Sexism in politics – why didn’t the politicians sort this out earlier?


Getting my head around the institutions too.

It’s difficult to know where to start with this one. I’m going to do so by paying tribute to the Everyday Sexism project team for raising awareness of sexual harassment in society by encouraging people to post their experiences on a single website. Just the sheer volume was something I found to be overwhelming, and made me ask a lot of questions about myself as a man. These ranged from whether I was guilty of sexist behaviour in the past to how was it that I and other men were completely oblivious to what our fellow human beings have to put up with. This is what some female political commentators say about Parliament. How many of those in positions of power were aware? If they were aware, what did they do to tackle it?

The reason why what the Everyday Sexism project has done is important is that to solve a problem, you first need to acknowledge that it exists. In politics, it is all too politically expedient to pretend that a problem does not exist. If it doesn’t exist, you don’t need to take action to solve it. Tony Blair and the north-south divide myth? Diversity issues in the Fast Stream? As one of the few non-White people to make it onto the Fast Stream I found this statistic to be an absolute outrage. Is the civil service really saying that there are no people from Black Caribbean backgrounds who are talented enough to get onto the Fast Stream? Or are they saying that their methods of recruitment are still so flawed that they cannot persuade people from more diverse backgrounds to apply?

“But Pooffles, you have to have a thick skin if you’re going to survive in this business”

The thing is, we have this abstract theoretical concept called “the law”. The reason why in the world of politics it is even more important that it is upheld is that politics is the process through which new laws are made. If politicians can’t abide by the laws that they pass, what’s the point of it all?

Not everyone has a thick skin. I don’t. Every day I am crushed by the symptoms of this anxiety disorder. I wouldn’t survive five minutes in the world of party politics, so I dread to think what it must be like for those that have thrown themselves into that world who are not in any position of power and do not have the support networks or connections to help protect them from those that abuse their positions.

One of the things the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives in particular need to ask themselves is how much talent have they lost as a result of the sexist behaviour of some of their members? That goes for all political parties in fact. One of the reasons why affluent White males in the world of politics struggle to empathise with people who have been discriminated against on grounds completely outside of the victims’ control (gender, orientation, ethnicity and so on) is that they rarely find themselves in a situation where they have faced such institutional barriers. This is reflected by the whining of some who have tried to adopt the language of the victim.

“Institutional barriers?”

Let’s go back to the Fast Stream. Several years ago I was a member of the FDA Union – simply because when I was promoted onto the Fast Stream they were the ones negotiating my pay. (I remained a PCS Union member throughout this time, thus paying two sets of trade union subscriptions!) Through the unions, I met with Cabinet Office and persuaded them to switch the focus of some of their events away from the traditional universities and towards those that score highly in their diversity statistics – in particular those that they might not have targeted before. After all, the data is there.

My point is that students at ex-polytechnics/new universities are less likely to go to careers events in established/old universities than vice-versa. That and the new universities are less likely to have the history of the connections that the older universities have – especially on things like guest speakers. I see this all the time at its most extreme in my home town – Cambridge. This can range from Anglia Ruskin students simply not being aware that many Cambridge University student societies are open to them to not having people like former cabinet secretaries as academics in their institutions. With many friends and acquaintances past and present being at or having graduated from Cambridge, and being a former post-graduate student at Anglia, I’ve got a feel for the differences in opportunities (and awareness of them) that one side has over the other has.

“What’s this got to do with politics?”

Everything. As the brilliant Cathy Newman said in The Telegraph:

I can vouch for the fact that it is a male-dominated environment, reminiscent of a public school or an Oxbridge college.

In my book, this means Cambridge University – and its colleges – are part of the problem. Perhaps even more so with Oxford given its reputation and track record of PPE graduates getting into high office. It means that public schools are part of the problem. If women are complaining that the sexism in Westminster and politics in general reflects public schools and oxbridge, then a huge spotlight needs to be shone in the direction of those institutions, dragging the heads, senior tutors and housemasters into the public light and asking awkward questions of them. Because their failure to educate the boys in their care is having a knock-on impact on the rest of society.

“But Pooffles! Sir Humphrey says that this simply won’t do! This will undermine some of our finest establishments in the country!”

It’s the behaviour of these so-called finest establishments that is undermining the prospects of, and damaging about half of the people in the country on the basis of their gender alone.

That in part is where it’s all too easy to respond with rhetoric and ignore what are some of the underlying institutional problems. Remember the knots the politicians are tying themselves up in with equal marriage? Part of the problem there is that it is forcing some of them to pull on a thread they don’t want to pull on, because they know it will open a can of worms on constitutional reform that they don’t like. Discuss marriage & the position of the Church of England is scrutinised. Then the position of bishops in the Lords is scrutinised…which leads onto Lords reform which highlights the hereditary peers…which then brings into question the hereditary principle thus undermining the royals. Great if your disposition is similar to mine, but not if you are a ‘traditionalist’.

So…how do we solve a problem like sexism in politics?

By keeping up the pressure and speaking out for a start. One tweet from Puffles started a very long Twitter exchange between Lib Dem President Tim Farron and a whole host of other Lib Dems on female representation within the party.

While Labour has a longer tradition of promoting women, the problems it has are its oppressive structures that seem to inhibit all but the most compliant lobby fodder from reaching the point where they can be selected as candidates for Parliament. That was the criticism of the ‘Blair Babes’ – yes, I hate that term too. Yet with Labour, they have far greater potential because they have a far wider and deeper talent pool from which to select. It was from this pool that the likes of Stella Creasy emerged.

At a wider level, the challenge for political parties is how they can change their systems and processes to allow people of all talents to rise to the top, rather than being dependent on the patronage of connections or big hitters. The Green Party have started a ’30 under 30′ programme, which I’m keeping a distant eye on – having met a fair few of them too. Labour too have a vibrant women’s network from which to build on – but that alone won’t solve the problem. It’s one thing giving people a voice. It’s another thing giving them the power to influence policy and strategy.

What’s the role of men in this?

Well…this is one of the things that I’ve been trying to get my head around. Beyond us individually changing our behaviours, what more can and/or should men do collectively to deal with the problems of sexism and sexual harassment?

Interested in your thoughts – in particular on the question in the final paragraph.



One thought on “Sexism in politics – why didn’t the politicians sort this out earlier?

  1. It’s great to see men addressing some of these issues, and Puffles as a non-gender specific baby dragon might give us unique insight into this!

    Some thoughts: women are 51% of the population, and to change our collective and political cultures we need the majority of our culture to understand, accept, and cede to our demands for equality. This means lots of women, and lots of men. We women would appreciate if men took time to understand their roles as male allies of feminist women, and that’s something that men can work out, with help from women who feel able to.

    One of the things that bugs me is the lack of diversity on Today, Question Time, PMQ’s etc etc. I would really like it if more men who were approached to represent their views on these platforms asked the organisers what they were doing to ensure a diverse representation of views? This includes seeking the expertise of people who are less often heard: women, people of colour, LGBT*QI people, the whole gamut of fabulous human variation. For instance, why have I heard 4 men on Today discussing abortion? It’s a scandal that no-one said that this wasn’t balanced, and demanded the production team came up with better guest choices.

    My feminism isn’t just about freeing women and men from the gendered expectations of society, it’s about enabling a process that admits and recognises the skills and resources that a more diverse group possess: and using them to our mutual benefit. That’s why my feminism is intersectional- it includes addressing all the other oppressions in society.

    Sorry, rather over-long comment. Thanks for the convo x

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