A couple of weeks ago I spoke to a County Women's Association about being a female MP in Westminster. I told them about the obtuse language that had to be learnt in order to do business, the ancient customs that had to be observed, and about the male dominated culture that pervades Parliament.
I also commented that had I gone to a boys public school I would probably have fitted right in, and that that for many Tory backbenchers the combination of being a woman and having a regional accent marks me out as a target for barracking. These women were not my natural supporters, but they shared my anger and sadness that in 2014 sexism is still an issue in Parliament.
It is easy to blame David Cameron for the insidious culture of sexism that permeates the House of Commons. As every one of us knows, the culture of an organisation comes from the top and even a casual glance at the male, wealthy, grey-suited men that dominate the front-bench demonstrates only too well that Cameron's Government seems to have a real problem with women. Many of his backbenchers also have a problem with class and make that clear when a woman with an accent gets up to speak in the Chamber. It is clear they believe that we have no place in their hallowed presence and our voices need to be drowned out.
It is not just women from the North East who have a tough time. Women MPs from Liverpool, from the North West, from Scotland, and from any other region regularly come in for a seemingly orchestrated barraging from the rich, arrogant, posh boys on the Tory back benches. The type of regional accent is immaterial, it is the fact that we are women and working class and we dare to be there. The younger female MPs seem to get a harder time than older women but we all come in for our share. I know that the point is to put us off our stride, but I would have thought by now that they would realise that it simply does not work, that we just get on with our job making sure that the diverse voices of our constituents are heard loud and clear.
Is this not just the cut and thrust of politics? Should it matter? Well, I would argue that it does. The lack of women in Cameron's cabinet means that the voices and needs of women are not heard or heeded. Government policies are hitting women right across the country first and hardest, and if there were more women in positions of power the impact of these policies and cuts on women would, at least, be considered.
I am also concerned that the gladiatorial, macho bully-boy behaviour is turning off the very people we need to be attracting to politics and to Parliament. The culture will not change until Parliament reflects the diverse country it purports to represent. That means more young MPs, more regional accents, more women, and much more diversity.