Tara O'Reilly: How to be an ally
Women in Westminster are standing up for each other – but how can male colleagues support the fight for a more diverse, inclusive Parliament? Tara O’Reilly explains
It’s easy to hear the words ‘sisterhood’ or ‘feminism’ and feel empowered if you’re a woman – but if you’re a man and don’t know what these things actually mean, it’s also easy to feel confused and alienated. Women in politics, and especially those from BAME or working-class backgrounds, face a unique set of challenges when navigating the Westminster bubble: we are subject to sexist and sexual jokes (as detailed in Gemma White QC's report), and we are often underappreciated and overlooked with career progression. It is a tough place to work as a woman – but it does not have to be, and the support of men is key to making Westminster a better place for women to work. Here’s how you can be a supportive ally to women in politics - whether you think you understand feminism or not.
- Ask your female friends and colleagues in Westminster what they want, and what they need
Whilst the sisterhood celebrates our commonalities, it celebrates our differences too – so the woman you share an office with may experience different challenges to the friend you have lunch with. Don’t be presumptuous – ask your colleague or friend ‘I recognise that you face unique challenges as a woman in Westminster - how can I support you?’. Being open to listening, and learning, is key.
- Give women credit
Don't let women be spoken over or disregarded in meetings – make sure they are given the credit they deserve. Make it your mission to ensure women are asked to speak just as much as men in meetings and volunteer yourself up for tasks often considered a ‘woman's job’ – like organising the birthday cake for your colleague or printing out your MP’s diary. Women notice when these small efforts are made – they are appreciated!
- Invite women into your networks
Men often have strong professional networks in Westminster – and women are often excluded from ‘lads’ talk and banter, post work beers, or joining the work football team. The next time you go for a drink or coffee with a contact, invite your female colleague along. Or ask her if there’s anyone they’d like you to introduce her to – and then set it up. Introduce women to important stakeholders by celebrating their accomplishments so there is no doubt about their competence. And don’t ever, ever, say ‘she’s great, I’m even slightly scared of her!’.
- Challenge the stereotypes
Women often get (sexist) personality-based feedback and men get skills-based feedback – a woman who is assertive will be told they are ‘misbehaving’ and have an ‘attitude problem’, and men will be told they have ‘good leadership skills’. The next time you hear a female colleague being called ‘bossy’, correct that person and say ‘actually, she is assertive’. Small affirmations like this go a long way in changing the culture of how we view women in politics.
- Talk to the ‘boys’
It’s great if you’re keen to support women in Westminster, but not everyone is there yet. Some men won’t engage because they don’t understand, some because they don’t care, and some because they’re not actually sure how to be helpful – so they just do nothing instead. Persuade your male colleagues to do the things listed above, and most importantly: call your male colleagues and friends out when they are being unfair or sexist towards women. Women do this already but sometimes, sadly, the best messengers to those resistant to change are in fact men.
Challenge behaviour regularly and be open to women still challenging your behaviours and attitudes too – there is no shame in getting it wrong with good intentions, just be ready to accept that this is a long learning process. Many of the behaviours (including the internalised sexism that women sometimes have) are deeply ingrained – so changing these habits will take time.
Westminster has the potential to be a workplace that is exemplary in its support of women and those from less advantaged backgrounds – but we need a bit of effort from the more privileged men to get to that place first.
Tara O’Reilly is a founder member of Women in Westminster and coordinator to the Labour Tribune MPs Group