What prevents more women from becoming active in politics? One potential answer is the ultimately sexist attitudes that pervade Britain’s political institutions, which Harriet Harman recently attempted to shed a light on. Ruby Lott-Lavinga argues that Harman’s experience tells a worrying story about sexism in politics, and that kicking out the old boys club is a necessary component of bringing more women into the political picture.
At a recent speech in the Palace of Westminster on equality in politics, Harriet Harman tackled the sexism that she experienced as an MP, and Cabinet Minister under Gordon Brown, in particular she pointed to the fact that she was overlook for promotion to Deputy Prime Minister, despite her successful bid to become Labour’s Deputy Leader. Along with discussing how she felt she was treated differently in terms of her career trajectory, she explained how Parliament as a workplace was generally hostile to women’s issues, and that she was encouraged to not ‘bang on too much’ about those issues closest to her heart. Harman, at this point the leading advocate for gender equality in the Cabinet, hit the nail on the head when she said;
“You don’t have to openly oppose equality to perpetuate inequality,[…] all it takes is for those in positions of power to do nothing and the status quo prevails.”
The extreme structural disadvantage that faces women today in enter into British politics continues to distress, with the current state of Parliament acting as a significant deterrent to genuine democratic representation, displaying an unrepresentative face to a diverse public. Whilst all minorities deserve significantly better representation in Parliament, we find ourselves under-representing not a minority but a majority: women. Historically, Parliament has always eschewed women, and perhaps as a result it has been difficult to create positive social change and transferral of power. Since 1918, when the first female MP came to cabinet, there have been fewer female MPs in total than there are currently men in Parliament. It is a horrific fact, and is surely enough to turn many clever, persuasive and inspiring woman away from a career in politics.
There exists two connected misconceptions about women in politics: Either that men can represent women as well as women can themselves, or that if women were good enough then there would be more of them in Parliament. In order to believe the former, you have to trust that people in positions of power are willing to act on social change even if that means losing power themselves. It takes no genius to work out that this is simply not the case. Whilst there are clearly men working towards allowing a system less exclusive of women, there are obvious difficulties in attempting to persuade those who hold power to make their own lives marginally worse to help others. Why make the system more open to women if in the end, they may run against you in your constituency, or get reshuffled to a more prominent position over you? People in power are prone to hanging on to it.
As for the latter misconception, anybody who genuinely believes that men are somehow inherently ‘better at politics’ because of the percentage of them in Parliament can accurately be described as holding sexist attitudes, or at the very least altogether ignoring the idea of structural inequality. It is understandable that so few women opt for a career in politics when so few of their prospective colleagues have shared similar life experiences, such as pregnancy and motherhood. While some women do continue to be drawn towards political careers “the old boys’ club” attitude that pervades PMQs and Parliament in general, with women being told to ‘calm down dear’ makes such a career path look fraught with risk.