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Global issue 20

Global Insight Women Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany, is one of the most powerful people in Europe www.global global f i rst quar ter 2015 -br ief ing.org l 19 © European Union Barbara Follett, who was the Labour MP for Stevenage from 1997 until 2010, told Birkbeck researchers in 2004. Reactions from men to the growing number of female MPs at Westminster ranged from sheer disbelief that a woman could be an MP, and not just a secretary to one, to actual physical abuse following a vote to include more women on a committee. Subtler comments, like Prime Minister David Cameron’s remark that MP Angela Eagle should “calm down, dear” in 2011, are more gently dismissive of women’s input. And this sort of sexism isn’t entrenched in UK politics alone. When Ayaka Shiomura, a member of the Japanese Assembly, addressed senior city administration figures during a 2014 debate on supporting women with children, a member of the opposition yelled at her: “Why don’t you get married? Are you not able to have a baby?” A poll of members of online forum Mumsnet, 97 per cent of whom are female, carried out in 2014 showed that nine out of ten members believe that the political culture in the UK is sexist, with two out of ten claiming that political success boils down to what school or university the candidate attended as well as the ‘old boys’ network’. One poll respondent said: “The problem with Prime Minister’s Questions isn’t so much that it’s shouty, but that the so-called pinnacle of political debate in this country is two men trading petty insults and making nasty jokes about the other while the rest of parliament boos and cheers behind them. We may as well get some pre-schoolers to call each other poo-heads and be done with it.” “People are so fed up. We know that the reason there is a lack of female representation in parliament isn’t just down to sexism at the point of selection; there just aren’t enough women prepared to put themselves forward,” Justine Roberts, the founder of Mumsnet, told The Guardian in 2014. “Even male MPs have complained about the hours. The hours seem to revolve more around 50-year-old men who want to socialise than thirtysomething men who are dads and might like to have a family life.” While the people of Britain tend to favour ‘family people’ – and indeed David Cameron has spoken about his commitment to doing everything he can to support families in the country – the rules make juggling parenthood and being an MP exceptionally difficult. The House of Commons sits during irregular working hours, with Monday sessions pencilled in for 14:30-22:30 before taking into account commuting times and overruns, making it tough for people with young children, particularly women, to commit to the inflexible arrangement. To add to this, there is no formal provision of parental leave as MPs are considered self-employed. “The work of an MP makes significant demands both on the individual and on their immediate family,” reads Section 7 of the final report on the Speaker’s Conference on Parliamentary Representation. “For the eight to nine months of the year when the House of Commons is sitting, Members are generally required to be present at Westminster from Monday lunchtime until late afternoon on Thursday. Most Members will then return to their constituencies where they will work on local issues through Friday and the weekend, making themselves available to help constituents at times when the constituents themselves are free. When the House is not sitting, most Members expect to spend their time working in the constituency unless they are formally taking leave.” “My wife was basically a single mother for most of the week, because I found it difficult to get back to Glasgow; it placed a huge pressure on the family,” Labour’s Tom Harris told The Independent in 2014. Other countries in Europe have taken measures to accommodate working parents. In Denmark, voting ends at 19:00 on sitting days,


Global issue 20
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