Why the Lobby needs women

Too much political reporting is by men, for men and about men. It's time to redress the balance, says Harriet Harman
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There has been much hand-wringing in Parliament and Government lately as we contemplate the polls that show the public's lack of trust in us. Women in particular are less likely to be satisfied with the Government - and most likely to shun politics altogether.

There has been much hand-wringing in Parliament and Government lately as we contemplate the polls that show the public's lack of trust in us. Women in particular are less likely to be satisfied with the Government - and most likely to shun politics altogether.

We've reminded ourselves of the progress we've already made in things that matter to women - schools, hospitals, maternity pay and leave. And we've laid plans to promise more in our next manifesto on flexible work, childcare and paternity pay and leave. But how do women know about what we are doing - aside from personal experience? How do they know about the changes the new women in Parliament have brought about? Not - for the most part - from political reporting from the House of Commons lobby. And this is a problem which needs sorting out.

The news from Parliament is conveyed to the country almost entirely through male eyes. When I first looked at the numbers in 2000 there were still some all-male lobby teams, and national newspapers had 72 men and only 15 women. Of the 28 political editors, only three were women. Since then, things have not greatly improved on the gender front. There are 74 national-newspaper lobby members, of whom only 17 are women - less than a quarter and not a real increase in absolute numbers. Of the current 26 political editors, still only three are women. And of 27 national dailies and Sunday papers, 10 still field only men in the lobby, of whom six are sizeable men-only teams - including The Sunday Times and the most widely read paper, The Sun. Of the total of 181 lobby positions, covering all media, only 32 are women. This means that 82 per cent of all members of the parliamentary press gallery are men. The inevitable result is that political news is reported in a way that appeals to and interests men. Issues of particular concern to women are lower on the agenda. That reinforces the sense that, despite many more women MPs arriving, politics is a male activity of no relevance to them.

Though women are as likely as men to vote, all the evidence is that they are less likely to think that politics and government are concerned with their lives. Women's votes remain doubtful and untrusting and they are most likely to switch their vote. Political reporting, for much of the time, simply passes them by. Of course, it is the case that many men feel politics is irrelevant to them - but it is far more the case for women. And it matters. The legitimacy of our democratic institutions depends not just on people's votes but also on the public's sense of a close connection with their democratic representative institutions. The male prism through which politics is reported obstructs women's connection with their Parliament.

It's not just that the priority afforded to different issues reflects male priorities, it's also to do with the language which is used to write about politics. Political reporting faithfully reveals to men in the country the conversation between men in the lobby and men in Parliament. Approving talk of "big hitters", "big beasts" and "big guns" is clearly nothing to do with women. No woman would be encouraged to see a "big beast" in charge of our schools, a "big gun" leading the peace process as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland or a "big hitter" in the Home Office. Few women talk approvingly of each other as "heavyweight"! Political debate in these terms leaves women cold. And it's not intended to reach them. This is about men writing about men for other men.

It is not inevitable that political debate should exclude women. Look at women's magazines. Written by women for women, they connect with readers lives on highly political issues - examples are the reporting on maternity pay in Prima Baby or Marie Claire's exposure of human trafficking and their campaign to tackle rape. This is not a difference of depth. Some of the tabloids don't go into politics in depth. And some women's magazines tackle complex issues in a sophisticated way. Rather, it's about style and who you're talking to.

The men in the lobby buttress a male-dominated Parliament and men in Government. People naturally reinforce others who share their characteristics. Just as you are unlikely to find a young person saying of another "he's too young to do X" or to find a 50-plus person writing off another of the same age as "too old", men reinforce other men. By doing so, they reinforce themselves. When a thin, 40-something man in a suit in the lobby writes of a thin, 40-something man in a suit in Government that "he is terribly clever", he is at the same time saying it about himself. It's the same with the 50-something "old hands". When the journalist says that the parliamentarian is wise, heavyweight and experienced, he is, by implication, saying the same about himself. The political columns are the highest form of this expression. And the male press secretaries and male special advisers complete the magic circle.

By the same token, the woman journalist struggling to combine responsibility for her children, home and job is much more likely to share the concerns of the woman in Parliament. And in turn they are both likely to have a keen understanding of the concerns that face the new generation of women who make up half the workforce as well as still shoulder the lion's share of family work. But that dual role of mother and worker which requires sustained public-policy priority also blocks careers in the lobby too.

When the women of the lobby do try to create their own networks and support each other in their work within the lobby, they can still face the male dominance which surrounds them - such as comments, reported in a national journal, that women's lunches are meetings of the "lezzy lobby".

Over the past two decades I've seen young women arrive in the lobby. They've got there against the odds. Each time I hope that her enthusiasm and intelligence will mean that she will break the mould and set a new pattern. I see her networking with the few other women journalists, building relationships with her male colleagues, dodging the leering looks of too many male parliamentarians, while she tries to get to the heart of political stories. For the first few years she does very well. But just as she gets to the age where she is at the foothills of serious authority she reaches, too, the age when she starts a family. Even if she comes back after having a baby, she's on borrowed time. By the time she's had her second child she can't help noticing that there are other ways she can be a journalist. She can do her work as a freelance, on the news desk or in features. She has a choice. She doesn't have to work till late at night. She doesn't have to do the job which requires her to match hours in Parliament. So she doesn't - she leaves. That is unfair on her, it's a shame for the women MPs, but it's a major problem for the reporting of what is known around the world as the "Mother of Parliaments".

Women in the lobby remain an endangered species. Mothers find it hard to survive in the press gallery of the "Mother of Parliaments". Julia Langdon, one of the pioneer women in the lobby, justly rose to be a political editor. But her exit from The Sunday Telegraph coincided with her having a baby. Elinor Goodman has lasted and is on television as Channel 4's political editor. Scotland is lucky to have Catherine McLeod in a senior position in the Glasgow Herald and Martha Kearney is a beacon at Newsnight. But over the years the lobby lost Jackie Ashley, Anne Perkins, Lucy Ward and many others who could have risen to be political editors. We cannot afford to continue to lose each generation of young women in the lobby. We've now got some very promising women there - Rosie Bennet, Marie Woolf, Gaby Hinsliff, Oonagh Blackman, Julia Hartley-Brewer, to name but a few. We've got to keep them and enable them to progress.

It's no good just hoping that, in time, things will change. Editors should determine to recruit more women to the lobby. All political editors should ensure they have some women on their team and should groom them for political editorship. Newspaper and media managers must ensure that they offer arrangements which enable their women to stay in the lobby. Flexible working, part-time, job-sharing, help with childcare - whatever it takes. MPs and ministers can help - giving information to the women in the lobby, not always to the political editors.

Having a balanced team of men and women reporting on the men and women in Parliament will refresh our democracy by letting all women in on our political debate in their Parliament.