Gender Sensitive Parliaments

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham

“All parties should be encouraged to adopt affirmative action measures for the benefit of women in the selection of their candidates for Parliament.”

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In the lead up to proroguing Parliament there were accusations of Prime Minister making sexist comments and this follows a history of sexist and demeaning remarks towards women. Although Parliament is prorogued and as the legality of this decision is being challenged in the UK Supreme Court, it is important to remember that for many men and women Parliament is a workplace. As a workplace, it is imperative that Parliament be gender inclusive. Our submission to the Women and Equalities Committee outlines concrete actions that Parliament can take to ensure that all people are treated equally in Parliament.

As a starting point, gender sensitive Parliament this should not be regarded as a ‘woman’s problem’. In mainstreaming gender, we need to change the ‘mainstream’ institutional structure which was modelled on a male dominated society. We should not expect women simply to conform to a male world. This is an issue for all genders.

Reconciling Participative Parenting with Political Office

Members of Parliament (MPs) should be able to be participative parents and fully participative Parliamentarians. Drawing on best practices from around the world, the UK Parliament should adopt a series of measures to foster a stronger work-life balance. This includes, ensuring that women MPs should be entitled to all the same rights to paid maternity leave as any other working women. To change norms on the role of men and women on parenting, Parliament should incentivise men to share parenting responsibility by providing paternity and parental leave.

Caring responsibilities do not end with the ned of maternity and paternity leave. For MPs with caring responsibilities, easily accessible creche facilities should be available. Parliamentary rules should prohibit voting on matters after 7pm and voting should not be held on Friday or Mondays to allow MPs time for their families, constituents and take the burden off weekend working. 

Gender Sensitive Language

The use of language can reinforce the invisibility of women. Reforms need to be undertaken to avoid subsuming the female gender within the male; avoid the generic use of “he” and encouraging the use of “they” to include those who do not conform to the gender binary and avoid using titles for women which refer to marital status

Sexual Harassment and Gender-Based Violence

Sexual harassment and violence is not only a matter for cultural change and better reporting procedures, it must be emphasized that it is a breach of fundamental human rights. Failing to recognize sexual harassment in these terms undermines basic constitutional principles. Granting effective immunity to political representatives undercuts the basic principle that no-one should be above the law, weakening the legitimacy and faith in democratic institutions.

The Equality Act 2010 (EA) should be extended to apply to everyone exercising a political role including MPs. The EA has sophisticated legal provisions for addressing sexual harassment and gender-based violence and there is no good reason why Parliament should not follow the same rules. The Independent Complaints and Grievance Policy and the Behaviour Code for Parliament must be amended to reflect the human rights implicated in sexual harassment and violence.

Internal accountability mechanisms must be strengthened to ensure speedy and fair outcomes and must include regular staff surveys on workplace culture.

Representation of Women in Parliament

All parties should be encouraged to adopt affirmative action measures for the benefit of women in the selection of their candidates for Parliament. However, for this to be successful:  all political parties should be strongly encouraged to take effective action at the point of selection, but particularly the large parties. Women must be nominated to stand for seats where there is a real chance of their winning elections. 11.Retention of women MPs is as important as initial selection. All the above measures need to work together to ensure a genuinely gender sensitive Parliament.

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