Sexism in Parliament: Where are all the women - and how can Westminster change Britain when it can't change itself?

Westminster makes laws on employment and discrimination, but practises appalling inequality and rampant sexism in its own workplace

It’s hard to credit in 2014, but it’s true: there’s still a major British workplace, one of the country’s best-known brands, where women have no right to take maternity leave. If they do have children, they tend to find that their shift patterns are deeply inflexible, making it all but impossible to maintain a normal family life at the same time as doing the job properly – a difficult thing when there’s still a prevailing assumption that they, and not their husbands, should be the ones to shoulder the greater part of the burden at home.

Considering all of that, it’s perhaps not surprising that there are still some men who work there who think they can get away with deeply creepy behaviour – behaviour that, almost anywhere else, would get them sacked. In this workplace, it’s not even clear who you would report it to.

You may ask: if those women are getting such a crappy deal, and if nothing much is changing, can’t anyone else do anything about it? Why can’t Parliament act, for instance? And it’s a good question, albeit one with a slightly confounding answer. The reason Parliament can’t act is both simple and complicated. Parliament can’t act because it’s the very place with the problem.

It has been a bad week for women, and a bad week for the Liberal Democrats, but it has been just as bad for the institution in which they are both minority groups, where a persistent status quo that you might have hoped would have expired in the last century has been brought into depressing relief. The MP Mike Hancock has been suspended fully three years after the Liberal Democrats were notified of claims that he had sexually assaulted a vulnerable constituent; the Lord Rennard affair, meanwhile, has rumbled inexorably onwards, every day seeming to widen the rift between those who see the allegations as deeply shocking and those who think they are no big deal.

If you were looking for a nadir, you had plenty of options; my own selection would be the intervention from Lord Rennard’s close friend, Lib Dem MEP Chris Davies, who suggested that the allegations were inconsequential because they involved touching someone’s leg “through clothing”, an action that “is the equivalent of a few years ago an Italian man pinching a woman’s bottom”. I asked every female Lib Dem MP for their opinions on all this. None was available.

You can be sure that in most other workplaces, anyone making such claims would have them dealt with quickly and straightforwardly; businesses are too frightened of lawsuits from their employees for it to be any other way. But in Parliament, it’s different. Bizarrely enough, MPs are technically self-employed, and so have no bosses to sue – and anyhow, their options for exit are limited. A female RBS staffer can always apply to HSBC, but it’s not so straightforward to jump ship for another legislature. Nor are the basic ingredients for disaster here  likely to be confined to the Liberal Democrats. The House of Commons surely seems a still less palatable place to work today than it did a week ago for women of all political persuasions.

Cathy Newman says getting too heavy handed with people like John Inverdale can lead to a counter-productive ‘battle of the sexes’ Cathy Newman says getting too heavy handed with people like John Inverdale can lead to a counter-productive ‘battle of the sexes’  

Cathy Newman, the Channel 4 News journalist who broke the Rennard story, says that at first, she thought that the exposure of the allegations would be a helpful step for the status of women in Parliament. Now she’s not so sure. “After the last week, I feel less positive,” she says. “If you were a woman in Westminster who had been harassed in the way these women allege they were, you would now think, do I really want to report it? Is it worth my while?” She pauses. “I’ve been working in and around Westminster for the best part of 20 years, and when I first joined I saw it was very unequal, but I just assumed it would be a level playing field pretty quickly. And, in fact, progress has been glacial.”

Even allowing for the suggestion that one woman’s harassment is another man’s touching-through-clothing, allegations like those against Rennard and Hancock are disturbing. And women with considerable experience of Parliament say that not all of their male colleagues seem able to treat them with the seriousness they are due. One common theme is the deep confusion of meeting someone young and female who demands to be treated as an equal; Stella Creasy, for example, has described being mistaken for a researcher by a grouchy Tory minister, Andrew Robathan.

(From left) Mary Macleod, a Conservative MP, Governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, Stella Creasy, a Labour MP, and Caroline Criado-Perez, co-founder of the Women's Room, pose at the Jane Austen House Museum on July 24, 2013. (From left) Mary Macleod, a Conservative MP, Governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, Stella Creasy, a Labour MP, and Caroline Criado-Perez, co-founder of the Women's Room, pose at the Jane Austen House Museum on July 24, 2013.  

Luciana Berger, the Labour shadow minister for public health who entered Parliament in 2010, suggests that such confusion is a damning indictment of the sheer numerical imbalance – with only 23 per cent of MPs female. “I’ve been in all sorts of workplaces where I haven’t felt in a minority, and here it feels as if we’re a minority and a novelty,” she says. “As long as Parliament doesn’t represent society, it’s going to feel weird.”

Even when women are correctly identified as legislators, they are not always treated quite as you might assume. One former MP describes a member sitting opposite who told her after a debate of his satisfaction at the view down her top when she reached into her handbag. On another occasion, a different MP told her that he and a colleague, again members of another party, had been taking bets on what she would wear. “Oh, that’s interesting,” she remembers telling him. “If we worked anywhere else, you’d be fired.”

That exchange points up one of the governing peculiarities of Westminster, where many of your “colleagues” in fact work for someone completely different. Along with self-employment (which also has complicated consequences for maternity leave, which is actually easier for ministers to arrange than backbenchers), this means that the structures of accountability which you might expect in an ordinary office are not in place. If a member of your own party is being a creep, there are people you can tell. But you can see why you might fear even that move could be professionally costly – and if this is difficult, how confident is any woman likely to be about making representations to bitter political opponents?

The situation is made still worse when so many politicians effectively have jobs for life – certainly the peers, and many in the House of Commons in safe seats. “They are just less worried about being held accountable than others would be,” she says. “If no one can force you out, what is the impact of behaviour that could damage your reputation? For some people, there is none.” She thinks back. “Of the issues that I had, I think every single one of those people was in a pretty safe seat.”

This dysfunctional environment lost another female voice last week, when Jessica Lee, the Tory MP for Erewash, announced that she would be standing down at the next election. She’s the fourth Tory woman of the 2010 intake to decide on a change of direction – and while 15 men from that intake have made the same decision, they account for a smaller percentage of their gender group. There have been dark warnings of a trend, but Lee (who declined to comment) has personal reasons for leaving, and neither she nor any of her colleagues (including Louise Mensch) has suggested that sexism has anything to do with it. Nan Sloane, director of the Centre for Women and Democracy, cautions that “it’s hard at the moment to say it establishes a definite pattern – there is a tendency to jump to conclusions based on very little evidence”.

Conservative Member of Parliament Louise Mensch arrives in the Members' Lobby of the House of Commons to attend the State Opening of Parliament at the Palace of Westminster in London on May 9, 2012.

All the same, it doesn’t help with the depressing imbalance between the genders – 23 per cent of MPs are women. It is hard to know what the policy consequences would be of a better balance. As Cathy Newman points out: “We don’t know what the difference would be because we don’t have enough women there to draw generalised conclusions.” But, at least as far as working conditions go, it seems safe to assume that more women would mean a more hospitable environment. “If Parliament was 50-50, it would be a completely different place,” says Sloane. “There would be a huge change to these arcane practices.”

Brooks Newmark, the (male) Conservative MP who is one of that party’s leading voices in the battle to elect more women through the campaign Women2Win, points out that the process is a “virtuous circle”. “When we only had 17 women MPs, it was hard for them to percolate to the top,” he says. “With 49 we’re beginning to see it. But we need more role models. We need more associations to see them and think, yes, that’s what we want here.” Passionate though Newmark is, it’s hard to detect an especially optimistic note in his voice. He used to wear a badge that read “50-50 by 2020”. He doesn’t wear it any more.

One indication of the uphill battle that remains for efforts to make the House of Commons more accessible for people who have families to care for – which is, of course, still synonymous with “women” – came in the 2012 vote to adjust working hours on a Tuesday so that, instead of ending business at the absurd hour of 10.30pm, they start earlier and finish by 7pm. The remarkable thing, says Berger, is that such a common-sense measure “only very narrowly passed”, by 267 votes to 233. “Some of the arguments were bizarre,” she adds. “You hear people saying, well, what am I going to do in my evenings?”

To all of this there is a common retort: politics is not like other walks of life. It’s a blood sport. If you can’t hack it, then you should probably be doing something else. At this, Cathy Newman, not exactly the retiring type, snorts derisively. “I hate that viewpoint,” she says. “Of course if you’re a shrinking violet, Westminster isn’t for you. It’s rough and tumble. But that’s not the same thing as saying you should have to put up with behaviour that singles you out because of your gender.” As Stella Creasy put it on Newsnight: “Why should women adapt to sexual harassment?”

It isn’t, after all, simply a matter of self-interest. The Rennard and Hancock allegations, and other iniquities, are not only ugly for the women involved; they are an ugly stain on our public life, and they cannot help but set a tone. “We’re making the laws of the land,” says Berger. “That makes it incumbent on us to do everything we can to encourage women. Parliament should be setting an example.”

Read more:
So, what is your line on bottom-pinching, Mr Clegg?  
Three Generations of Women: telling the stories of 100 years of growing up female in Britain  
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Voices
There will be a chance to bid for a rare example of the SAS Diary, collated by a former member of the regiment in the aftermath of World War II but only published – in a limited run of just 5,000 – in 2011
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm today
News
File: James Woods attends the 52nd New York Film Festival at Walter Reade Theater on September 27, 2014
peopleActor was tweeting in wake of NYPD police shooting
Sport
Martin Skrtel heads in the dramatic equaliser
SPORTLiverpool vs Arsenal match report: Bandaged Martin Skrtel heads home in the 97th-minute
News
Billie Whitelaw was best known for her close collaboration with playwright Samuel Beckett, here performing in a Beckett Trilogy at The Riverside Studios, Hammersmith
people'Omen' star was best known for stage work with Samuel Beckett
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Telesales & Customer Service Executives - Outbound & Inbound

£7 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Are you outgoing? Do you want to work in...

Recruitment Genius: National Account Manager / Key Account Sales

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for a...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity to join...

Recruitment Genius: Recruitment Consultant

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We have an excellent role for a...

Day In a Page

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'