Commentators' views: Is Parliament sexist?

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Allegations of sexually inappropriate behaviour by former Lib Dem chief executive Lord Rennard have led to wider questions being asked about the level of sexism in Parliament.

The allegations, which Lord Rennard denies, were first broadcast on Channel 4 News last Thursday.

Writing in the Daily Telegraph, Channel 4 News presenter Cathy Newman, who interviewed women who claimed the peer had inappropriately propositioned them, says the problem isn't just confined to the Lib Dems - sexism in politics is "endemic" making Westminster "a potentially hostile environment for women".

She writes: "Perhaps it is too much to hope that one story might help change politicians' attitudes towards women. But let's be honest, those attitudes badly need to change. And it is not just the Liberal Democrats who have a problem - which perhaps explains why Labour has been relatively quiet about Mr Clegg's troubles in the last few days

Start Quote

It is not to do with looks, or even age - it is to do with power”

End Quote Vera Baird Former Labour MP

"I was a political correspondent, based in the Westminster lobby, for more than a decade before I started presenting Channel 4 News. I can vouch for the fact that it is a male-dominated environment, reminiscent of a public school or an Oxbridge college. And yes, there was the odd instance of sexism directed at me: the peer who sent salacious texts; the MP who assumed I was a secretary because I was a woman."

It's not a problem that hasn't been raised before. Writing for the magazine Total Politics at the end of last year by blogger Felicity Parkes (not her real name), who works for a Conservative MP, says "one has to put up with a lot of nonsense to make it in politics, and sadly that often includes leering employers or party grandees".

Nicholas Watt in The Guardian says the problem is common, with "many women" at Westminster, from MPs to lobbyists to journalists, complaining of "neanderthal behaviour among prominent parliamentarians".

He quotes an anonymous woman explaining the particular difficulties for those working for political parties: "It is power. They know they have embarrassed you when they make a sordid lurch and try to kiss you. Women journalists can scream at these dreadful men. But it is much more difficult for women hoping to become MPs who work for the parties."

An anonymous party worker writing in the Financial Times agrees, saying the allegations have prompted many women in Westminster to "reflect on the culture 'within the bubble'".

Since starting work in Westminster in 1996, she says she has been "propositioned by members of all three parties, a couple of journalists, a senior Number 10 adviser, party donors, one or two MPs and a handful of peers". These have included "bottom patting, innuendo and blatant suggestions".

Lord Rennard Lord Rennard has described the allegations against him as a "total distortion" of his character

She raises concerns about those who feel they must "openly flirt with grey old men" in order to get on and says there should be systems in place to make sure the "discretion and loyalty required to be successful in politics" is not taken advantage of.

Vera Baird, Labour's former Solicitor General and now the Police and Crime Commissioner for Northumbria, says "there is a culture of women being patronised in politics, and men in positions of power using that position to get sexual favours".

"By no means is every man like this, of course," she writes on the Guardian website. "But as certain figures become more important and egos get bigger, there is a sense that they have a sort of sexual power."

And she says "there are several well-known sexual predators in the Commons whose office will always be staffed by young women".

"It is not to do with looks, or even age - it is to do with power."

Rachel Sylvester in The Times agrees that the story has more to do with power and the abuse of position than sex. "All political parties have their share of lecherous lords and misbehaving MPs," she writes.

Others acknowledge the world of politics is "boozy, male-dominated, gossipy" and "not for cissies", but say they have "never felt harassed".

Tony Balir and Female MPs elected in 1997 In 1997 the number of women MPs doubled from 60 to 120

Writing anonymously in The Times, one woman who has worked on the fringes of politics and at party conferences describes her experiences of unwanted advances by male companions, but says they were more "crass" than "aggressive or threatening".

"I don't miss those days, but strange to say, I did enjoy them," she writes. "In my experience it was harmless, robust, often alcohol-fuelled fun."

For Labour parliamentary researcher Sadie Smith on her Total Politics blog, "titillating twittering about Parliamentary naughty times with sexually feral researchers on the lookout to attract a powerful politician with a quivering thigh" is not only an assumption based on no evidence, it masks the real problem for MPs' staff - there is no independent way for them to register any grievance, sexual or otherwise, against their boss.

"The real problem lies with the personal power that MPs have over their staff," she says. "Bag-carriers are employed by their boss who is their line manager, HR department, and chief executive. If we have a problem with our employer, we have nowhere to go."

And workplace sexism isn't just confined to politicians. The media is also in the spotlight, with several female columnists writing about their experience of sexism in this male-dominated workplace.

In The Times, Sarah Vine says "newspapers are - and always have been - hotbeds of dodgy sexual behaviour" while Grace Dent in The Independent says she has "been acquainted with a few truly spectacular human octopuses" over the years, but admits she has never made a formal complaint.

But in the Daily Mail Sarah Parsons argues that the media culture is changing: "Most women in most newsrooms are no longer in fear of having their bottoms patted or of a friendly smile being misinterpreted as a sexual come-on."

Former Lib Dem employee Eduardo Reyes, who is now features editor at the Law Gazette, says the allegations show the danger of a wider malaise about workplace harassment.

"We shouldn't think that just because we know women who can 'handle themselves' and, who while being disgusted by an unpleasant experience, get past it, that one might as well put up with a culture where complaints are ignored or not looked at, and serial sleazeballs are seen as 'characters'," he says.

"The problem with even 'low-level' boorish, leering, groping, propositioning, persistent, harassing behaviour is not just the unpleasantness. It invariably goes hand in hand with a lack of respect for those harassed."

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