes that I have gone to bed crying. I’ve been ill with tiredness.’

They feel they have been part of a male conspiracy, from both sides – from the employers and the male-dominated unions who should have represented them. ‘We see the bin men in the pub at midday. They get paid eight hours for a five-hour day. The men always get the best deals from the bosses,’ Alison says, bitterly. As for the compensation offers, ‘They should have told us not to take the offer. I remember a meeting with our local union rep when he started shouting at me and said, “You shouldn’t have taken the offer.” I told him to stop shouting at me and asked him where he was when we needed advice? They just didn’t want to know. I’ve just heard that they have a woman local trade union official at another union, UNITE, so I’m changing.’