Women in Parliament: what’s the real problem?

After the resignation of Maria Miller a few weeks ago, there are now only three women in the British Cabinet – and no mothers at all. This is the lowest figure since before Blair’s all-women shortlists in 1997, despite Cameron’s promise in 2005 that he would “change the scandalous under-representation of women in the Conservative Party”. The House of Commons today has only 23% women and the Tory party a dismal 16%. The recent burst of accusations of sexism in Parliament should hardly surprise us; it has long been known that our democratically-elected chamber is hardly representative of the gender balance of wider society. The blame partially lies in the institution itself but there is a wider issue here: why do we tell women that they are not fit for the ‘confrontational’ style of the Commons?

The institutional deterrent for women derives from the fact that MPs are technically self-employed. There are limited structures of accountability in place should a woman wish to complain about instances of workplace harassment (which, according to a recent Channel 4 documentary, are all too frequent). Parliament is also one of the only major workplaces in Britain where women have no right to maternity leave. The work is particularly inflexible, as it involves splitting your week between Westminster and a constituency, which is off-putting to women who shoulder the burden of family responsibilities. “No, mummy can’t come to the school play; she has an important meeting with the French ambassador” sounds somehow harsher and more irresponsible than if it were “daddy”.

What the criticisms of Parliament really show is that we still expect mothers to put their children first. Women are allowed to ‘work’, so long as they’re not home too late and still make the kids’ packed lunches in the morning. The idea that Parliament needs to change to accommodate ‘women’ is nonsense; it needs to modernize to account for the twenty-first century family. Both male and female MPs who have children also have responsibilities for childcare. The notion that you can only be an MP and a parent if you have a stay-at-home partner is out-dated. More out-dated, however, is the idea that this is only a problem for women. There’s nothing about being a woman per se which means we can’t work flexible hours.

Yet, it’s not just the juggling act of family and constituents that’s responsible for a scarcity of women in Parliament. There is also the view that the confrontational debating style of the Commons does not ‘suit’ women. Many studies have shown that pervasive gender roles negatively affect women’s belief in themselves as political leaders. In a 2011 study, for example, 50% more men than women, who had been deemed equally qualified by the researchers, considered themselves “very qualified” to run for office. The problem is that we instil in young women a view that the qualities needed to be successful in politics are inherently ‘masculine’. This is reinforced by the blokes shouting and jeering at each other on Prime Minister’s Question Time. To anyone, it looks profoundly unappealing. Women, however, are subjected to further belittling when even the prime minister comes out with sexist quips like “calm down, dear”.

I have full sympathy for the female MPs who complain about the macho culture of the Commons and I whole-heartedly agree that jibing at each other like school-boys is not how our legislature should make policy. What is really offensive, however, is how this has been turned into a gendered problem focused on male and female characteristics. Parliament’s style should be made more ‘women-friendly’, they say; what are they going to do, pop fluffy pink cushions on the benches? There is nothing about having a vagina which means you can’t be confrontational. The juvenile way in which much parliamentary debate is carried out is one problem but gender roles are another issue.

The most significant barrier to getting more women in Parliament is telling them from an early age that they should be pretty and quiet. Giving a little girl something other than a Barbie to play with will make more of a difference than granting female MPs paid maternity leave.


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