Women and Westminster: What’s the Problem?

Patterns of political patriarchy in Westminster can be broken by widening access for aspiring female MPs, protecting them from workplace harassment, and promoting a diversity of talented politicians to the top table.

A company offers you a job with the following terms and conditions. You’ll spend several nights away from your family every week and your kids might get bullied at school or even entrapped by a national newspaper. There are no working hours as such, just an expectation that you’ll always be available to be in one building at wildly antisocial and unpredictable times, and that whenever you are out of the building you’re fair game for invasions of privacy, harassment or worse. There is no transparency in promotion and no training or appraisals. Colleagues will drip anonymous poison to journalists and you’ll be lucky if you make it through your fist month without degrading public commentary on your appearance. And you’ll be at risk of behaviour that would be seen as gross misconduct in any other workplace, but here more experienced colleagues explain that a colleague chanting about your breasts is just “one of those things”.

This is the unseen life of Westminster. The real question is less “why won’t more women enter politics?” and more “why would they?” Being a member of parliament is potentially one of the most rewarding – and certainly one of the most important – jobs in the United Kingdom. So why can’t we design a politics that recruits and retains more female talent? I want to suggest three solutions: offering aspiring female MPs access to the pipeline, access to promotion and access to protection.

The Centre for Women and Democracy’s excellent Sex and Power 2013report details the gender makeup of the sectors from which MPs are traditionally drawn. It looks at the background of MPs, members of the Scottish and European parliaments and Welsh assembly and found that the majority of those politicians had been a councillor fist. Since only 12.3 per cent of council leaders in England are women, and only a third of councillors as a whole, it is hardly surprising if the gender imbalances of town halls are replicated in the Commons chamber.

It is important to note that the pipeline is different for each political party. Recent research from the Guardian highlights that Conservative candidates in winnable seats are more regularly drawn from business and the military, while Labour candidates are much more likely to have worked in Westminster in some capacity. Even so, each of these sectors has a long way to go to gender parity. It took until June 2014 for the FTSE to finally be free of all-male boards, and the Counting Women In coalition advises that there are “currently no women at all at the very highest ranks of any (armed) service in the UK”.

The picture in the Westminster bubble is more mixed. Around 40 percent of Coalition special advisers are female (compared to just over a third under the last Labour government). However, strategy at the highest level seems, once again, to be shaping up to be a battle of the boys with endless column inches devoted to the likes of Lynton Crosby, Jim Messina, David Axelrod, Spencer Livermore and Ryan Coatze. Of the main national parties, only the Liberal Democrats brief about a serious female strategist, in the form of Olly Grender. There is no centralised data collection on how women fare in think tanks, but the winner in every single category of the 2014 Prospect Think Tank of the Year Awards was an organization headed by a man.

For those women who do make it through the clogged-up pipeline, the statistics around promotion are not encouraging. British politics has a terrible habit of allowing ‘fist’ to become ‘only’ – as in the case of Margaret Thatcher as prime minister, Margaret Becket as foreign secretary and Valerie Amos as the first black woman in the cabinet. We are yet to see a single female chancellor or secretary of state for defence.

Reshuffles are delicate balances of regional, factional and electoral considerations alongside whether contenders have shown any aptitude for policy innovation and delivery, or a particular expertise in the work of a department. So pity the poor prime minister trying to build the perfect top team when they are precluded from advertising or headhunting to recruit outside talent.

But the peculiarities of the British constitution should not prevent us from demanding much greater diversity – of all sorts – around Britain’s top table. Fixing the problem starts with understanding its real nature, and I would suggest there are two main aspects of workplace culture that are stopping women moving from the back to front benches.

The fist is the way in which norms of leadership replicate themselves: if those who lead organisations all share the same characteristics (in this case being white, straight, able-bodied, wealthy men), then they will tend to ‘read across’ their own qualities to being those which ‘make’ a leader. Theresa May is reportedly subjected to eye-rolling and funny faces when she speaks in cabinet simply because, in the words of a fellow senior Conservative: “She’s not a bloke and she didn’t go to Eton.”

The second is the extent to which women are excluded from the factional power bases that exercise their influence during reshuffle. Senior politicians promote protégés, a form of patronage which is harder to secure if you come to politics later in life (as female MPs, particularly those who have children tend to) or have less time available to cultivate powerful networks in and around Westminster. Feminists have long talked about ‘the second shift’ that women put in at home after work, but all too often politics requires a ‘third shift’ too. How many politicians with caring responsibilities do you think are to be found pontificating on conference panels at a weekend or propping up the bar at the Carlton Club of an evening?

The final major deterrent to aspiring female MPs is Westminster’s collective inability to offer them protection from discrimination. First, there is an absence of recourse for women suffering sexual harassment; the End Violence Against Women coalition had the sexual harassment policies of the three main parties reviewed by Queen’s Counsel who surmised that they “simply do not seem to understand their legal obligations.”Bear in mind we are not discussing the vile, sexually violent and threatening tweets and blog comments female politicians receive from strangers, but the inability of their workplaces to protect them from groping and denigration by colleagues.

The second issue is the sloppily sexist way in which female politicians can be appraised by the media. It would be easy for a Fabian reader to conclude this is primarily a problem in the tabloid press, or in right-of-centre newspapers. Not so. Take this from the Guardian on Theresa May in September 2013: “As she expounded her tough stance on immigration she stood in shoes worthy of the front row at Paris fashion week”. Or the summation by the Times of Margaret Thatcher as “a better politician than wife and mother.”12 Or how the Mirror proclaimed the arrival of “the Milibabes”. These are the nice ones: have a read of a sketch column or the bottom half of the internet and then consider why high-fling women are deciding they’ll stick with being head teachers or partners in businesses or chief executives of charities after all.

These are the structures of political patriarchy – and we all have a role in determining whether they are to be replicated or resisted. And by all, I mean men too. Here are some practical things you can do to help:

1. Widen the pipeline by joining organisations which train and support women entering political life. For Fabian readers that is likely to be Labour Women’s Network and the Fabian Women’s Network, but other parties have their equivalents too.

2. Name and note the problem by logging examples of media or other sexism at @everydaysexism and alerting @panelwatch to all-male panels. Join End Violence Against Women’s efforts to improve sexual harassment policies across the parties.

3. Invest in the infrastructure which monitors promotion figures by supporting organisations like the Centre for Women and Democracy and the Fawcet Society.

4. Audit your echo chamber by working out your twee-q.com score to test how often you amplify the twitter voices of men rather than women, and get the scores for our political, media and thinktank leaders too.

5. Defend the proven solution by sticking up for all-women shortlists. Each of the problems detailed above is rooted in wider patterns of sexism in society. We can’t fill all of them at once, but we can do the only thing we know works when it comes to getting more women in to politics.

This is an extract from our publication ‘Riding the New Wave – Feminism and the Labour Party’ which you can download here.


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