The tackling of sexism and bullying in Parliament is off to a shocking start.
If you thought a refreshing summer break and the recent BBC gender pay gap controversy might revolutionise MPs’ attitude towards the presence of women in politics, today’s PMQs brought that hope crashing back to earth.
Layla Moran, the new Lib Dem MP for Oxford West and Abingdon, stood to ask a question – a very reasonable and sensible question about the lack of free childcare for her constituents – but she could hardly get through the sentence before the opposite benches broke into laughter and jeers.
It was painful to watch. Moran then put her hand to her mouth, glanced down at a smiling Vince Cable and asked, “What have I done?”
Speaker John Bercow called for order, chastising the “unseemly response” from jeering Tories, and declared her a “new member” and a “highly articulate lady”.
“The honourable lady will be heard!” he bellowed.
He failed to mention Moran is also the Liberal Democrat Shadow Secretary of State for Education. Give her a chance, eh?
There are now 208 women in the Commons, more than ever before. Yet instead of focusing on the barracking and bullying of women MPs in this instance, Bercow instead chose to convince his colleagues why Moran was worth listening to.
Imagine if Bercow had jumped to the defence of a male MP. “He has deplorable views but excellent manners so Jacob Rees-Mogg will be heard!”, or, “He actually remembered his briefing today so Boris Johnson please ask your question!”
The men would no doubt be mortified to be so singled out and belittled. They already know their worth, and the House doesn’t need to be convinced that they’re articulate enough to be heard.
In the grand, green-leathered hall of democracy, there is little doubt that the aesthetic is set up to make the old school members feel welcome and comfortable as they jeer and tub-thump and bounce on their seats, while the women have to elbow their way in and shout to ask a basic question.
Time after time women MPs, who are well-prepared and earnest, are met with mockery and derision, while their male counterparts radiate confidence and authority, a trick they have been taught from early on. They expect to be heard, whereas female MPs have to earn it.
When Brexit Secretary David Davis took his first round of questions yesterday on trade and healthcare and immigration, he looked as relaxed as if he was enjoying a Mediterranean cruise. He lounged on the podium, as if he was lounging at a beach bar, bantering away about his “convivial” meetings with Jean-Claude Juncker and Michel Barnier. No effort required if you’re a veteran member of the old boy’s club.
There are so many examples of sexism within the halls of Westminster, and not just during PMQs. Who could forget Ken Clarke calling May a “bloody difficult woman”, or when the tabloids zoomed in on the Prime Minister’s cleavage during the 2016 budgetary announcement? In 2009, former MP for North East Derbyshire Natascha Engel was slapped on the bottom by Sir Nicholas Winterton, the former Tory MP for Macclesfield, and more recently, Sir Nicholas Soames, a Tory MP, apologised for making “woof woof” noises as SNP member Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh spoke.
Just as the MP for North West Durham, Laura Pidcock, said in her maiden speech a few months ago, the parliament “reeks of establishment”. It did then, and for all the talk of gender equality, it still does now.
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