Visible Women

Toxic culture is “actively putting women off” entering politics, say campaigners

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Moya Crockett
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Online abuse, sexual harassment and inadequate maternity leave are deterring women from politics, according to a coalition of activists and MPs.

A newly-formed campaign group made up of charities, feminist activists and MPs has said that major changes must be made to the UK’s political system and culture if more women are to become involved in politics.

The Centenary Action Group is a new coalition supported by nearly 30 organisations, politicians and activists including Amnesty International UK, Women’s March London, Labour MP Jess Phillips and Green Party deputy leader Amelia Womack.

In a statement, the group challenged the government and political parties to do more to actively encourage women into politics in 2018, the centenary year of women’s suffrage in the UK.

“Increasing the number of women in Parliament is not only a matter of basic human rights and equality, but is also necessary at a time when voter participation is low, and politics is reaching a crisis of credibility,” the group said.

“Women in politics face an extraordinary amount of abuse, especially on social media, partly because they speak up but also simply because they are women. This discourages women from participating in political debate.”

The group is calling on the government and political parties to act on recommendations made by the Commons Women and Equalities Select Committee in 2016. These include Parliament setting a target of 45% female representation by 2030, and parties dedicating resources to supporting women candidates in elections. 

Labour MP Diane Abbott received racist and sexist abuse in the run-up to the 2017 election

The first women were granted the right to vote and run for elected political office in the UK in 1918, a century ago. Despite this, women continue to face unique barriers and prejudice when entering politics, and are severely unrepresented in national and local government. Just 32% of MPs, 33% of local councillors and 17% of council leaders are women.

The elections in 2017 saw women MPs and candidates from all political parties targeted with vicious online abuse, and four in ten women councillors have experienced sexist comments from within their own party.

The odds are even more stacked against women from minority groups who want to enter politics. Research by Amnesty International UK last year found that Labour MP Diane Abbott received almost half of all abusive tweets in the run-up to the general election, while other black and Asian women MPs in Westminster received 35% more abusive MPs than white women MPs. 

Scotland has never elected a black, Asian or minority ethnic (BAME) woman to its Parliament, while half of BAME women councillors across the UK have experienced racism and sexism.

In addition, half of disabled women councillors say they have experienced multiple forms of discrimination. 

“Our system of politics is failing to be relevant to women’s lives”: Sam Smethers, chief executive of the Fawcett Society

Sam Smethers, chief executive of the Fawcett Society, praised the launch of the Centenary Action Group. As well as online abuse, she said that sexual harassment, sexist attitudes and inadequate parental leave for politicians can all be barriers to women who wanted to enter politics.

There are currently no formal maternity and paternity arrangements in Parliament, and MPs cannot vote if they choose to stay at home after childbirth. Labour MP Harriet Harman has pushed for MPs to be given six months’ maternity leave, but this has not been implemented.

“There is great emphasis on women coming forward to stand, but what we won’t stand for is the adverse political system and culture they are walking into,” said Smethers. “Systems and culture have to change.

“Unless they do, we risk the 2018 centenary’s being a missed opportunity. Our system of politics is failing to be relevant to women’s lives, actively putting them off.”

The Centenary Action Group was convened by Helen Pankhurst, an advisor at charity CARE International and the great-granddaughter of Suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst.

“In my work I see the need for more women in politics the world over,” she said. “In the UK, the challenge is that one hundred years on, women are still facing intimidation and violence for wanting to be involved in politics, and to influence decisions that affect their lives.

“The elections in 2017 saw the worst abuse of women MPs and candidates on record. We cannot wait another hundred years for this to end.”

Stylist’s Visible Women initiative aims to raise the profiles of women in politics and inspire future generations to follow their lead. Find out more about Visible Women here.

Images: Rex Features