Thoroughly modern Mawson: Meet the new woman at the top of the House of Lords
Chloe Mawson (pictured at the table of the Chamber) the new clerk assistant, has become the most senior woman staff member in the history of the House of Lords | House of Lords/Roger Harris
The appointment of a woman to a senior position may not be big news in the wider world, but Chloe Mawson has just become the House of Lords’ first female clerk assistant for 400 years. She talks to Georgina Bailey about her new role, old battles and why Westminster’s modern management team must be more diverse and inclusive
“It’s the first office I’ve had where I’ve been able to tell what the weather is outside!” After 21 years working in Parliament, Chloe Mawson has now become the most senior woman staff member in the history of the House of Lords, as the clerk assistant – complete with a light-filled office above the chamber.
Despite the slightly unassuming job title - “you spend your whole career being a clerk and then it’s, ‘I've got my big promotion to be clerk assistant!’”, she laughs – Mawson is effectively the deputy chief executive of the House of Lords Authority, responsible for overseeing the Committee Office, Legislation Office, Journal Office, Black Rod’s Office, Hansard and the Lords Library. She sits on the management board, at the table of the House, deputises for the clerk of the parliaments, and is responsible for most of the core procedural documents of the Lords, including the Woolsack Brief, order paper and minutes of proceedings – as well as being the senior responsible officer in the Lords for the Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme.
Asked how important it is to have a woman in this senior position, Mawson says: “We're really a bit behind the times. In most organisations, this is probably a conversation they were having 20 years ago, maybe. But it's great that it's happened. Five years ago, there were no women on the management board, now we're at parity.”
While Mawson concedes she wouldn’t be considered a moderniser in other settings, she certainly has been a trailblazer in the Lords: she was the first clerk to request and manage flexible work around caring for her three children (14, 12 and eight), including part time work, compressed hours and a job share in her previous role – all of which she had to fight for.
There were things I had to fight for to be able to have children and balance a career
This will be her first time working full time on-site in 12 years, and she was slightly apprehensive about the long hours keeping her away from home - her husband is also a Commons Clerk – but her daughters encouraged her to go for it. The couple have been together 19 years, but Mawson insists they do not talk shop at home. They had never even been on the same project until it came to the pandemic – with three children on the WiFi for online school, they surprised their colleagues by appearing in the same video to save bandwidth.
Of her landmark appointment, she says: “When I joined, I don’t think there were any women in senior posts, any female heads of offices... We were all white. I was the second or third person not to come from Oxbridge. It was a really very samey department. There were things that I had to fight for to be able to have children and balance a career, which are now just absolutely accepted,” she says.
“One of the things I'm really excited about the job is just that I am now a voice at the management board. I can hopefully build on what has been really important to me in terms of getting here to make sure that it continues to become a more diverse and more inclusive organisation, particularly senior management.”
I was involved in digital projects before the pandemic where something like launching a new members’ names database would take three years. Then you've got peer hub and remote voting in five weeks!
Mawson was also intimately involved in the work on setting up the hybrid House in her previous role as clerk of the journals (who serves as clerk to the Procedure Committee) – particularly as her previous job share partner handed in her notice the day before lockdown was announced. Her office was responsible for re-writing the standing orders and guidance for members and staff, and involved in the setting up of Peer Hub and supporting peers with electronic voting.
Mason hopes that many lessons of the pandemic can carry over – in terms of more flexible working for staff, collaboration between teams and the ability to change at pace when needed. “I was involved in digital projects before the pandemic where something like launching a new members’ names database would take three years. Then you've got peer hub and remote voting in five weeks!”
“One of the really nice things in the pandemic has been we've just had to use everyone that we can, and so we've had a really diverse group of people who have come from all sorts of departments like catering and other departments who have come to really help the core business of supporting the hybrid House,” she says. “That's been brilliant, because often the procedural jobs are seen as hard to get into and maybe a bit protective, but it hasn't been like that at all. It's been this real multidisciplinary group of people who have really delivered change. I really hope that we can kind of take that momentum and that feeling of success, and use it as part of the culture change work.”
Mawson has also been part of the Steering Group for Change, a working group of members and staff who have been overseeing the response to the Naomi Ellenbogen QC 2019 report on culture in the Lords post-#MeToo. “It's a really exciting group because it is members and staff from all different offices and grades and backgrounds, all working together. I was probably a bit sceptical at the beginning that it would really feel like we were working properly, as equals. But it actually has really worked very well,” she says.
One of the main findings of the Ellenbogen report was the existence of “a culture of undue deference, fear and hierarchy that puts members and clerks at the top, and everyone else below”. Mawson says that although she doesn’t think that culture is as bad as it was then, there is still more work to be done and she hopes the steering group will continue in some form after it’s initial terms of reference come to an end this summer.
“We're much better at trying to think how we can support people to get where they want in the organisation, how we can support different professions. But you can see from staff surveys and other things that there is still a feeling that there's more to do on the sort of clerk/non-clerk divide, if you want to call it that, and still work to do in terms of making sure that the relationship we have with members is about professionalism and respect and delivering great services but not being deferential,” she says. She is also optimistic about speeding the ICGS process, with new recommendations from Alison Stanley’s delayed 18-month review.
On her own experiences, Mawson says that there have been moments over her 21 years where she looks back and thinks she shouldn’t have accepted certain behaviours but kept quiet. “But I also have always loved my job, and really felt quite passionate about parliament, and it working well and enjoyed the collegial atmosphere,” she says. “Largely, my relationships with members have been really interesting and professional and rewarding.”
“What's really good is that now, hopefully, if someone that was experiencing that stuff, they would feel empowered through the things we've set up to speak out, they'll be able to get an independent investigation, they'll be able to seek support, they would hopefully have a manager who will stand up to bad behaviour for them,” Mawson adds.
As we emerge from the pandemic, Mawson is optimistic: “We've got a new Lord Speaker, Senior Deputy Speaker, a new clerk of the parliaments, a new clerk assistant, we’ve just announced a new head of HR, we’re about to get our first ever chief operating officer. This is the time where you could really make this place work in the best possible way. That's why it's quite exciting to get this job now. It just feels like a really good opportunity.”