ALTHOUGH Parliament now has more women members than ever, their public profile remains disproportionately low. Between May and November last year, in the debates on the future of Europe, for example, there were 110 speeches from men compared with only six from women.

This year on Budget day, one of Parliament's most high-profile debates, only one woman, Diane Abbott, the Labour MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington, spoke. The same is the case in debates on 'hard issues' such as economics and war - the men do all the talking.

Women are reluctant to make contributions to headline-grabbing debates for several reasons.

First, the rebuilding of the Commons after a fire in 1834 transformed it, in effect, into one the best gentlemen's clubs in London. This was a time when Anthony Trollope believed the greatest ambition of a gentleman was to be a parliamentarian. Women were largely invisible, watching their menfolk in the House from behind a grille. Today, although they make up 10 per cent of the Commons, women are still merely honorary members.

Second, the business of the House of Commons is adversarial. Government and opposition confront each other across the chamber - and most women prefer jaw-jaw to war-war.

Behaviour in the chamber might change dramatically if the number of women MPs were to increase substantially. But I suspect that some of the women prefer the House of Commons as it is. And why not? It's seductive. It's comfortable. It's clubby. It's old.

Conservative women MPs usually arrive at the House with some business experience and take this locker- room mentality for granted. They feel comfortable with what are assumed to be 'male' issues, such as Europe and economic policy.

So why don't women stand up in the chamber and speak on these subjects more often? Despite the fact that by the standards of most mortals, women MPs have already made it to the top, they are still modest, and quickly decide where their expertise lies. As a result, the set-piece debates are left to those with - and sometimes those without - experience and depth of knowledge.

Eschewing the debates on arms to Iraq and the ERM, women MPs save their 'quota' of speeches for more pressing and practical subjects, such as special educational needs, a debate in which six women and only 11 men spoke in the Commons last July.

Women's voices will be heard only when they are prepared to tackle the 'hard' subjects and persuade their male counterparts to take up 'soft' issues, such as child care and nursery education. But then the House of Commons wouldn't be the House of Commons, would it?