Sexism in the corridors of power

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Stylist Team
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Stylist persuaded three MPs from different parties to come together and discuss what it means to be a woman in politics

Interview: Catherine Bennett Photography: Mark Harrison

We’ve all experienced it; the patronising remark, the rolled eyes, the unsaid but all too clear implication that we’re ‘hormonal’. It’s mildly irritating and, in this day and age, slightly laughable, but thankfully not a regular occurrence. Most men happily acknowledge that women’s abilities comfortably equal theirs in the workplace.

But what if you work in the House of Commons, which is synonymous with dusty Establishment rules, men outnumber women five to one and the job is seen as a 24-hour occupation? How do female MPs survive in an environment which is by its very nature hostile to women?

Stylist went to Westminster’s Portcullis House to unite Stella Creasy, Labour & Co-operative MP for Walthamstow; Jenny Willott, Liberal Democrat MP for Cardiff Central and Amber Rudd, Conservative MP for Hastings and Rye, to find out the real challenges that face women in politics.

When you were trying to get into politics, did you at any point think: ‘This is going to be harder for me because I’m a woman?’

Jenny Willott, Lib Dem MP for Cardiff Central: You don’t think like that when you’re starting out. That’s how you think as you get older. I started just after the 1997 election and the culture was pretty sexist then. It has got better. When I first started working here, Parliament sat until 10pm four nights a week. If you’ve got kids it’s impossible. I’ve got a two-year-old and he comes with me – I can’t imagine having to put him in a car at 10pm and then driving to Wales. The hours have definitely improved.

When you decided to stand, did you think being a woman would help? The Lib Dems are proportionally the worst for the number of female MPs but there are lots of women working at party level in the Lib Dems.

JW: Yes, but a lot of them won’t vote for female candidates. I’ve had lots of comments from women saying, “But what are you going to do with your child?” Older women are some of the worst critics of younger women in politics. They have given up their careers to bring up children and I think there is a feeling particularly among older people that you shouldn’t leave your child at day care and go to Parliament.

Amber Rudd, Tory MP for Hastings and Rye: I came to politics quite late. I have children but mine are grown up so I’m not encountering any of the problems that Jenny does – and what bliss that is! When I got in, in 2010, they were doing A-Levels. I’m a strident feminist but I didn’t want to do this with young children.

ABOVE: Amber Rudd MP, Conservative and left, Stella Creasy MP, Labour & Co-Op

Do you think it’s possible to have children and be an MP?

JW: It’s absolutely doable. It’s really bloody hard but if you’re in any senior job and you’ve got a two-year-old or you’re pregnant… it’s an issue that an awful lot of people face.

AR: That could be the same in a law firm. If you’ve got a serious job, it’s hard.

Stella Creasy, Labour & Co-operative MP for Walthamstow: I do think we have to change the expectation about what an MP does. I think particularly about time-efficiency in this place, and how you might balance family life and community life so you’re not completely frazzled. It would be the same in any law firm that makes people work silly hours and doesn’t allow them weekends.

There was a poll last week which showed more than half of women (60%) feel that the Government doesn’t represent them – and 44% of women said they thought Britain would be a better place if there were more women at Westminster. They don’t feel represented…

JW: There are lots of female candidates in all the political parties. The problem is that you’ve got an in-built bias towards men because there’s a residue of people, some of whom have been here for 30, 40, even 50 years – all of whom are men. So until they stand down and someone else comes in, that seat is going to be held by a man. Until you’ve got turnover there won’t be women in seats. If you started again from scratch you’d find that all parties would have far more women.

You could say it was looking quite promising. We had the Blair Babes but it didn’t translate into much. Then we had the whole quotas for MPs of which you, Stella, were part but the Tory Prime Minister David Cameron actually reduced the number of women in the cabinet when he demoted three of them during a reshuffle.

AR: I’m going to take on both of those things. Firstly, you’ll never hear me knock the Blair Babes and what they did. I think it was fantastic. The Labour party has all-women shortlists and that’s their way of getting more women into Parliament, we wouldn’t do it. It doesn’t affect the quality of MPs – I think that’s a complete red-herring. On David Cameron – he has said he wants more women in the cabinet and I think it’s a bit early to judge.

JW: You have to be realistic about this – in the Liberal Democrats and the Conservative party, an awful lot of women came in at the last election. You are not going to make cabinet level in two years of being in Parliament.

What do you think about the level of female representation in the cabinet?

SC: I think it sends a bad signal about us as a society and is also, frankly, economically mistaken because we know that countries that have diverse boards both in public and private sectors do better. So it’s not just about women per se, it’s about what that diversity does in terms of the quality of decision making, experience and insight you bring to the debate – it benefits society to have a more diverse group of people involved.

ABOVE: Stella Creasy MP, Labour & Co-Op

Do you think there are things high up on women’s agendas that don’t get the attention they deserve because of their lack of representation?

AR: Yes, women’s lives!

SC: I think the idea 50% of the population doesn’t have something to contribute doesn’t stack up.

JW: I think there is a slight danger in thinking that women care about different issues to men. Female MPs have been banging on about getting a nursery in Parliament for years. After the 2005 election, in Parliament we had Nick Clegg who’s got small children, David Cameron’s got small children, Ed Miliband’s got small children and their partners all work. For them, childcare in Parliament was a big deal too. I think some things are traditionally pigeonholed as women’s issues and that men aren’t interested – and that’s a load of rubbish.

SC: That’s what completely wound me up about when Louise Mensch resigned. I got a deluge of calls asking me to comment on whether women could have it all. I said, “Why are you asking me? I don’t have kids.” I told them to talk to some of my male colleagues who had young families. But I do a lot of work on violence against women, and I do think there is an inevitable difference there. The expectations, images and objectification of women – you understand that in a different way to a man.

Do you have any idea why female representation has been so slow?

SC: What I’m very struck by is that my father’s generation is very alive to feminism and to sexism both implicit and explicit. I think my generation of men think they live in a balanced society so there is an unconscious element to it now. We’re enshrined by the 80-20 society rather than the 50-50 society. So, they look at Parliament and say, “But we have got female MPs” and we’re saying, “Yes, but there is only 20 of us.” It’s still not enough.

Do you think there is actual chauvinistic opposition to your presence here?

[All at the same time]

JW and SC: Yes!

AR: No!

JW: Without naming names, I have seen male Members of Parliament making obscene gestures to women when they stand up. Jackie Ballard, who became a Lib Dem MP in 1997, every time she stood up one of your [Conservative] colleagues I’m afraid, Amber, used to do this [makes breast-bouncing movement with her hands]. He’s still an MP. I go around this place often with a small child and there are definitely people who imply, “You bloody well shouldn’t be here.”

SC: I got thrown out of the lift for being a woman! One of Amber’s colleagues tried to throw me out of the [MP only] lift because I couldn’t possibly be an MP. He was quite rude as well and I remonstrated in the most polite way I could. I said, “I think you should be circumspect before you’re rude to women in public.” He has since chased me around, waggling his pass at me – he thinks it’s funny.

ABOVE: Jenny Willott MP, Liberal Democrats

AR: But there is a very horrid, at times, bullying atmosphere in the House. I saw Maria Eagle, when David Cameron was talking about the economy about six months ago, just doing this at him the whole time [waggles her little finger] – ‘little willy’.

JW: It does happen on both sides. I was going downstairs to a vote with Toby when he was little – about six months old – when a young female MP said, “You might want to get out of the way, dear. We’re actually going to vote now.”

AR: The one that I found upsetting really was when David Cameron referred to Nadine Dorries as being ‘frustrated’. Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs) is an extraordinary atmosphere and I don’t think he meant it the way it came out, but he paused at ‘frustrated’ and there was this Benny Hill laughter across the house. There is a hotbed of bullying that’s very difficult to break but I also think there are a load of new MPs who won’t behave like that.

SC: I had Toby Young tweeting that he could see my breasts during PMQs and when I said, “No you can’t because I’m not actually there today,” he said, “Oh, sorry for my mistake.” I said, “That’s not the mistake you made.” I don’t share your confidence that it will get better unless we consciously and purposefully say: this has got to change because of the message it sends to the country.

JW: It’s a generational thing. The 2010 intake and the 2005 intake are much better.

How do you feel about having a health secretary who thinks it’s right for him to make an observation on abortion so that we all know how he’d vote if there was a law change?

JW: There are very few occasions when I would defend Jeremy Hunt, believe me, but someone asked him a question and he answered it. And quite frankly, I would be more worried if the health secretary hadn’t answered a question about abortion when asked. I’m completely pro-choice and we’ve had a series of votes on this in the last couple of years and Parliament is in favour of keeping it at 24 weeks. Every MP including Jeremy Hunt is on record as to what they voted – everybody knows where he stands.

Don’t you think it sent out the message that women’s bodies were actually promising territory for male politics?

JW: No, because the main person who brings this up in Parliament is Nadine Dorries.

SC: There’s a difference between people who are public about it and people lobbying for it in private. I’ve been approached by people on your side Amber asking whether I was going to turn with them.

AR: But it’s not political. Jeremy has said he would not seek to change the law, this is his personal opinion. He said, “I’m not going to change the law but my personal view has not changed.”

What should your party do to get more women, so it is representative; so a half-and-half society isn’t represented by one in five?

SC: I was selected on All Women’s Shortlist (AWS). Do I think that all-women shortlists are the only thing we need to do? Absolutely not. But I’m proud to have been selected through it, because I genuinely think I was up against some incredible women. But we haven’t celebrated the impact AWS has had, not just on women coming forward, but on the quality of the debate when you get men and women debating together.

AR: My party thinks, and I think, to say anything that is exclusively men or exclusively women is a mistake. So the way you reform it is by changing people who are on the selection board, and you deal with it by training them. We’re doing it at the moment. Yes, only 16% [of Conservative MPs are female] but it was 4% in 2001.

SC: But we had AWS and there has been a big push forward. I know it’s difficult because all parties are struggling with this, but I cannot see another way that means we don’t just have slow trickle, that once every four years we might get a few more women in.

JW: I have to confess I’m in a distinct minority in my party on this and I actually agree with Stella on all-women lists. When I was a candidate in 2001, in our target seats, out of 80, I think eight of us were women. That’s completely ridiculous. I just don’t believe out of those 80 seats 72 of the best candidates were men. Clearly, it’s nonsense.

What do you think? Do you believe that the current Government represents women and women's issues enough - and what can Parliament do to get more women in politics, at all levels? Let us know in the comments below