NS interview - Caroline Spelman and Sarah Teather

Caroline Spelman, 46, has been MP for the rural West Midlands seat of Meriden since 1997. A former Conservative party whip, she is shadow secretary of state for local and devolved government affairs. She is married with three children, aged between ten and 14.

'Women are still very much in the minority at Westminster and that does have an impact. The whole tradition of politics is intrinsically male - it is adversarial and depends very heavily on oratorical skills. All of these things play to male strengths. Gradually the culture is changing, but it's quite slow.

I find that my style of debate and the way I prefer to do things is to build

a bridge on what we have in common rather than to be adversarial all the time. I think women are turned off by politicians slagging each other off. Certainly I don't find that attractive, so I don't do it.

People say, "How can you do your job and support your family?" but I think they miss the point that your children help you to keep your feet on the ground. It doesn't matter how dramatic the scenes have been at Westminster, the children just want to know what time you'll be home and what's for tea. The other thing people don't spot is that parliament is on an academic routine. The year has three terms - recesses are not holidays per se, but you are in charge of your diary. So politicians and children feel they're on the same rhythm. It helps tremendously in our household. Although if parliament breaks up a day before school, there's all hell to pay.'

Sarah Teather, 30, took the former Labour stronghold of Brent East for the Liberal Democrats in a 2003 by-election, with a swing of 29 per cent. Before becoming an MP, she worked for Macmillan Cancer Relief as health and social policy adviser. She is currently the youngest MP in the Commons.

'Politics is without doubt a relatively macho culture. It's definitely male-dominated: I had difficulty getting selected for seats in the earlier part of my career. Politics requires you to be authoritative, and people have a perception that authority is about being a tall, middle-aged man. As a small young woman, I found that difficult to overcome but not impossible. You find ways around it. There are advantages. I've probably had an exposure and a profile that I wouldn't have had if I were a man and certainly wouldn't if I had been older. In my constituency, people know who I am because I look a bit different.

I'm not sure I agree that you have to operate as a man in politics. I operate as myself, and that includes the fact that I am a woman, but it is not the only thing that defines me. I deal with things in my own way, am very single-minded and driven. Those are supposed to be male characteristics, but I think a lot of women are like that. I don't see myself as a role model for women. I'm there to represent male and female, young and old, regardless of whether they voted for me and regardless of their views.'

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