Politics. A foul place to work if you are a woman?
After numerous scandals of sexual harassment engulfed Hollywood, the UK Parliament is having its own #MeToo moment. Female Members of Parliament (MPs) have revealed the dark reality of their daily battles against sexism, bullying and discrimination, sharing their experiences in an attempt to encourage other women to speak out.
HuffPost UK spoke to 40 women MPs of all parties across different sectors and industries. Women were asked about their experiences in Parliament and what, if anything, they think needs to be done to improve the culture. The results were as follows:
- 40 out of 208 surveyed, said they had personally experienced some form of sexual harassment;
- Just over half said they had been bullied in their role as an MP;
- 40% said they had reported or received a complaint about inappropriate or bullying behaviour;
- Over half said the culture was worse in Parliament than in their previous careers;
- 5% believe it is harder to get things done as a woman in Parliament.
It’s “DD” for me
It seems these primitive attitudes towards women in politics have been ongoing for decades. Many of them became so endemic and institutionalised that they are not questioned. The examples are endless; from lewd, unwanted comments, to men making gestures about breasts when a woman stands up to speak. When Conservative MP David Davis, Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, launched a leadership bid in 2005, he had female supporters walk round the Tory party conference in tight T-shirts with “It’s DD for me” displayed across their chests. Hilarious? This has long been considered as “the way it is”; something which, as women, they are supposed to put up with. But they will not any longer.
Female politicians are taking a stand against sexual harassment
Sexual harassment and misogynistic attitudes in politics are a visible problem and some politicians are taking a stand against it. Labour MPs Jess Phillips and Mary Creagh, Conservative MP Theresa Villiers and Baroness Anne Jenkin have spoken out about unwanted advances featured in the early days of their careers. The incidents included among others: a sexual assault in a bar, an attack at a party, being fondled by an MP in their car, and being groped at a political event.
Yet, these women did not only stay quiet about their experiences until years later, most of them stayed in contact with the alleged perpetrators and spoke well about them at the time. Labour MP Jess Phillips explained: “For most women you can look back and say ‘I wish I had told the police’, but knowing what I know in working in sexual violence services I doubt they would have been able to do something.”
These women often do not report harassment, because they either do not know how to report it, or are too scared to share their story with anyone for fear or being suspended. Following a report issued by the Fawcett Society in July last year, Labour Party founded LabourToo, a website which enables women to share their experiences of harassment within the party anonymously. A representative for LabourToo admitted that although sexual harassment is an issue which pervades all political parties at all levels, the focus now is directed towards Parliament. The exact number of complaints made through the website is unknown. However, a few months after LaboutToo came into existence, Labour members have appointed an independent legal expert to look into the handling of a rape allegation made by a former member of Labour’s ruling National Executive Committee.
Elect more women
It is clear the current system is broken, with politics still a largely male-dominated occupation. A senior Labour MP said for HuffPost UK: “Parliament has more men than I have ever worked with, so the abuse can be worse.” One seasoned politician said that women struggle to be taken seriously, and more than half of respondents who took part in HuffPost’s survey said they felt the culture in Parliament was worse than in their previous careers. A backbencher added:
“I think women are often patronised and talked down to. The tone and attitude in debates can be boorish, but I don’t think it stops women getting things done. The atmosphere can be very aggressive.”
Surely, if disrespect for women is tolerated at the heart of government, it will be tolerated everywhere. Although there already is legislation in place against sexual harassment in the workplace, further attempts to strengthen laws around sexual harassment are necessary. It is obvious that the issue of sexual harassment is not central to the government’s strategy on violence against women. The government needs to be pushed to disclose how it is currently tackling the issue of sexual harassment. It may be that MPs will need a more robust independent grievance and complaints process in Parliament.
A cultural change needed
Of course, an effective legal system is only one side of the coin when it comes to sexual harassment. We also need a change in the culture that has taught women to accept the status quo for decades. Individual political parties need to take responsibility for their own bad behaviour, as opposed to down playing their roles by claiming others were worse. Women should no longer accept that sexism, sexual harassment and bullying are just an unfortunate part of the job.
It is also a time to elect more women. The society needs to start valuing women’s contribution to our productivity and success as a nation. We need to start seeing women as potential leaders in the political sphere, not because they shout the loudest, but because they are good at their jobs. Parliament needs to make it easier for women to do the job, to help women balance home and Parliamentary life. Women need to be given an opportunity to be ‘working mothers’, especially those who do not have the added advantage of a partner to support them at home.
It will be a more just and equal society, but it will also be a happier one. For too long we have accepted inequality within our society. But something is changing. Women are speaking out. As Sam Smethers, chief executive of the Fawcett Society, has put it: “We are only at the beginning of solving this problem, we are at the point of waking up to it as a society, but we are a long way from dealing with it.”
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Agnes Biel, Paralegal
Please note that the information contained in this article was correct at the time of writing. There may have been updates to the law since the article was written, which may affect the information and advice given therein.
House of Parliament: By Diliff – Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1634181