Christina Patterson: Why politics isn't just a game for the boys

We’ve seen what happens when a gung-ho, risk-ridden male culture prevails
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The Independent Online

Here's what I remember about women at the party conferences. In Brighton, Sarah Brown begging us, in extremely expensive clothes, to be nice to her husband, and Harriet Harman denouncing a Californian website about prostitutes.

In Manchester, Samantha Cameron smiling in an M&S frock and tripping around on her (£29 Zara) heels. In Bournemouth, er, nothing. Absolutely nothing.

We all know that there's a problem with women and politics. The poor darlings can't get their heads round these big, grown-up issues. They're not tough enough. They're not bright enough. They have to be parachuted in, because no one would choose them, and then they're rubbish. So, sadly, very sadly, we're better off sticking with the men. Not perfect, we know, but it's the least worst option (as everyone now ungrammatically says) we've got.

Well, there is a problem, it's true. Most female politicians are mediocre. But this isn't just a question of quality, or numbers. It's a question of culture. Our political culture is, quite simply, male. This makes it not just hard to penetrate, and unattractive to most women, and riddled with unconscious sexism, but it also makes it counterproductive to the interests of most women – and most men.

And it's not just to do with the so-called gladiatorial arena, an arena which, for the most part manages to offer rhetoric more redolent of Sparks-Fotheringay ribbing Bunty in the dorm than Cicero denouncing Caesar. Nor is it to do with jacket-on-chair, harder-than-thou working hours. It pervades the entire culture, and it's getting worse.

If New Labour managed to conjure more than 100 female MPs out of thin air (and women's shortlists), it also created one of the most testosterone-ridden governments in history. In place of the clubby, smoky, school-tie-wearing ambience of yore, there was a laddish, foul-mouthed, cocky little coterie, bursting with energy and in thrall – in so many ways – to balls. Their gods were, metaphorically speaking, Arsenal and the Arctic Monkeys – popular culture, in other words. Assuming that they were of the people (a people's government, a bit like a people's princess) they thought they didn't really need to bother with that boring (and, let's face it, rather female) stuff like consultation and Cabinet.

They loved the big idea. All male politicians love the big idea. They like the glitter and dazzle. Like male journalists, or academics, who suddenly think, over their macchiato and muffin, that that little thought they had about blinking, or nudging, or mathematical equations relating to talent, might make a great column, no, cover story, no – why not? – book, and set about moulding the world in the image of their brilliant theory, they stride from meeting to meeting thinking "how can I change the world?" Not by grafting away at something tedious, for days and months and years, but by having a, you know, thought. Something, you know, quick.

But they also like detail. They like to fixate on particular words. Is Brown going to use the C-word? ("Cuts", in case you were wondering.) Is he going to use the word "recession"? Or is he going to "bottle it"? Why do they do this? Because, in the giant world of Sudoku that is British politics the Oxbridge boys in the media who spend their lives observing the Oxbridge boys at Westminster think it's a laugh. Never mind that the vast majority of the British population couldn't give an Arctic monkey's. Never mind that they have more important things on their mind.

We've seen what happens when a gung-ho, risk-ridden, unadulterated male culture is allowed to prevail. The global economy implodes. "If you want moral stuff, go somewhere else," said a senior (male) banker this week. If you want moral stuff? Sorry, but isn't that quite an important part of being human? Funds managed by female hedge fund managers, it emerged this week, have outperformed those managed by male managers over the past decade by three per cent. Yes, boys, girls can do it, too. And better.

The law used to be an all-male domain, and so did medicine. Now, nearly 40 per cent of lawyers are women and by 2017 most doctors in Britain will be female. Which is probably just as well, because women, according to the UK's largest ever study of medical performance, make significantly safer doctors than men.

Women are not better than men. They are, however, different. The Seventies feminists thought they weren't, but recent work on the male and female brains seems to indicate that they are. Women are not nicer than men, but they are usually (with the odd exception, like, unfortunately, me) less combative, less keen on risk, and less at ease in an environment that's all about proving the other person wrong. They're quite likely to think that the flashy, big idea is a flash in the pan, and they know, because they have these things called babies, which they're then stuck with for a very long time, how to see a project through.

We need women in Parliament. We need good women in Parliament. I hate the idea of quotas, but if that's what it takes, so be it. We also, by the way, need some good men.