Support 110 years of independent journalism.

  1. Long reads
19 July 2018

Calling the male Harriet Harmans: why equality in politics benefits men as well as women

Let’s stop calling opinionated women “difficult” and the men who check themselves “beaten” rather than listening.

By Stella Creasy

Last week, I collapsed outside a committee room and was carted off to St Thomas’ Hospital. Doubled over in agony, I had a cyst twist and temporarily cut off the blood supply in my body. The doctor told me that I wasn’t to make any sudden movements for the next week to be sure it didn’t happen again.

It struck me – maybe it was the morphine – that not making sudden movements is often what we tell women in politics to do. Baby steps only, in case we cause a sharp pain.

Many will be surprised at such a statement. They will point, as Piers Morgan does, to having had two women prime ministers, a woman police commissioner, women as home secretaries, a woman in charge of the fire service, a Queen. That’s more than I can count on one hand, for goodness sake.

They would say this is now the era of #metoo. Men are falling like flies and women are on the ascendant. The times they are a’changing – indeed, Fraser Nelson, editor of the Spectator, has argued that with more women applying to university than men a “new inequality is being incubated, because male horizons are narrowing”.

When it comes to women and politics, it’s certainly true, numbers are definitely going up, with 208 female MPs in this place. But that’s 22 per cent of parliamentarians up from 11 per cent 20 years ago. It’s a baby step, not a sudden movement.

Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday - from the New Statesman. The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. Stay up to date with NS events, subscription offers & updates.
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how New Statesman Media Group may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.

It’s not just in parliament that women face so many glass ceilings. 

Content from our partners
On the road to Cop28
How are new rail networks boosting the economy?
Setting the stage for action on climate finance

Just nine per cent of executives in FTSE 100 boards are women – the figure has flatlined for four years now. None are from black or ethnic minority backgrounds. Only 32 per cent of council chief executives are women and only 28 per cent of charity CEOs. At these rates of progress, we won’t close the gender pay gap until 2054 – when all of us will have retired.

In the last 13 years, we’ve managed to increase by 80 the total number of women in parliament. In the same time 3,579 women stood for election. Only 670 got elected or re-elected – a hit rate of just 18 per cent.

Studies into what stops women standing come up with answers that resonate beyond the parliament. The supposed 5 Cs – what the Irish academic Yvonne Galligan identified as cash, confidence, candidate selection, culture, and caring responsibilities.

But here’s the rub. When we focus on the women and what their problem is, we can end up missing the bigger picture.

We run “confidence” courses to get more women to stand. We try to get flexible working for them to deal with childcare. We rarely ask about the environment in which we ask them to enter. Fighting for diversity becomes something for those cut out to action, rather than for everyone to work on securing. They have to prove they are capable of being part of this world; this world doesn’t have to change to let them in.

Little wonder women are found wanting. I realised in writing this, I didn’t even know if Bernie Sanders was married, but I knew all about Hillary’s love life.

Psychologists call this the fundamental attribution error – we see someone stumble and think they are clumsy. We stumble ourselves and we see the broken pavement. We see this slow pace of change and we blame the women for not being perfect, for stumbling, rather than asking if its not them, its us. 

Now some may say: so what? If you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen. Po-faced feminists like me have been complaining for decades and Britain has continued to thrive.

But others recognise this is about talent, and wasted talent is all our problem. That just as there’s a cold hard economic argument for equality and diversity, so, too, there is one for democracy.

In these uncertain times, you could argue we need more women in decision-making than ever before.

Because men aren’t as steady as it seems. Cognitive studies show when people are under stress, men become more eager to take risks and take gambles. Rather than falling apart, women bring unique strengths to decision-making. Women tend to become risk alert under stress.

But I’m not here to feed the fears of the men’s rights activists. The point is not to replace men with women, but to recognise when you have more diversity in decision-making, the interaction between is of benefit to all. Diversity inspires us all to be better.

This year, researchers analysed the profits of 22,000 firms worldwide and found that companies where women held 30 per cent of the top leadership roles earned 15 per cent more, on average, than companies with no women on their boards. Crucially it wasn’t having a female CEO which led to greater profits. What predicted success was having multiple female leaders, not just one, in the top decision-making roles.

So the case for diversity isn’t about being “fair to women” or some kind of pity – it is about all of us helping each other be better at our job. And when you put it like that – why would you only want to take baby steps, rather than make sudden movements to enhance performance?

If you want sudden movement, real progress, it requires more than addressing the open hostility women face or giving them coaching and cash to stand, vital though these are. It requires changing the very default settings of politics. Defaults that mean even if we overcome the barriers to election, this is still your world, not ours.

Open hostility is easy to spot and act on. Like the large phallus drawn on the pavement outside my office last week. The artist made a point of emailing me to tell me about it.

Its not unique to the UK – it happens to my counterparts around the world.

Sarah Hanson-Young, an Australian politician, was told by another member of the parliament to “stop shagging men” during a debate on increasing access to pepper sprays. Yuriko Koike, the governor of Tokyo, was told by another governor that “we can’t leave Tokyo to a woman who wears too much makeup.” Angiza Shinwari, an Afghan provincial council member, was killed by a car bomb. Mexican senator Ana Gabriela Guevara was beaten unconscious by a group of men.

To unlock the benefits of diversity for our country within our lifetime, we have to disrupt the toxic mix of political tradition and patriarchal thinking that means those who don’t fit this mould are always at a disadvantage. The everyday, ingrained prejudices so pervasive, so enduring we don’t even realise how much they define our expectations and actions.

Its what psychologists call “anchoring”. My background is actually in psychology – when I told a government whip that once, he started to tell me about his mother and father.

What we already know influences how we treat something new when we first come across it – whether we realise or not. Women coming into politics are still shaped by a system that was literally man made, or made for men. So whatever they do or bring to the table, they will be judged by whether they fit into those expectations – or not.

It affects what we think of as leadership and good speeches. How we react when we see women in charge during a crisis, How we speak to – or over – each other. Men and women exhibiting similar leadership qualities are judged completely differently – the difficult woman who won’t listen vs the decisive man who tells it how it is. It takes someone as extreme in their behaviour as Donald Trump to finally start to make us question those assumptions.

As a newly elected MP, a female whip told me to use my doctorate on the green screens because as a “young” (I was 33) blonde woman it would mean I would be taken seriously. To which I told her that if people judge me on my hair colour, they usually only did it the once. I can guarantee wearing blue will cause someone to ask am I now a Tory – because with women its what they wear, not what they say, that matters.

Talking about women is like talking Klingon. People might recognise one word but they don’t get any further. Ask a question about women in business and entrepreneurship, and you’ll get a response back on the gender pay gap. Ask for the gender gap on the benefit of tax cuts to be monitored and ministers look blank. Call it “ladydata” to help them understand what you mean, and they will tell you it’s not possible to gather because women live with men. Yes, in 2018, that was the response.

Politics is no different to the rest of British society, so everyday norms about women or ethnic minorities seep into the structures of public life. These are so prevalent they are “a fact of life”. Which means they can be reinforced and repeated by both men and women.

Every woman who has been berated for talking too much knows this – when Austin Mitchell did this to me once I actually got a sound engineer to time how long the pair of us spoke for. Austin was responsible for 70 per cent of the conversation.

Linguistics professor Deborah Tannen highlights how, just as women move out of the way if you sit next to them on a train to make room, so, too, do women moderate and speak less in meetings for fear of being called antagonistic, and then get underestimated as a result.

A Labour colleague once told me I was aggressive for answering him back – when I pointed out that was one of the words we use to shut women down, he told me I was being silly. And carried on talking at me.

If you are a woman arguing with another woman on a political topic, inevitably someone will suggest your perspective is damaged because now you no longer speak for ALL women. Because obviously that’s what you were there to do in the first place.

So often our breasts, not our brains, are seen as an overriding factor above any political or policy insight we might bring – whether someone explicitly says it or not. People ask if Margaret Thatcher inspired me to go into politics – because after all she was a woman too. It’s like asking men if they find Silvio Berlusconi inspirational on the same basis.

These expectations aren’t just about those at front of house. In all political parties often its women who do events, and men who do strategy. In 32 separate studies of decision-making, women have been shown to be as data-driven and analytical as men, if not more so. Perfectly capable of using a spreadsheet or understanding polling data or doing press. And yet. It’s just the way things work out. 

Sometimes bad attempts at inclusion are worse than no inclusion at all because they reinforce that we are the issue, not the status quo.

I now get requests “as a female MP” – I no longer have a name, I’m just my sex. No man would or should ever accept being reduced to such a distinction. That’s not actually a new phenomenon. Thatcher complains in her own memoirs about being treated as the “everywoman” asked to speak on behalf of all women as the only woman in the cabinet.

You’ve heard of FOM – fear of missing out. Media, think tanks, conferences panic – they get FOMOF. Fear of missing a female off, and so they call women to be on their panels. Any woman. They just need breasts to appear. I’ve been asked to speak on panels about water regulation.

Frankly sometimes those who “think” they get how privilege works are worse than those who don’t and ask. Men on the left can be worse than men on the right for this, as they think they understand inequality because it’s their political mission to address it. They’ve read the text book, been on the rally, perhaps even tweeted they are pro-choice. The brocialists who offer to speak for us, or ask us to talk about childcare issues – whilst getting women to sit alongside them in the picture whilst they speak. Just as in business, where non-execs are appointed, rather than execs. Women are there to make up the numbers, not make the decisions. The default is still too often male, pale, and stale – even if it’s self-aware.

Right now, you think I sound very ungrateful. Trying to get women to fit into a man’s world will always leave women – or anyone else who doesn’t come from the existing mould – at a disadvantage. If we want sudden movements – real progress – we need to break the mould entirely.

And we know how hard that is to do. We’ve only just stopped having someone from Eton in the cabinet. Gordon Brown is the only prime minister to both attend a state school and send his children to one.

The establishment establishes itself as the default and we work from there onwards. That doesn’t just make it harder for diversity to be elected. It makes it harder for diversity to do democracy full stop. And it affects how we make laws and how we all live our lives accordingly.

Two women a week are killed by a partner – as Yvette Cooper has always argued, if this was happening at football stadiums there would be a national outcry. Right now the upskirting bill is going through parliament. It makes the motivation of the perpetrator the critical factor in prosecution, rather than if the victim consented. We’ve had Equal Pay legislation since 1970 but we still don’t have equal pay – if the public still weren’t using seatbelts, every manifesto would have proposals for how to secure this important outcome. Instead we call these issues “complicated” and justify the dilution of political will to do anything about it.

Then we teach women “coping strategies” – how to do self-defence, how to ignore the trolls, not to appear “too clever”. We seethe silently with anger and all too often take it out on the women who do get involved for not being perfect and cutting through these barriers. They can’t win whatever they do. Because that’s politics. It isn’t – that’s patriarchy.

I am a white, straight, able-bodied, cis woman who went to a grammar school and Oxbridge so I know a bit about operating within such confines and being privileged. Each of us has privilege and the prejudices that come with that, and everyone feels pain when being called out because it is an uncomfortable experience to have your own boundaries made public.

That’s why we need to help each other do it. My call to action is not just to disrupt, but to help each other with the sharp pain this causes – because otherwise for want of offending or causing a scene we will never get the benefits of diversity to our decision making in our lifetimes.

How can we do that? First it takes each of us – those already powerful included – to recognise there’s a problem and want to do something about it.

If you work in the media or in the Commons, have the courage to gather the lady data to show the problem – whether timing the amount of air time given to female guests on programmes, or in the chamber, or hearing the stories of those from diverse backgrounds about how the current system feels to them.

Use your position to amplify the voices of those not heard. You retweet on Twitter, do it in real life too. Rachel Reeves, Sayeeda Warsi, June Sarpong, Reni Eddo-Lodge and Jacqui Smith are helping filling in the blanks of what we know of women, power, politicians and their experiences of this status quo. They need to be read not just by other women for inspiration, but by men for reflection.

Let’s together rewrite the thesaurus we use and stop “difficult” being the pronoun for one who thinks for herself. Term a man who checks himself for talking over a female guest on TV not “beaten” but as listening.

These are small life hacks each of us could do to start. And it’s not just about language. It’s about behaviour too. Because we can’t change our past, but we can all shape the future.

Social media, access to finance, getting the vote are all good examples of a disruptive force. Indeed, that the backlash against equality we see reflects how powerful they could be. So let’s use them and turn the power of our positions to really rewriting the rules.

How can we think parliament is “family friendly” – that finishing at 7pm rather than 10pm in London somehow is considered so is bonkers. Harriet Harman is doing amazing work, as ever, highlighting the hypocrisy that those who make the laws on maternity and paternity leave don’t actually have maternity or paternity built into their own contracts. The trolling of women, ethnic minority, gay or disabled candidates shouldn’t be ignored or seen as a job hazard, but prosecuted instead. Not dragging our heels on abolishing the sexual abuse and harassment which has for too long been seen as “just” the inevitable consequence of being in power.

And if we really want to disrupt the default, then we have to rethink how this place works from the grassroots up.

We are moving out of this building, so let’s move out of these traditions too. It could be a chance not just to get out of London but to get out of old ways of thinking. That is about more than creating a parliament with more loos for women. Asking why we think compliant select committees, committee hearings, white papers, parliamentary process itself is democratic scrutiny. Looking at models like citizens’ juries, lay “expert” witnesses, civil service secondments. Part-time placements. Job sharing with people in our communities. All different ways to disrupt existing models and develop a politics in which the public could actually participate – and in which diversity in participation could be built in from the start.

Because democratic equality isn’t going to be about the balance of 650 people, but our involvement and interaction with all 65 million people.

Above all, we can’t keep letting those with power – the old order – off the hook in responsibility for making change happen too or accept the backlash that will come from making any progress at all.

And that means the biggest call to action goes not to the women in the room but the men. You have the greatest power to change this AND the responsibility to act.

In the same way that childcare shouldn’t be seen as a women’s issue (rather than a parenting issue) so equality needs to be all our business. Where are the male Harriet Harmans helping challenge the power imbalances that seep into all corners of public life? Not Justin Trudeau expecting plaudits for appointing some women to his cabinet. Someone working day in day out for equality because he knows men benefit too. Fighting for equal parental leave, leading on domestic violence prevention, calling out the decision to delay consent education in schools?

In eight years of being an MP, I’ve been repeatedly warned – and celebrated – for putting myself into the career dead end that is “women’s issues”. But I’m not really talking about women, I’m talking about the benefits of disruption of the default. Without it, even as we drip more women and more people from BAME backgrounds into politics, public life will still be a club with exclusive access where you have to wear the club tie even if you can get your foot through the door.

Problems like the global economy, Brexit, international security will continue to defeat us because we’re only using half our brains. Harvey Weinstein still isn’t in jail. Donald Trump and his grabbing runs the White House. The Domestic Abuse Bill is not even drafted. The Presidents Club Trustees continue to be allowed to run charities. #Metoo means nothing if it becomes a commentary rather than a call to arms.

We may be the mother of all parliaments but we are the fathers of our own failure if we pretend the old can be reformed to meet the needs of the new. This is not about men vs women. Unless we work together to disrupt our defaults all our horizons will be limited. Let us call time’s up on baby steps. As much as the whips may hate it, only disruption and independence of mind will deliver better Britain for everyone. The people who elected us here, need and deserve nothing less.

This is an edited version of Stella Creasy’s Speaker’s Lecture on women and politics.