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Fishnets and Tinder: Women MPs reveal toxic sexism in Westminster

As research highlights the shocking ‘exclusionary’ culture in parliament, female MPs tell Maya Oppenheim their stories

Tuesday 10 January 2023 00:02 GMT
Around three quarters of women MPs said they chose not to voice their views on some topics on social media due to their fears of experiencing harassment online
Around three quarters of women MPs said they chose not to voice their views on some topics on social media due to their fears of experiencing harassment online (PA Archive)

Seven in ten women MPs have witnessed sexist conduct in parliament in the past five years, according to research that highlights an “exclusionary” and “toxic” culture in Westminster.

Gender equality charity The Fawcett Society spoke to MPs about their experiences of misogyny in parliament and found that while only about half of male MPs said they had witnessed sexism, the figure for female politicians was 69 per cent.

The report follows a storm of bullying and sexual harassment allegations which have rocked Westminster, prompting a number of MPs to be investigated, suspended or to step down from their roles.

Around three-quarters of women MPs said they chose not to voice their views on some topics on social media due to their fears of experiencing harassment online, in comparison to around half of male MPs.

Researchers discovered just four in 10 women MPs thought parliament’s working culture was “inclusive for people like me” as they warned the problems unveiled in the study would compound the shortage of women in Westminster – with Black, minoritised and disabled women hardest hit.

A female MP, who did not want to be named, said: “My kid came home and said ‘Mum, why do so many people hate on you’. And you’ve got to externally put on a really, really brave face, and a fighter face, and internally it breaks you.”

Six women MPs, from the Conservatives, Labour, and Liberal Democrats, told The Independent about of their experiences. Labour’s Dawn Butler said she had endured sexualised comments for wearing fishnet tights while the Conservative Party’s Caroline Nokes said she had been touched inappropriately and a minister told her she was only appointed because she has “t**s”.

Dawn Butler

“There was one incident when I wore plain fishnets to parliament. I received so many overly sexual, misogynistic comments that I took the tights off and threw them in the bin and never wore fishnets again.

“I spoke to a more senior female MP. She told me to ignore it saying, ‘it’s all banter’. She told equivalent stories women MPs have been through. There were lots of stories of MPs looking up their skirt. The parliamentary environment needs to change.

Dawn Butler (Getty Images)

“New procedures are vital and important. MPs that have been in parliament for a long time have put up with a lot of sexism. The good thing is now post-Me Too movement, we are not putting up with it. Some of the men have not moved forward. They still think it is acceptable to be sexist and misogynistic.

“When I was a whip, an MP was talking about me having a real whip in the tea room in parliament. It happened more than once. It became very uncomfortable and embarrassing for me.

“Parliament was designed for men only and there is still that prevailing attitude that this is a man’s place and the women are just window dressing and there is that entitlement to belittle women. All you have to do is hang out in the bar, let alone what goes in the chamber, such as sometimes the patronising way that women are spoken to.”

Caroline Nokes

“I have experienced sexual harassment in Westminster. Over the past 12 years, a lot of it I have shrugged off and have done nothing about it. Some incidents I reported to the whips. The stark reality is we don’t yet have a system in place. We need the individual political parties cooperating with each other drawing up policies and protocols.

“There have been a number of incidents where I have been touched inappropriately and inappropriate suggestions were made to me and about me. I don’t want to name names. I don’t have confidence the systems are in place in parliament that enable it to be dealt with correctly.

Caroline Nokes says she’s experienced sexual harassment in Westminster (PA Archive)

“I remember a minister told me to my face I was only appointed because I have t**s. The thing that shocked me is if they are saying that to your face, God knows what are they saying behind your back.

“The reality is that nobody wants to talk about the low-level microaggression, they are only interested in the horrific tales of women being pinned against the wall by someone. They want to focus on disgusting blatant stories of sexual harassment.

“This is a really tough place for women to work, who contend with inappropriate, demeaning belittling comments from colleagues who think they are being funny. They think it is okay to bully and demean women.”

Nadia Whittome

“Quite regularly, male MPs talk to my chest instead of my face. It makes me feel really uncomfortable. Presumably, they can tell I feel uncomfortable. When I was 19, I briefly worked in parliament. I very much looked like a teenager.

“A very senior Tory backbencher said ‘I bet you are on Tinder aren’t you?’, and was asking me about my dating life. I was in an enclosed space with him, I couldn’t get away. He thought could get away with it more because I was an intern.

“I feel hyper-conscious of what I am wearing to work. Men in their fifties and sixties will often have lingering eyes and then comment on what you are wearing. They are clearly not saying that because they have got some great interest in clothes.

Nadia Whittome says she avoids parliament’s bars

“I feel out of place in parliament. It feels uncomfortable often. I often think oh god is my skirt riding up, does my top look low with the camera, and you are seeing all these smirking, leering faces opposite you. A lot of them are a lot older than my nan.

“I don’t go in the bars much. A lot of the male MPs, staff and journalists are found there. It is almost like The Thick Of It cosplay. It feels like parliament is full of a class and gender of people who have solidarity with each other. Things are so much worse if you are a woman of colour.”

Kate Osamor

“Parliament is a very masculine environment. It is a shouty environment, it is very loud, it is not a comfortable workplace. I don’t come from a wealthy upper-class background. It is the majority – white men – who have the upper hand.

“I haven’t got anything in common with the majority of the MPs. The culture is to go to the bar, listen, talk, gossip, and drink alcohol. A lot of MPs don’t go home to their family. Their family may be in a constituency which could be miles away. The culture at Westminster is unhealthy. It’s workaholic, it is constant.

Kate Osamor says the culture in Westminster is unhealthy

“It is unhealthy there is no degree of separation. The bar is essentially an extension of the chamber. I go to work and come home. It doesn’t mean it is a good thing. I do it to protect myself.

“I want women who are not politicians who are looking in from outside – whether they are Black or working class – to be welcome. But they will not be in a place where people watch porn or women are sexually harassed or assaulted on the estate. We need parliament to be diverse, we need it to represent people.”

Layla Moran

“I have had inappropriate overtures by men in power in the Lib Dem party. In one case, a hand on my leg inappropriately on a campaigning training weekend. It was very inappropriate. It was a squeeze on the top of the calve.

“Young women are put in these situations in politics where they are finding their feet. There are predatory men in all parties who take advantage of that position.

Layla Moran says a male MP offered to help her get ahead in exchange for going for a drink (PA Archive)

“In 2007, I was in my late twenties. I was at party conference and there was this MP in his forties or fifties who was buying me and my friend drinks all night and then kept trying to meet up with us at the conference.

“Afterwards, he sent us emails saying something along the lines let’s have a drink and I will help you get ahead in the party and help you with your career. The Me Too movement was really pivotal across politics. The wider point to make is politics in general still has an issue. It is definitely getting better but we have far more to do to get to the point we need to be.”

Jess Phillips

You get low-level sexism all the time. I’ve defended other women in the chamber. I know women who work for me, certainly Black women, have found Westminster to be oppressive.

“Lots of men shush me because I’m quite rowdy. I get lots of comments like ‘calm down, the honourable lady acts with her heart’. In the post-Me Too world, you get joking comments like ‘am I allowed to ask you to pass the milk?’ or ‘I don’t know if I’m allowed to say this to me, but you look lovely’. It’s like of course you are allowed to say that to me ‘you p****’.

Labour’s Jess Phillips says women’s positions in parliament are often undermined (PA Archive)

“Quite a lot of Tory men treat me like I’m some sort of exotic bird. People act like I’m either a pain or something to be marvelled at. You can see sometimes in meetings, women are asked to do things like get the tea. The expectation of them being stupid and annoying is quite common – that is very irritating. There is a power imbalance, there is an element of impunity.”

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