Women peers and MPs in the UK Parliament

Published 10th August 2016

The elevated social status of peers in the House of Lords might conjure an image of rigid and old-fashioned hierarchy and, more specifically, patriarchy. In contrast, an idealisation of the apparently more modern Commons may create assumptions of equality and fairness between MPs. I went into Parliament with these preconceptions when I carried out ethnographic studies in 1998-2000 in the Lords and 2011-13 in the Commons. But observation of the everyday talk and relationships within the two Houses reveals the opposite: while the Lords have an egalitarian and co-operative ethos, and women thrive in the upper House, the competitive and aggressive Commons is a far less comfortable place for women.

In 1957 the response of some peers to the idea of women being allowed to become members of the House of Lords was unfavourable. Incredibly Earl Ferrers warned,

It is generally accepted, for better or worse, that a man’s judgment is generally more logical and less tempestuous than that of a woman. Why then should we encourage women to eat their way, like acid into metal, into positions of trust and responsibility which previously men have held? If we allow women in this House where will this emancipation end? (1)

By the time of my research, forty years later, women were outperforming men, according to nearly all peers I spoke to. This is unsurprising as they are almost all life peers and would have had to fight their way up male-dominated and often hostile organisations, whether the House of Commons or other workplaces. Memories of earlier male peer hostility were scarcely relevant. All peers tell you that a meritocracy reigns among them with each being judged by their contribution rather than their background or identity. Earl Russell clarified, “peers rise as equals but how they sit is up to them”: all will be listened to with respect in the Chamber but the impression they make depends on how they perform their speeches. (2) Women peers speak with confidence and authority, relishing the courtly style of Lords’ debates where wit, self-deprecation and a light touch are prized above aggression. Women made up 25% of the House in February 2015 but the only two peers attending Cabinet (but without full Cabinet rank) were women – Baroness Stowell of Beeston and Baroness Anelay of St Johns – and one third of the 27 Lords Ministers were female including the Leader of the House. In 2014 while only 20% of government Ministers in the Commons were female, 30% in the Lords were. The first two Lord Speakers have been female and and since the House of Lords Appointments Commission was established in 2000, 36% of its appointed cross-bench peers have been women. Women seem to attend more often than men; the House of Lords reports that in recent sessions while women peers attended 70 per cent of possible sitting days, men attended only 60 per cent. (3) Nothing compels backbench peers to be in the House, aside from peer pressure, so those with dependents or time-consuming responsibilities outside the House are less disadvantaged than in most public organisations.

In the House of Commons the situation is reversed. The male: female ratio of MPs has been moving towards equality but remains absurdly unrepresentative of the population at 71:29. In almost every site of work for MPs, women face difficulties. Although women MPs perform with confidence in deliberative debates, select committees and in constituencies, they are not at ease in the most public rituals, the gladiatorial verbal battles such as Prime Minister’s Question Time. Resisting the aggression is hard. One woman MP explained,

You have MPs banked up in front of you and MPs banked up behind you and when you speak – for example, at Question Time – the mass of noise can be overwhelming. If you fail, then your side will leave with their heads down.

So women may want to perform differently; they may feel inauthentic, but the pressure to conform to aggression can be irresistible for many. In informal meetings too women MPs in all parties have observed that in a mixed gender group when women are outnumbered, which is the norm in Westminster, then various exclusion mechanisms come into play. A woman can make a point that is ignored but when repeated by a man gets the response, “that is brilliant!” MPs tend to refer to the ideas voiced by male MPs, especially those in more prominent positions, which reinforces the impression that they are the ones with the best ideas. Sarah Childs’ research with women MPs supports the idea that the way women behave puts them at a disadvantage. In the adversarial world of politics, you have to promote yourself as an individual and self-promotion is considered appropriate behaviour for men while women tend to be socialised into diffidence (2004: 10). (4)

Political candidates have to deploy huge amounts of time in inflexible and anti-social ways into campaigning and winning support within the party as well as within constituencies. This is a serious disincentive to those women with dependents who have no other significant source of income. When in Parliament the sitting hours have become more ‘family friendly’ but working hours for MPs get longer and longer each year, with the regularity of visits to constituencies requiring most to split their week between two homes during parliamentary terms. It can’t be a coincidence that 45 per cent of men in Parliament have children while only 28 per cent of women do. (5) In 2010 the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, the new body that administers MPs’ expenses, reduced the finance available for family members to travel between their two homes. So specific forms of time and financial pressure may discourage women going into politics in the first place and once they are there, they report that coping with family separation, running two homes and caring for dependents create pressure.

Lobby journalists, who are also over-represented by men, are drawn to develop close working relationships with male MPs. They tend to refer to the male MPs as the cerebral, clever and promising ones, while women are subject to personal jibes and patronizing assessments. (6) Whether female or male, hacks can be strangely obsessed with women’s appearance. If women MPs are plain or badly dressed then they are assumed to be bitter; if they are beautiful they must be dim; and if well-dressed then seen as frivolous. If men are criticised, it tends to be their behavior not their capabilities that come under scrutiny: their drinking, affairs or greed, all playing into a stereotype of dissolute male politicians. The denigration of women MPs by journalists is tame compared to the misogyny directed at them on social media. The comments in cyberspace, where people hide behind easy anonymity, can be threatening and violent not only to the women themselves but those close to them. MPs reported that the negative press and hurt and damage to their families was a major disincentive to staying in Parliament. (7)

The only area where women seem more at ease than men is constituency work. All MPs do policy work and canvassing in their constituencies. But some men are less likely to do huge numbers of surgery meetings. In contrast women are more likely to describe this advocacy type work for individuals and families as the most satisfying part of their work. It is mostly middle-class MPs representing the interests of their often working-class constituents to the state, either national or local. (Better off people employ lawyers or accountants.) This work has value and women not only do it willingly but with consummate skill, using their abilities to listen, show empathy and express sympathy. Some men take this work seriously as well as but the only MPs I could find who rarely or never attend surgeries seemed to be male. For those few, their ambition was to get a job in government or hold it to account; glorified social work, as it is called by some, was a distraction. They delegate this surgery work to caseworkers who tend to be young women. It is perhaps revealing that Labour MP Paul Flynn says of this relationship, ‘The MP should be the living embodiment of the constituency, tirelessly promoting and defending the territory with the ferocity of a mother protecting her offspring.’ (8) So are women MPs (and caseworkers) retreating to a less powerful, caring domain that sounds somewhat reminiscent of their still more dominant caring role within families in wider society? Or, are they showing the way ahead for any MP striving to be effective?

The lingering assumption is that the norm for MPs is to be a white man; women, and especially black or working class women, are treated as if they are space invaders, as Nirmal Puwar puts it. (9) The predominance of male MPs recreates this assumption as a reality. Women face fewer constraints in the Lords than the Commons but it is the lower House that is more visible and has both the formal and informal power in the eyes of the nation. It is women MPs we are watching and since they can only open up possibilities for women if women grab those opportunities, we – women in all our diversity – owe it to the women grappling with exhausting pressures in the competitive Commons, and to ourselves, to jump into the fray. With new ideas for taking action towards a more inclusive and representative Parliament, recently published by Sarah Childs, and considerable support within the House of Commons, this is the time to do it. (10)

Written by Emma Crewe.

(1) Earl Ferrers, HL Debates, 3 December 1957, vol. CCVI, col. 709-10.
(2) E. Crewe, 2005, Lords of Parliament, Manners, rituals and politics (Manchester University Press) p.106.
(3) Ibid, p. 17.
(4) Sarah Childs, 2004, ‘A feminised style of politics? women MPs in the House of Commons’, British Journal of Politics and International Relations, vol. 6, p.10.
(5) Rosie Campbell and Sarah Childs, 2014, ‘Parents in Parliament: ‘Where’s Mum?’”, Political Quarterly vol. 85, issue 4, pp. 487-492.
(6) E. Crewe, 2015, House of Commons, An Anthropology of MPs at Work (Bloomsbury), p. 173-4
(7) Ibid, pp. 174-5.
(8) Paul Flynn, How To Be An MP (Biteback Publishing, 2012), p. 138.
(9) Nirmal Puwar, Space Invaders: Race, Gender and Bodies Out of Place (Berg, 2004).
(10) Sarah Childs, The Good Parliament, University of Bristol, http://www.bristol.ac.uk/media-library/sites/news/2016/july/20%20Jul%20Prof%20Sarah%20Childs%20The%20Good%20Parliament%20report.pdf, accessed 1 st August 2016.

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