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Women in Politics: Who set the House rules?

by | Nov 21, 2017 | The Agenda

It’s a strange feature of politics that representative institutions – the pinnacle of our democracies – seem to lack the capacity to think through workplace, employment, cultural sensitivity and grievance procedures that would be commonplace in many other settings. 

The assault and harassment scandal that has engulfed Hollywood spread to the UK Parliament in October, and continues to this day with signs of a political system that has become frozen by allegations of assault and harassment by male MPs. One prominent cabinet minister has had to resign over his predatory behavior; other cases await further investigation.  But above all, what has emerged is a Parliament that lacks the procedures and processes to deal with these issues effectively.

the UK Parliament and political parties were staggeringly unprepared to deal with these matters

As Labour MP Jess Phillips puts it, the UK Parliament and political parties were staggeringly unprepared to initially face up to and then deal with these matters.  Allegations were dealt with in a highly charged and toxic manner and there appeared to be no mechanisms in place to deal with them.  Women MPs showed solidarity in dealing with the issues across the political divide and most men were supportive. 

jess phillips 2

Labour MP Jess Phillips

However, some male MPs and media pundits cried ‘witch-hunt’, or complained that these things happen in every workplace and that there are no rules that can be put in place to deal with it; women just need to learn to cope.   As noted by Phillips: “It’s as if every single public and voluntary sector employer in the land doesn’t already have a perfectly simple safeguarding policy in place. Where did these people come from?”. 

The answer to her exasperated question: they come from a political class that is largely focused on internal conflict, position-seeking and promoting interests and values they support. Men have dominated politics and created a club atmosphere suited to themselves – but not others. So, let’s add to the demand for equal representation of women in politics a demand that political institutions think through how to develop more gender appropriate working practices. Sarah Childs, a UK academic from Bristol University, undertook  embedded research in the UK parliament and came up with a fascinating report on the how to reform working culture and procedures in the UK’s Houses of Parliament.  

they come from a political class that is largely focused on internal conflict, position-seeking and promoting interests and values they support

The details of the report relate to the particular circumstances of the UK, but its broad areas of concern could be of interest for Parliaments around the world – Australia included. Four can be highlighted: the building and fabric of Parliaments need to be made suitable to meet the needs of a more diverse group of elected representatives and those concerns stretch from appropriate toilet facilities; accessibility needs; private rooms to allow for confidential exchanges with visitors; and open spaces and public meeting rooms that have a welcoming and non-intimidating atmosphere.

Secondly, the working conditions of Parliaments should meet the needs of the twenty-first century and not be bound to traditions and practices of history. These include the working hours of parliament; the provision of crèche and other facilities; stricter rules of the timings of breaks to allow for planning for child care in the context of family life; the ability of representatives  to vote by proxy while on leave dealing with child care or adult care emergencies;  expenses that relate not only to the travel and accommodation costs of representatives but the additional burdens of social care or child care that they might have to incur; and the possibility of job sharing (read a BroadAgenda blog on this topic here).

Thirdly, direct and clear procedures for dealing with equal representation of women on committees and working parties within Parliament are required.    

Finally, under the broad heading of workplace culture, we need to deal with issues of bullying, verbal abuse and of course the emerging evidence of sexual harassment and assault. A workplace should be a safe place for all.

Uk Parliament small

The atmosphere and culture of politics appear alien to many citizens

These arguments for reform are simply about asking Parliaments to live up to the standards that they are increasingly expecting of others. In addition, they also go to the heart of why so many reasonable adults would think you were insane if you suggested they take on the role of an elected representative.  The atmosphere and culture of politics just appear alien to many citizens.

We cannot expect a shift towards more diverse and representative parliaments unless these underlying conditions of working practices and culture are addressed.  Moreover, addressing these issues  would  give us an opportunity to close the current trust gap between politicians and public. If our elected representatives were required to work and behave in settings a bit more like the rest of us, we might not come to love them, but we might see them as less weird and more approachable. 


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