Sexism and harassment: Women in politics

Women are constantly told who represents them.

Whether it’s the idea that we should vote for Hillary Clinton because of her gender, that the Labour party are the only party standing up for women or that we should be anti-Brexit simply because we are women. When it comes to politics we have it very different to our male counterparts. Plenty of investigations have been conducted into sexism within politics, specifically Westminster, and whilst the results conclude every time the same thing very little has actually been achieved to change it. Parties are very focused on the numbers game and more should be done to support activists when working towards or in power. Don’t let the two female Prime Ministers fool you, sexism in politics, especially ground level politics, is still very much alive and kicking and it is an issue none of the three largest parties have yet been able to tackle.

Misogyny is almost a daily occurrence for Sophie Malby Law Society Finance Director, Blue Beyond Member and local youth activist. Sophie has been involved in politics since the age of 11 after being elected a Breckland youth councillor but has recently become heavily involved in local politics since moving to university in September 2018. She explained to me that she feels gender discrimination comes in many forms and that, “some are less noticeable for the opposite sex”. Often within local politics women, especially young women, find their voices silenced or devalued. Your success is down to your looks, your presence is because of your gender. Sophie recalled some recent examples of when she has experienced this, it usually comes as “I let you win that argument because you're cute. I’ve even been told to ‘stay quiet sweetheart, the men are talking’ and worst of all ‘I’ll listen to your opinions on criminal justice reforms over drinks’”. Another young Conservative tells me that working as a Parliamentary Assistant and being a young female in charge of the local constituency office “an older man simply did not believe me when I said I was the only one there and that any issues he had would have to be put to me”. She also told me that she’s also felt uncomfortable around male constituents and when raising her concerns her male colleagues they haven’t really understood them.

There is often clear double standard amongst men and women which is definitely seen within politics. If a woman is bossy, a man is powerful, if a woman is weak, a man is compassionate. One Councillor, who has chosen to remain anonymous, highlighted these double standards saying, “I have always felt that I am labelled opinionated, rude, blunt, argumentative or words to that effect far quicker than male counterparts making the exact same case in the exact same manner as me.”. There is a different vocabulary for men and women across society. Your success is questioned by how pretty you are or by how much you deserve, a man can react and a woman can only overreact. One former councillor in rural South East England described to me the gender based discrimination she faced when serving on the Overview and Scrutiny Committee. “Following the removal of the previous chair the leader of the council asked for recommendations and my name was given. He then replied, ‘Over my dead body am I letting that woman anywhere near committee chair’” she told me.

Leena Sarah Farhat said that “it's no secret that women and politics do experience a fair amount of discrimination. I'm guilty of being the double edge sword when it comes to gender discrimination because not only am I a woman I am a young woman. I have been told in the past by constituents and even by people in the party people going ‘Oh are you the candidate's daughter’ or people saying that I forget all about this silly dream of being elected to represent the people that I care about simply because one day I will ‘find my Prince charming and that will distract me’.” both of which are said to her by party members and people she’s talked to while campaigning. As well as gender and aged based prejudice, Leena told me about the racial discrimination she faces. As a passionate campaigner for rural affairs and Wales its no wonder that Leena has been selected as as the Liberal Democrat candidate in Carmarthenshire East and Dinefwr. When talking about her aims for selection one person told her that she would be better suited to a city seat because “no one can tell where I was from and I had a more cosmopolitan look about me”. More recently when out campaigning Leena experienced racial abuse from a fellow activist calling her ‘a coconut head’ and that her ‘type should not be active in Wales’.

Sexism is present across all levels of politics and female MPs have no escape from it. Most notably male MPs and female MPs are treated very differently by the press. It is often forgotten that Diane Abbott attended the University of Cambridge and despite her reputation of a few car crash interviews she is a very intelligent and bright MP. Every MP must have an interview they’d rather slipped away from existence, even Phillip Hammond who was Chancellor at the time of interview, miscalculated the cost of HS2 by a mere £20 billion. But obviously we don’t talk about that. It is no secret that Theresa May faced systemic sexism by many of her colleagues and the press. Whether its many of her fellow politicians shocked that she had such ambition to climb the political ladder despite her decision to be an MP before she was a teenager or party leaders calling her a ‘stupid woman’, Theresa Mays premiership is the perfect case of modern sexism. Both Theresa May and David Cameron welled up at the end of their resignation speeches, headlines of Cameron’s tears focused more on his wife’s emotions. Moreover, May’s tears made countless headlines and became the butt of the joke. If a male weeps he is a patriot and dedicated to the country he loves. If a woman does they laugh and ask why.

Not only does it result down to blatant double standards within party politics, it is fair to suggest that no party has a robust complaints system in place for reporting such issues. It is also often difficult to determine when to raise awareness of persistent inappropriate or uncomfortable messaging. Furthermore, in reporting such an issue theres concern of the political harm speaking out could cause.

When asked of the changes needed to help end any incidents of discrimination the same answer shone throughout, creating an open, positive political sphere for open and critical debate.

For Sophie, she believes we have to destroy the us vs them narrative, “it drives the country to the extremes of views and it allows us to degrade and dehumanise each other which does not foster healthy debate or compromise,”. Opening up political debate must occur in Westminster across the political spectrum, There needs to be collaborative effort to create a space or medium outside Westminster where this can happen. “I think that in my party we are very proud of our diversity and try and celebrate it. it is actually one of the reasons that I made the choice to join the Liberal Democrats. but I think that there needs to be more support for diverse candidates especially in the devolved administrations of Scotland and Wales.” Leena tells me.

Most responses indicated that party complaints systems all need an intense makeover. Often the complaints systems do not work in favour of the victims with one woman telling me, “My own complaint was regarded as closed when the culprit wrote me a letter containing the words ‘I’m sorry you feel you had to resign’. That’s not an apology but complaints insisted it was”. She believes part of the solution is to recruit newer and younger members and re-introduce open primaries for candidate selection as it will help open up the decision to a more representative demographic.

If we are to shape a political scene where our daughters and granddaughters don’t even think twice about the harassment they’ll endure online, the sexism within the office and the prejudice out canvassing we must do more to create it. All of the main parties have to assess and adapt their complaints system because they are not working. The women mentioned above don’t allow this discrimination to get to them and instead use it as fuel to continue fighting the battle to ensure we create an environment that pushes anyone of any gender to achieve anything.

We must all work together to get the next and current generation of women into politics and never have to hear them say 'me too' again.

by Ellie Varley

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