Sexism in Parliament: Could more be done to change the culture?

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The centenary of the Representation of the People Act this year has been a time for reflection on sexism in politics. With our second female Prime Minister currently in power and several other female leaders of large political parties, many have congratulated themselves on the progress Parliament has made in advancing female engagement in politics and eradicating sexist culture in politics. And yet only 32% of Westminster MPs are women. The Labour Party has never had a female leader. In the autumn of 2017 Parliament was embroiled in a scandal surrounding widespread allegations of sexual harassment in the Commons. Arising out of this have been promises of change – but there have been discussions about parliamentary culture before. How can we ensure that practical change happens fast enough?

Women in politics are faced repeatedly with the same conundrum; lack of representation makes it vital that more women go into political careers, but also discourages them from doing so, reinforcing the barriers that make it difficult for women to enter politics in the first place. While the number of women in politics is increasing, progress is slow, and faces many obstacles.

Last year’s sexual harassment scandal in Westminster has to be viewed in the context of a broader culture issue in British politics – one echoed in many governments across the world. Acts of sexual harassment are never excusable; but an understanding of the environment in which they occur can allow us to tackle the root of the problem, changing the things which foster such attitudes towards women. Issues of sexual harassment in Parliament have occurred before; in 2014, a Channel 4 survey in Parliament revealed a third of respondents (who spanned all political parties) said they had personally experienced some kind of sexual harassment.[i] Political parties pledged to take action. They promised to set new rules, introduce complaints procedures, and make it easier for victims to come forward. And yet, when last year’s scandal broke, some political parties only updated and widely publicised their policies on sexual harassment and wider issues around sexism as they realised they were about to come under severe scrutiny.

That such scandals have happened multiple times makes this all the more concerning – if we have been aware of these issues for so long, and had discussions about how to tackle them previously, then why are they seemingly even more widespread than before? Parliamentary culture is not only publically viewed as toxically sexist; the experience of many women working there reflects this. Not only is this an environment which these women should not have to face, it discourages others from even attempting to go into politics. The extent of the issue is evident in the testimony of a female MP who spoke of being mistaken for secretary by a fellow MP because they don’t expect to encounter young female MPs.[ii]

So why has parliament not changed as much as had been hoped? Part of the issue is that the Parliament’s structure discourages the reporting of allegations and their proper investigation. The system of whips is one example of this – whips collect information on MPs that could be used as leverage against them. While of course not universal, it has been suggested whips may then keep this information on hold rather than taking action against the MP in question or formally investigating them, so that this knowledge – including allegations of sexual harassment – can be used to encourage MPs to vote in line in the future.[iii]

Structural issues in reporting are also evident in the way authority is set up in the Commons. Since MPs are, legally speaking, self-employed, effective structures of accountability are complex or lacking. Many argue the formal HR processes needed are not really there. Often people fear that reporting someone in their own party will be professionally costly. What parliament requires, therefore, is a rethink about the very structure of the institution in order to facilitate female engagement and accountability. That will require longer-term consideration. But dealing with cultural issues may be easier to do.

So what can be done to target sexual harassment in parliament and remove sexist culture in the Commons? The Good Parliament report made 43 suggestions to make Parliament a better environment – but there was perhaps not as much discussion of it in the media as there could have been.[iv]  The report had some useful findings, which, if actually used, could go a long way to helping tackle the problem of sexism in parliament. It split the issue into three areas: equality of participation, parliamentary infrastructure and commons culture. It pointed to 2018, the 100th anniversary of the Representation of the People Act which gave women the vote, as a particularly auspicious moment to reflect on the progress that needs to be made within parliament and its position now. The media attention surrounding the centenary provides an opportunity to encourage a wider discussion and create momentum for change. Actions such as the recommendation to ‘secure cross-party support for a concord regarding what constitutes unacceptable and unprofessional behaviour in the Chamber, and more widely in the House; and improve sanctions against those who break the rules’ would be a significant step in the right direction. Rethinking accountability structures to ensure those who do behave unacceptably can be more easily reported without presenting a professional risk to the other person involved will also be an important part of the process.

But we also need to think more widely than this, and ensure not only that MPs operate within a structure that allows proper process when things do go wrong, but that they are also engaged in a discussion about changing culture. A particularly innovative approach was that of the Scottish parliament, which sought to engage MSPs on the issue of misogynistic attitudes by arranging for the Traverse theatre to give a special performance called ‘Locker Room Talk’.[v] This was based off interviews with men discussing women in male-dominated spaces. The inclusion of a discussion after the performance allowed MSPs to actively engage with what they had heard and consider what they could take from it into their professional lives and the improvement of the environment of the Scottish Parliament. It generated an incredibly positive response, with a significant turnout. Westminster could certainly learn something from this – perhaps we need to think more creatively about approaches to changing culture, alongside legal and structural changes.

Another way to change parliamentary culture would of course be to try and get more women into parliament. While there are several female leaders in British Politics currently, there are very few women just below the top level. Having female leaders at the top of UK politics has certainly made an impact, and increasing the number of women in positions of respect will be vital. However, this process will take longer; elections are not that frequent and the process of becoming a candidate and getting elected is a drawn-out one.

Trying to increase the political engagement of women outside of parliament and attempting to increase female voter turnout could also be very effective. So far, this has not been done as well as it could have been; we only need to look as far as some of the language around Harriet Harman’s 2015 ‘Woman to Woman’ campaign, which promised to politically engage female voters by having ‘a conversation about the kitchen table, and around the kitchen table’[vi] (and used a bright pink bus) to see that we have some way to go. However, if done more carefully, this could be a very powerful tool, starting discussions with female voters about what specifically they need and adapting policies to achieve this. If this increases female turnout, candidates will be aware of the new importance of women voters for their seats, and possibly forced to rethink their attitudes as a result. Increased female political engagement will also feed into the next generation of politicians, both encouraging different approaches and inspiring more of the next generation of women to try going into politics.

Attitudes in Parliament are changing for the better – but it is clear that there is a lot more to be done. Some important actions have already been taken, and many people are working for change. If we think more creatively about how to deal with the issue and combine more immediate actions designed to fully engage MPs and people outside parliament in discussion on culture issues in politics with longer-term structural change, things will certainly move in the right direction. But change needs to come faster than it has previously. As parliament returns from summer recess, hopefully, some of those in Westminster will be using the new parliamentary year to take a more active approach to eradicating sexism in the parliament.


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