Women in business and women in politics have much to learn from each other – including how to storm the smoking room and how to break down clubby cultures!

by Boni Sones OBE, Policy Associate at the CBR and Executive Producer, ParliamentaryRadio.com

At the beginning of this year the www.parliamentaryradio.com team recorded interviews with 8 of the 10 Labour women who were leaving Westminster, giving them the opportunity to talk about their achievements as MPs and government ministers. Our “Throwing in the Towel”, documentary was played through our website and has now won an “Honourable Mention” in the International Association of Women in Radio and Television awards.

The IAWRT AWARDS 2015 for radio and webcast audio received entries from Africa, Asia, Australia, Europe, North America and South America. The entries tackled contemporary issues affecting women including illegal abortions, refugee experiences, trauma, slavery, women reporting on war, women in politics, art and gender, and feminist communal living. In other words, the under representation of women in Westminster is now one of the pressing human rights problems in the world today.

As well as broadcasting we also got a story about the documentary into The Guardian in March 2015 which had over 9,000 shares! It went viral in hours. (See link below).

Our team of reporters, Jackie Ashley, President of Lucy Cavendish College and a Guardian journalist, Linda Fairbrother, a former High Sheriff of Cambridgeshire and previously a reporter with Anglia TV, Deborah McGurran, Political Editor, BBC TV East, and myself, were a novel channel of communication for them. If we hadn’t covered the story in this way there would have been no such coverage. They might even have been ridiculed again, after all they were just “Blair’s Babes”. (See link below). Our interviews are now safely lodged in the History of Parliament Trust Archive. Our advisory board is cross party with long serving female politicians: Caroline Spelman MP (Con), Gisela Stuart (Lab) and Baroness Susan Kramer (LD).

Together the 10 Labour women leaving Westminster, some of whom began their parliamentary careers in 1987, had clocked up 200 years in parliament. The list of those we interviewed included two former Secretaries of State – Tessa Jowell and Hazel Blears – and five former ministers or junior ministers – Anne McGuire, Meg Munn, Dawn Primarolo, Glenda Jackson and Joan Ruddock, as well as former parliamentary private secretary Siân James (the miner’s wife, whose life was portrayed in the film Pride) and committee chair Joan Walley. Their colleague Linda Riordan, another committee stalwart, also stood down. Jackson and Riordan were not available for interview.

Remarkably both Jowell and Ruddock had been so tenacious in their careers that not only did they serve as Ministers in the Blair years, but they clung on and got themselves back into the Brown government too. In Ruddock’s case she actually confronted Blair when he called her into Number 10 to say: “I have to let you go”, to then hear Ruddock retort: “Oh no you don’t!”

Ruddock also picked up the newspapers after not getting into Blair’s first government appointments to read she was “Going nowhere”, but what the heck, this distinguished intelligent woman who was once tipped as a potential Foreign Secretary, got herself back into the government and now that demeaning headline is the working title of her shortly to be published autobiography. If any woman in business wants role models of how to get to the top and stay there, even if you are sacked on route, then listen to our documentary.

So what does women’s representation and achievements in politics have to do more generally with women’s representation in the UK boardrooms? The answer is absolutely everything! If women MPs working across party together and within their own ministerial departments here, and using their reach in Europe too with MEP colleagues, had not pushed for public policy change over many years it is highly unlikely that the then Business Secretary Vince Cable would have set quotas for women’s representation in our Boardrooms.

On 25 March 2015 Cable proudly launched the fourth annual report from Lord Davies, charged with increasing the number of women in our boardrooms, which he said showed: “FTSE 100 boards have made enormous progress in the last four years, almost doubling female representation to just shy of 25%. We must celebrate this outstanding achievement and the change in culture that is taking hold at the heart of British business. The evidence is irrefutable: boards with a healthy female representation outperform their male-dominated rivals.”

Or as Jayne-Anne Gadhia, the boss of Virgin Media, so recently succinctly said after attending an 11 Downing Street audience with the Chancellor George Osborne in the first week of November 2015: “This is about creating an environment where all women can become senior if that is what they want to do. I’m trying to have a level playing field for everybody.”

So now even the Conservative Chancellor acknowledges that more needs to be done to get women into the top jobs in banking, fund management and insurance, where their numbers remain dismally low.

The review of Financial Services that Gadhia is leading on for the Treasury is work in progress and has already recommended that the remuneration packages of a firm’s executive team should be dependent on gender balance. It will produce its report ahead of the Budget in 2016.

But sadly Osborne’s own governing Conservative Party couldn’t quite meet the second term of government target they set themselves before the 2015 general election for women in the Cabinet. Or as the Institute for Government’s analysis shows: “In 2009 David Cameron declared, ‘If elected, by the end of our first Parliament I want a third of all my ministers to be female’. He failed to meet this goal, and it continues to elude him at the start of his second term: women currently make up 25% of ministers, the same proportion as before the election.”

However, by a little tweaking Cameron and Osborne have managed to present a higher figure of 30%, thus meeting their own targets by being selective, or as the IFG says: “Cameron has achieved his aim around the Cabinet table: exactly one third of all ministers permitted to attend cabinet are women. This falls to 20% at Minister of State level, the highest rank of junior minister.”

By contrast in the Labour Leader’s recently appointed shadow cabinet Jeremy Corbyn has 16 women and 15 men, but there were complaints after the top Offices of State went to men.

There are currently 191 female MPs, out of a total 650 members of parliament, so 29% from 22% but now at a record high.

The percentage of women among Conservative MPs has risen from 47 to 68 at the last election – 21%; although they are still far behind the Labour party which now has 99 from 87 – 43%. The Liberal Democrats have dropped from 7 to 0! But the biggest rise in female representation in the Commons came from the Scottish National Party, which now has 20 female MPs, up from just one – 36%. Labour still supports quotas and the Conservatives are privately still divided but publicly against them. The Lib Dems have steadfastly opposed quotas.

If you don’t believe in the power of quotas to change the face of organisations, albeit superficially at first, and admittedly not necessarily forever then you only have to look at what the so-called 101 women MPs of the Prime Minister, Tony Blair’s 1997 Labour government did. Through the party’s controversial adoption of all-women shortlists they began a process of institutional change in Westminster which is still “work in progress” today. Forwards as well as back.

As our Guardian article stated: “Without these women, there would have been no Sure Start centres and early education for the under-fives, no reduction of VAT on sanitary protection and contraception. There would have been no gender-neutral drafting of legislation and no 2010 Equality Act, which drew together legislation on equal pay, sex discrimination, race, disability and religion. Even the 2012 Olympics might not have come to London, had Jowell not spent more than 10 years pushing for it.

They have ensured that positive measures were introduced to allow more female MPs to join them, with the controversial adoption of all-women shortlists. They also helped to reform the male-centric culture of Westminster – Ruddock led the campaign to end late-night sittings, and Walley campaigned for a family room – that famously once resembled a gentleman’s club, and some feel now does again.”

Domestic violence, stalking and FGM (female genital mutilation) were other issues they pushed forward with Conservative, Liberal Democrat and other MPs too, women and men. Our work has always been cross-party and we are now about to do a similar historical look at the work of the Conservative women in Westminster. We get thanked regularly for our work by Tory MPs women and men. Male media commentators too, like Roy Greenslade, have also subsequently apologised for the terms used to describe the female MPs in the early days. (See links below).

I happen to agree with the Nadkarni and Oon research paper about the “potentially revolving door syndrome” of mandatory quotas, but that does not negate the impact of them.

As Hazel Blears recalls: “When we came in, the smoking room was dominated by male Tory MPs who drank a lot of brandy, smoked cigars and would sit in there in the evening and talk affairs of state. We determined as women that we would take the smoking room. On Tuesdays, we would gather in force and drink pink fizzy wine and we would occasionally giggle and we would talk fashion, or we would talk politics and affairs of state. We would occupy literally the centre of the smoking room and gradually the men disappeared to the fringes, and then disappeared. When we came back this time in opposition in 2010, it was very interesting to see that that room is now colonised again by male Tory MPs.”

Blears told us the Labour women have made progress, but that things are once again moving backwards. “I think women, individually, have made a difference – people like Tessa – but it is individuals. I don’t think we have systematically changed the way it is. Politics at the top is very male dominated. The characteristics that seem to allow people to rise are still male.”

The collaborations and associations the Labour women formed working over many years together, at first at training courses to become candidates, so-called Prospective Parliamentary Candidates, and then as elected Members of Parliament working on policy issues in all-party parliamentary groups, on select committees or as ministers, allowed them to champion issues of concern to women and families.

These changes would not have taken place without the women working collaboratively across party and over many years and in many different and “creative” ways like: “Taking the Smoking Room”! The numbers and their collaborations gave them the power to take on so called “myths” often about their clothes and squeaky voices, and introduce new ways, sometimes informal, sometimes formal of working and breaking down barriers and prejudice.

As MPs on all-party parliamentary groups they could commission new research and send it to the relevant ministerial departments. On Select Committees such as Defence, they could ask about servicemen’s families not just about the weapons of war and as ministers they could mark their papers and send them back to the government officials asking: “How does this policy on disability impact on women?” Given they were now there in numbers they could ask their female and male ministerial colleagues in other departments to do the same. And they did!

The shame is that detailed academic research can fail to record the excitement of these highly significant changes for women by women and without whom women’s public policy progress would still be impeded. Of course the issues may have come of their time anyway, and of course some men championed them too and more so these days as generational change has been highly significant, but without the women stubbornly and persistently pushing them forward and yes “nagging” too, these policy reforms would not have come about.

As Fiona Mctaggart MP recalls: “The women turned up to the meetings!” We now learn that Gordon Brown felt embarrassed to mention the word Tampax in the Chamber so prolonging the time it took to get the VAT rate on sanitary goods lowered. This campaign still continues today with the so called “Tampon Tax” debate which is asking for all VAT to be removed.

By the way, “nagging” and “persistence” were often mentioned “qualities” of the female MPs even though these terms can be derogatory: “She never gives up!” This is how women MPs challenged the myths and turned the stereotypes around.

The impact of this very visual representation of women in the media, through print, radio and TV journalism and on panel discussions too is encouraging to others. The collective speaking out about Twitter abuse, such as when Jess Phillips MP recently opposed the suggestion for a Men’s Day Debate in Westminster, helps to create positive collaborations among women and men too, to counter the negative threats. Until Labour’s 101 women came into Westminster women were barely visible in public life. Now women panellists in public life, academics and in business too, regularly ask if there will be other women on the panel with them, thereby encouraging diversity.

In my first book Women in Parliament: The New Suffragettes (published Methuen 2005 with Professor Joni Lovenduski) the women MPs across party themselves told of how they worked together to achieve change. In my second book: When There’s a Woman in the Room: Women MPs Shaping Public Policy (published March 2014) a new generation of women MPs across party in the UK and Commonwealth, again said how they had shaped public policy making and what their significant achievements had been. Just read about the handbag protest by women in the Kenyan parliament. Similar in many ways to the women in Westminster getting tights and also a Tampax machine installed. The institutions are male. The interviews in these books now form the basis of important historical audio archives at the LSE (London School of Economics) and the BL (British Library). (See links below).

There have still only ever been 450 women MPs elected to the Commons since 1918, 9 less than the current number of male MPs. All-women shortlists are without doubt controversial, even amongst the Labour women elected on them who sometimes feel they have to apologise for this, but without some form of positive discrimination, or major change in the organisational culture, it will take far too long to achieve gender parity. The Speaker, John Bercow, is now conducting a gender audit of Westminster, including ensuring portraits and art works are more representative. We commissioned our own four portraits party by party, in October 2008, to celebrate 90 years of women and the vote, which hang in Westminster. (See link below).

So if you don’t like quotas in corporate life, or in politics, just how are you going to get change in the boardrooms or the Cabinet? As the 50:50 campaign group has declared: “At the current rate, based on the last four elections it will take nearly half a century to achieve a balanced Parliament of around 50:50 men and women. Around 40 countries have proportionally more women in their parliaments than the UK, so this is not an impossible dream.”

Scroll on another 50 years and I will be 112! I certainly won’t be here to see that happen. My case for quotas rests!

NB: The views expressed in this blog are those of the author only.

Relevant web links:

Listen to the podcast

In the first 10 minutes we talk to Dame Joan Ruddock, Tessa Jowell and Hazel Blears. They are interviewed by Jackie Ashley and Deborah McGurran. We then hear from Joan Walley, Dawn Primarolo, Anne McGuire, Meg Munn and Sian James. They are interviewed by Boni Sones, Linda Fairbrother and Deborah McGurran.

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