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Women's Issues Have Seen A "Sea Change" In Parliamentary Attention

Bereaved families of women killed by men assembled outside Parliament in December (Alamy)

11 min read

MPs and campaigners have declared there has been a parliamentary “sea change” on women's issues, as a range of topics primarily affecting women are taking an ever more prominent place in politics.

Analysis of Hansard shows just how much has changed when it comes to addressing women’s issues. Sexual harassment and sexual violence – women were victims of 86 per cent of sexual offences recorded by the police in the year ending March 2022 – used to only be mentioned in Parliament a few times a year. In the last 10 years, there has been an exponential rise in parliamentary discussion of both. Sexual harassment has been mentioned 880 times in the last 10 years, compared to 76 times in the previous ten years from 2004. 

Similar patterns can be seen with other women’s issues, including the gender pay gap, women’s health, childcare – an issue where women still primarily feel the burden – girls' education, menopause, and birth trauma. Menopause had been mentioned 84 times in all the years on record prior to 2014, but has been mentioned 446 times in the ten years up to now.

graphs from Hansards
Parliamentary discussion of sexual violence has increased over the last ten years (PoliticsHome)

Some of the discussion has translated into government policy: This year, the Government has expanded childcare provisions, with eligible working parents of two-year-olds being able to access 15 hours of free childcare support from April 2024.

Just in the past week, a number of women’s issues have taken centre stage in Westminster. The Government announced a new restriction on sex offenders legally changing their names would become law after years of campaigning by cross-party MPs and survivors groups. On Monday, the cross-party APPG on Birth Trauma published a harrowing report that has called for an overhaul of the UK's maternity and postnatal care after hearing evidence from more than 1,300 women – prompting a national conversation on the topic. Later that day, Parliament voted in favour of a new ban from the parliamentary estate on MPs who have been arrested in connection with sexual assault. 

Other issues such as decriminalising abortion look likely to be on the agenda for Labour MPs such as Diana Johnson and Stella Creasy after the next general election.

Joeli Brearley, founder of the charity Pregnant Then Screwed, has been campaigning for and supporting pregnant women and parents since 2015. She told PoliticsHome that over this period, there has been “a massive sea change”.

“When we used to talk to politicians about childcare, they'd look at you like you’ve got two chocolate fingers stuck up your nose, they were just not interested at all,” she said.

“‘It's not even on our radar, there's no way we're investing money in childcare…’ It was as if it was just a woman's issue. That has changed so drastically, it’s now the battlefield for the next election.”

Conservative MP Maria Miller was former Minister for Women and Equalities between 2012 and 2014, and Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee between 2015 and 2020. In Parliament on Wednesday, she criticised the Government for not going far enough in the Criminal Justice Bill to protect women by making it an offence to take and share intimate sexual images without their consent.

“That has been a battle since 2014. So, if you want to battle on women's issues, you have to have tenacity, but also resilience to keep going,” she said. 

“I was first elected in 2005 and the things that we talk about in Parliament now are very different to what we talked about in 2005.”

Miller was one of the first parliamentary advocates for legislating to protect women on online spaces, and the Online Safety Act finally came into law last year after being subject to multiple delays.

“When I first started to talk about online safety in 2014, I was told that this was an issue that actually affected very, very few women,” she said, claiming this included comments from top British institutions that showed “institutional sexism pervades British society”. 

“Back in 2014, when I raised the issue of intimate image abuse, there was almost immediately a group of members of the House of Lords who pulled together to say it was a load of rubbish.”

So what has changed? Multiple women MPs told PoliticsHome that the “sea change” in Parliament since then has primarily been down to the number of women in Parliament. Until 1997, women had never made up more than 10 per cent of all MPs, and since then it has significantly increased. Currently there are 226 female MPs in the House of Commons, with women making up a record 35 per cent of MPs.

House of Commons report
The number of female MPs has continued to increase (House of Commons Research Briefing: Women in politics and public life, Isabel Buchanan 06/03/2024)

Many female MPs in recent years have been able to enact change by recounting their own personal experiences: Labour MP Tulip Siddiq had to delay her caesarean due to a Brexit vote in 2019, which contributed to proxy voting being brought in for MPs who were new parents. Tory MP Siobhan Baillie, who gave birth to her daughters while an MP in 2020 and 2022, repeatedly lobbied Chancellor Jeremy Hunt to push through the recent changes to government childcare policy. Theo Clarke, Conservative MP for Stafford, won multiple awards for a speech last year in which she spoke about her personal traumatic birth experience in 2022, an issue which she has continued to campaign on.

Clarke told PoliticsHome that while there was “more we can do”, she had personally benefited from the work of female MPs who had come before her.

Labour MP Sarah Champion, former Shadow Secretary of State for Women and Equalities, said that having more women in Parliament “mainstreams the topic”, but that female MPs still need to find alternative ways to get their voices heard.

“First-hand testimony is always very, very powerful, particularly in the chamber,” she said.

“I think that when you are effectively at a power imbalance – and I would say women's issues and rights have been very much overlooked – to try and work in a cross-party way, is a way to get your power. I think that's probably why you're seeing more cross-party working.”

Shadow Women’s Health Minister Abena Oppong-Asare pointed out that the newfound prominence of women’s issues was not just down to female parliamentarians, but also because of an increase in women holding senior journalist and campaigner roles, which has helped to “shift the dial”.

Oppong-Asare is also Chair of the Labour Women’s Network, which helps to train women for public office. More than 50 per cent of the Parliamentary Labour Party are now women, but Oppong-Asare added that more needed to be done around getting more women into public office from a more diverse range of backgrounds, as well as ensuring women are represented across all levels in Parliament.

“Whether it's the role of clerks, because they will be the ones suggesting who gets invited to a panel to speak about a particular issue, and also staff as well, in terms of the kind of debates that MPs may raise,” she said.

There have also been other factors at play. Brearley from Pregnant Then Screwed suggested that the primary reason for childcare getting more political attention was when the economic costs of women being excluded from the workplace became apparent. 

Clarke told PoliticsHome that when putting together the APPG report on birth trauma, the economic impact of women leaving the workplace due to birth trauma was something they felt was important to consider.

“I think that's something that policymakers probably haven't traditionally thought about in much detail, and I think we should be looking at that,” she said.

Miller said that throughout her time chairing the Women and Equality Select Committee, the “evidence base” to support changes to protect women became stronger and stronger, across multiple fields such as economics, medicine, and psychology – in part, due to the increasing number of women entering scientific professions.

But, Miller argued, these have to be accompanied by a fundamental change in culture and attitude from the top. 

Crediting Theresa May as the “architect” of a change in attitude among ministers around taking women’s issues seriously, Miller said that to progress women’s equality further, a top-down approach would need to be continued.

“I don't think we can underestimate that changing attitude at a senior ministerial level has really affected the way that law enforcement and others react to the reports of crime,” she said.

For Oppong-Asare, the Covid-19 pandemic was a turning point for women’s issues as it highlighted vast health inequalities, particularly for BME women. In 2020, she wrote a report exploring the ways in which Covid was disproportionately impacting people who met more than one protected characteristic.

Brearley agreed, saying that the pandemic showed that “when women are not in the room, decisions about women and their lives are just not on the agenda".

“It's never been more apparent than it was when the pandemic hit, and pregnant women were completely ignored and forgotten about in government guidance and it was women that were hoovering up the majority of the unpaid labour in the home,” she continued. 

As a general election looms and the parliamentary agenda slims down in the months leading to the long summer recess, it is clear that there are many women across Parliament who are determined to ensure the “sea change” in women’s issues does not stop here.  

For some, this is an inherently political battle: Opong-Asare said “every political party has a different approach in terms of how they approach gender inequality”. 

“So the reality is that the Government has been in power for 14 years and hasn't seen a huge amount of progress when it comes to addressing things,” she said.

Some government ministers, such as Women and Equalities Secretary Kemi Badenoch, have been criticised for using gender-related topics as “wedge issues”. Last year, when a committee of MPs demanded that menopause be made a "protected characteristic" under equalities law, Badenoch responded saying that people had previously called for "many things" to be protected, such as "carers, single people, having ginger hair, being short".

Responding to comments by Labour MP Carolyn Harris, Badenoch said calls for a pilot on menopause leave were being made from "a left-wing perspective."

Champion said that she thought this was more about “people’s future leadership bids" than it was about the topic itself, while Tory former Women and Equalities Secretary Miller said: “I simply don't accept that issues to do with women have anything to do with ‘wokeness’.” 

“I think they're to do with common values that we have as British citizens, that we want to see people have the opportunity to succeed regardless of whether they're men or women. And we still have a way to go on that.”

While Miller praised some areas where the current Government has made progress on gender pay gap reporting and flexible working, she said she “wants to see more” from both Government and Parliament.

“If we're going to get really to a 50/50 parliament, we also need to see not just the parties change their selection processes, which by and large they have, we need to see better protection for women on social media,” she said.

As the Labour Party is already more than 50 per cent female, she argued a potential future Labour government might struggle to “even maintain the status quo” as they will be unable to use positive discrimination laws to elect more women.

For campaigners such as Brearley, having more conversations in Parliament is just the start. She said she was concerned that a lot of talk had not always translated into action.

"There felt like there was a moment in 2016 where politicians were really interested in what was happening to women in the workplace off the back of the 2016 Equality and Human Rights Commission report," she said.

"Sadly, since then, there was a commitment by the Government to repeat that research in 2020 –obviously, that hasn't happened, which shows how much that sadly has fallen back down the list of priorities, and without the research and the evidence it's very hard to make a case for further changes to legislation."

She claimed that the vast majority of the recommendations by the 2016 EHRC report on pregnancy and maternity discrimination have so far to date not been implemented by Government.

"It shows how long it takes for anything like that to actually change."

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