a close up shot of a woman holding her pregnant stomach

In light of the recent proposed changes to maternity leave for MPs, Dr Meghan Campbell, Senior Lecturer at Birmingham Law School examines efforts to create a more gender sensitive Parliament and how these efforts fall short.

The image of Parliament looms large in contemporary political discourse. While Parliament is the epicentre of democratic participation, it has been constructed around male norms. The aim of creating gender-sensitive parliaments is to dismantle the male dominated model and create a legislative institution which is fair and not only accommodates but valorises a diverse range of life patterns. In transforming Parliament, it is crucial to acknowledge its dual roles as both the legislative body for governing and as a workplace. For Members of Parliament, clerks, administrative staff, caters, security officers and cleaners Parliament is their place of work and like any place of work must protect women’s equality. Recognising the dual role of Parliament also brings to the fore that all measures to build a gender sensitive Parliament must be intersectional. Parliament must be an equal place for young women, older women, disabled women, women of colour, women with caring responsibilities, women from a range of socio-economic backgrounds and for non-gender binary conforming individuals. 

Members of Parliament and other individuals working in Parliament must balance work and caring responsibilities. Currently, Members of Parliament are not provided with maternity leave. This issue recently came  to ahead, as the government has introduced a bill to provide cabinet ministers six months of maternity leave. As Stella Creasy, senior Labour MP, observed this excludes non-cabinet Members of Parliament from maternity leave. This falls far short of protecting each and every women’s equality within Parliament. The proposed system designates legal entitlements to maternity leave depending on an individuals’ role within the workplace hierarchy. Pitting Cabinet Ministers against other Members of Parliament for entitlements creates a flawed system of eligibility for maternity leave.

Parliament needs to devise maternity leave that is accessible to all pregnant persons working within Parliament irrespective of their role within the institution. Maternity leave must also be at an adequate level.

To transform the gendered division of care work, Parliament also should provide adequate paternity leave and provide meaningful incentives for men to take up their paternity leave rights. While on maternity/paternity leave, Members of Parliament should, when desired, be able to participate in political debates via the use of technology. Upon returning to Parliament, women should have an easily accessible space to safely express and store breast milk and women should be able to breast feed without stigma throughout Parliament. Creches need to be available close to key locations and the hours of the creche should mirror the working hours of Parliament. All Members of Parliament and individuals working within Parliament should be entitled to paid care leaving.

For too long, the working patterns of Parliament have been based around male breadwinner norms that are divorced from relationships of care. Women should not have to conform to these norms to be able to work and succeed within Parliament. Efforts to undo male patterns should not exacerbate women’s inequality nor entrench occupational status  hierarchies within the workplace. Attention to Parliament as a workplace can provide an entry point into transforming the practices and policies within Parliament.

This blog post draws on OxHRH, ‘Gender Sensitive Parliaments’ which was submitted to the Women and Equalities Committee,