Patronised, Talked Down To And Harassed: Parliament's Boys' Club Culture Laid Bare

Exclusive: HuffPost UK spoke to 40 female MPs about what needs to change.

Female MPs have revealed the stark reality of their daily battles against sexism, bullying and discrimination in Parliament, with 30% reporting having experienced sexual harassment and half saying they have been bullied.

HuffPost UK spoke to 40 women politicians in the midst of the widening row over sexual harassment across different sectors and industries, and after the forced departure of cabinet ministers Damian Green and Michael Fallon following allegations about their behaviour.

We asked women MPs of all parties, frontbench and backbench, to tell us about their experiences in Parliament and what, if anything, they think needs to be done to improve the culture.

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Of the 40 responses from the 208 women MPs surveyed, three in ten said they had personally experienced sexual harassment.

Just over half said they had been bullied in their role as an MP and 40% said they had reported or received a complaint about inappropriate or bullying behaviour.

Over half who responded said the culture was worse in Parliament than in their previous careers and 57.5% believe it is harder to get things done as a woman in Parliament.

Many recounted experiences during their work at the heart of Westminster that paint a picture of a Parliament mired in sexism. The responses were anonymised to ensure participants were able to speak frankly.

One Tory backbencher described Westminster as “a foul place to work if you are a woman”.

Others portrayed their daily battles. “I think you have to work harder as a woman,” one new MP told us. “My predecessor, who was male, never experienced what I am having to go through.

“I have been attacked, bullied, told I don’t know what I am talking about and continuously challenged.

“It’s become a personal attack and evidence of misogynistic views. As a woman, I am supposed to put up with this - but I won’t.”

Female Labour MPs
Female Labour MPs
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A former shadow minister said she had experienced both bullying and sexual harassment directly, including “lewd, unwanted comments” about her appearance.

Another reported encountering prejudice almost as soon as she walked through the door upon being elected.

“In my very first week as an MP, one of the Lords asked me ‘which MP do you work for dear?’ and then made a comment about how we’re getting younger all the time, despite the fact I was in my 40s at that point,” she said.

“I think gradually things will evolve, but it’s unrealistic to think it will change overnight. It’s been a man’s world here for so many years.”

A senior Labour MP added: “I have always worked in male-dominated industries and suffered sexual abuse in my first ever full time job.

“Parliament has more men than I have ever worked with, so the abuse can be worse.”

While some MPs surveyed had been approached with details of complaints from Commons staff, and supported those affected, many said the sheer volume of incidents directed at them personally meant they would usually not bother reporting them.

One new member said: “There are some men who use their positions to attack you while seeking their own personal agendas. I think what’s surprised me most is those with their own egotistical views, who cannot deal with being challenged and proven wrong and then resort to misogynistic behaviour.”

Former defence secretary Michael Fallon was forced to resign
Former defence secretary Michael Fallon was forced to resign
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More than half of respondents said they felt the culture in Westminster was worse than in their previous careers - although several formerly in high-stress, high-profile professions felt it was about the same.

One seasoned politician said that during her time in the Commons women have struggled to be taken seriously.

“There remains a sense that it is harder for women to be heard unless they are in a particular government job,” she revealed.

“Also, women will be mocked and disparaged on social media far more than men - compare the treatment meted out to Diane Abbott with that experienced by Boris Johnson when they make mistakes in the public domain.”

HuffPost UK Survey Of Women MPs

Have you ever experienced sexual harassment in your work as an MP?
No: 70%, Yes: 30%

Have you ever experienced bullying in your work as an MP?
No: 42.5%, Yes: 57.5%

Have you ever reported a complaint, or had complaints reported to you?
No: 62.5%, Yes 37.5%

Is the culture relating to harassment and bullying better or worse in Parliament than in your previous careers?
Better or no different: 47.5%, Worse: 52.5%,

Have you seen a change in the number of incidents, or general culture, since allegations were raised?
Yes: 50%, No 50%

Do you feel it’s harder to get things done as a woman in Parliament?
Yes: 57.5%, No: 42.5%

What needs to change in Westminster to improve the culture?
Nearly eight out of ten said more women must be elected.

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.”

The problems were brought into sharp focus late last year, with the departure of Green and Fallon.

It forced a beleaguered Theresa May to undertake a cabinet reshuffle when Parliament returned from the Christmas recess.

Theresa May has pledged to tackle sexual harassment in Parliament
Theresa May has pledged to tackle sexual harassment in Parliament
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One female Conservative reported that the reshuffle itself had prompted some Tory MPs to voice their prejudices.

“The recent appointment of a large group of female whips has resulted in the usual comments along the lines of ‘only promoted because she’s got tits’ and ‘if a girl like ****** thinks they are going to be able to tell me how to vote they can think again’,” she told us.

“Every time there is a reshuffle, the comments about female colleagues being promoted because of gender are numerous, and this time - even coming so close behind the recent scandals - was no better. It is a foul place to work if you are a woman.”

Some of the MPs surveyed felt people had become “more mindful” of their behaviour since Fallon and Green’s exit, but more than half of those we spoke to said they had seen no significant change.

Leonid Andronov

Many of the MPs offered ideas for improving the culture. “Stop the drinking in the bars,” a younger member told us, backing up the findings of a recent report highlighting the problems with Westminster’s drinking culture.

Others called for social media companies to take swifter, sharper action against those who peddle online hatred towards female politicians, while several backed calls for an independent complaints body to be set up, as recommended in a recent report on the issue commissioned by Commons leader Andrea Leadsom.

“At present, the hyper-politicised nature of harassment complaints - death by tabloid - actively prevents valid complainants from coming forward, and creates an unjust and sometimes disproportionate response,” said one respondent.

“Natural justice must be available to both the complainant and the alleged perpetrator.”

There is a consensus across the spectrum that parties should not use the issue for political gain. However, one person told us she “cannot take the PM seriously” over her promise to tackle sexual harassment in the wake of Toby Young’s controversial appointment and subsequent resignation from a government-run universities watchdog.

“Something that really concerns me is that individual parties are still trying to slope shoulders and suggest it’s worse in some parties than others,” an MP of three years said.

“That really angers me. I have had terrible abuse from some activists but this cannot be party political - it has to be around empowerment.”

Toby Young was criticised for his sexist comments
Toby Young was criticised for his sexist comments
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Others warned against focusing on too narrow an issue, pointing out that bullying of staff and non-gendered harassment - including that experienced by men, who may be less likely to come forward - are also vital issues.

“In all honesty, the worst treatment I have had in Parliament has actually been from other women,” said one.

“I have found some women to be deeply disappointing and say inappropriate things. I wouldn’t go as far as calling it bullying though because I just laugh it off and get on with my day.

“One example from two prominent women was ‘we’ve been talking about you at dinner just now and saying that you seem to be good at lots of things. We’ve decided, there has to be something wrong with you, so you must just be a shit mother’.”

But the vast majority of those surveyed, around eight out of ten, agree on the one most important step in changing Westminster: Elect more women and make it easier for them to do the job.

“We need to set an example to the country that women must be treated equally and fairly, and to stop objectifying us,” said a Labour MP.

Another added: “I am a single mum with two children at high school age. I do not have the added advantage of a partner to support me at home.

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“The way Parliament works with late votes and debates does not help in balancing home and Parliamentary life.

“The more welcoming Parliament is for women, the more women we can attract to the role – which in turn will stamp out the culture of sexual harassment in Westminster.”

Andrew Bazeley, policy and insight manager at the Fawcett Society, which lobbies for female representation, said: “It’s time for the culture in Westminster to change – sexual harassment and sexism in Parliament cannot be allowed to go unchecked.

“The stories we have heard since the scandal broke are shocking. To tackle them we need to see an independent complaints procedure, real support for victims, and real sanctions for MPs or staff who harass.”

Additional reporting by Owen Bennett, Rachel Wearmouth, Kathryn Snowdon, Jack Sommers and Ned Simons.


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