Anushka Asthana: It is a refreshing sight to see more than 200 female MPs. But don’t break out the champagne just yet
There is a cost to society when women MPs serve shorter terms and hold fewer senior positions, says Anushka Asthana
Seeing Ellie Reeves – the new MP for Lewisham West and Penge – walking through parliament with a toddler who she had just carried through a voting lobby was a refreshing sight. For the first time ever parliament has welcomed more than 200 women MPs, and in the old-fashioned, creaking structure of the House of Commons here was a glimmer of modernisation.
But before we break open the champagne, to celebrate an admitted milestone in female participation, let’s remember that this cohort of MPs is still dwarfed by close to 450 men –who make up just under 70% of the total.
And there are other notes of caution too.
Harriet Harman is right that we should cheer senior women taking up the chairmanships of some of the most weighty select committees, like Yvette Cooper at Home Affairs, and Meg Hillier at the PAC, and now Nicky Morgan at Treasury.
But still only 23% of candidates for these influential positions were female.
Women made up just three of 30 Conservative candidates, and eight of 19 for Labour (better but still disproportionate).
Why? Harman has published new research that shows the average length of service for a female MP is a third shorter than for men, so will be less likely on average to strike the seniority that many of these roles tend to carry.
Typically a woman leaves parliament with four to five years less in service, according to her figures. And this certainly isn’t a question of commitment, it is that women are more likely to be selected in marginal seats (including at times constituencies that were judged by their parties as impossible to take).
For Reeves, who has campaigned for the rights of working mothers, her first impressions of parliament have been mixed, saying the onsite nursery for her son has been hugely helpful. She says things have improved greatly and the rise in both women and parents will help.
“On the other hand, the late-night voting, particularly Mondays, is going to make things really difficult,” she said, meaning bedtimes will have to be missed from Monday to Wednesday when her son started school.
“I actually think that a lot of parents are facing these sorts of problems balancing work and family, not just MPs, but even voting an hour earlier on Tuesday and Wednesday would mean I could get home for bedtime.”
Then there is a question of what meets a woman choosing to become an MP. This week the parties have been trading accusations over questions of abuse – with the Daily Mail screaming of the “shocking scale of hard-left bullying” while the Labour party expressed dismay for “vitriolic personal attacks” during the election.
The truth is this is unacceptable in every direction. The abuse affects male MPs too but seems particularly acute for women. I’ve been shocked each time I’ve spoken to Labour’s Diane Abbott about it. And there are terrible stories from Conservatives too – who ask which other group would ever be labelled “scum” without others coming to their defence? Sarah Wollaston revealed that a masked man had covered her office with graffiti insults and Sheryl Murray told of swastikas carved into posters and messages such as “burn the witch”.
The answer to this is not to withdraw into partisan bubbles but to stand tall together – and ask how many women will be persuaded to step forward for these important jobs in future if they believe that the working practices will be anti-family, and if they will be rewarded for their hard work with a torrent of abuse.
Because numbers matter in parliament. Too few female MPs, or select committee chairs, means too little insight into how women’s lives, at times, differ to men’s – and what politics can do to support them. The lack of a balanced gendered lens in parliament is not something we can afford to maintain.
Anushka Asthana is Political Editor of the Guardian