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“Sexism is endemic in Westminster”

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SANYO DIGITAL CAMERAAs our elected public representatives, you’d think MPs could communicate with respect at all times.

But as accusations abound about the alleged improper behaviour of Lord Rennard, so more women come forward to reveal their experiences of the sexism they faced, representing their electorate in the UK’s Houses of Parliament.

“Sexism is endemic in Westminster”, Cathy Newman, Channel 4 news presenter and former political correspondent  remarked  recently.

It is a story that is sadly very familiar to many women in the workplace.

At the present time, up to five women are understood to being speaking to officers from Scotland Yard in connection with complaints against Rennard, the former Liberal Democrat chief executive.

But many more have now come forward to recount incidents of sexism that Bridget Harris, former special advisor to the deputy prime minister, describes as ‘depressingly familiar’.

In an extended feature by the Guardian, which details experiences from a number of female politicians past and present, Labour MP Joan Ruddock described the routine sexual objectification of women.

“When I was speaking in an army debate about Northern Ireland, one Tory said, in a voice that could be heard across the chamber, “I would strip search you any day”. No one pulled him up,” she said.

” That’s how they were used to behaving.”

Labour’s Oona King recalled similarly sexualised comments being openly shouted in the House of Commons.

“When we arrived in 1997, it was institutionally sexist. When women would stand up in the chamber, men on the other side would be shouting “Melons! Melons!” while making hand gestures.”

However unacceptable this kind of sexualised catcalling is, a more insidious and sinister side is revealed by former Observer political editor Gaby Hinsliff: “Women MPs would swap notes like “don’t get stuck late in an office with so and so”, and warn women off working with certain MPs – known as “not safe in cabs”.

Similarly, Edwina Currie explained: “There were always two or three men who were notorious.

“You would see them getting into a lift and you would wait for the next lift.

“You didn’t want an argument and you didn’t want to find that when you got to your floor, you were pushing their hand from under your skirt.”

When Blair’s Labour government came to power in 1997, 120 women entered Westminster and it had been hoped that this would be a tipping point ending to the commonplace misogynistic sexism.

The nickname “Blair’s Babes”, however, is indicative of the way they were actually greeted when they arrived.

An academic study which has recorded the experiences of 83 of those MPs from the day that they entered Parliament has revealed a bleak picture of widespread vulgar abuse combined with patronising hostility.

When female MPs weren’t being ‘mistaken’ for secretaries, they were expected to stick to ‘traditionally female’ issues, such as health and education and stay away from the “big guns” both literally and metaphorically speaking.

Glenda Jackson recalled being told by a Conservative MP to “stick to what you know” after speaking on the issue of defence – a subject that only men are qualified to debate on, right?

There were high hopes that “Blair’s Babes” would lead the way for a modernisation of the patriarchal orthodoxies operating within Parliament, but the numbers of women MPs have steadily dropped since then.

In Westminster, only 144 of the 648 Members of Parliament are women.

Of those, the Liberal Democrats can claim just seven.

And the Counting Women In 2013 Sex and Power report found that Britain has fallen behind Iran to 60th in the league table of female political power.

We were 33rd in 2001.

But who can blame women for being reticent about entering this kind of domain when sexist comments have even emanated from the highest echelons of the House?

David Cameron, of course, notoriously described Nadine Dorries MP as “frustrated” and told Angela Eagles MP to “calm down dear“.

Yet while sexism in this workplace should not be a greater surprise than that in the media or the legal system, it is.

Jacqui Hunt, London director of the international human rights organisation Equality Now, pointed out: “As elected public representatives, it is essential that MPs communicate with respect and dignity at all times.

“It is their responsibility to help eliminate rather than reflect harmful gender stereotypes.”

Sadly, however, this is something that many of our “elected public representatives” need reminding about.

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