Maria Miller: “This fight for equality is far from finished”
100 years after some women first won the right to vote, Maria Miller believes the pace of progress in British politics is still ‘embarrassingly slow’. But the chair of the Women and Equalities Committee says 2018 must be the year things change. She talks to James Millar
It’s the question that’s vexed many a politician in recent years. Most recently Angela Merkel raised eyebrows when asked ‘Are you a feminist?’ and answering very equivocally.
David Cameron drew criticism when he refused to wear the t-shirt, literally, after Ed Miliband, Nick Clegg and even Theresa May were photographed in a top bearing the Fawcett Society slogan ‘This is what a feminist looks like.’ (It wasn’t the same t-shirt in each picture, refusing to don a top after three senior MPs had sweated in it would be entirely understandable).
But the question is not a hard one for Maria Miller, chair of the Women and Equalities Select Committee. “Yes,” she answers simply. “Because ultimately a feminist believes in the importance of woman having an equal role in society.”
2018 was always destined to be a landmark year in the fight for gender equality, as the UK marks the centenary of women’s suffrage. But after the revelations in the US about Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein that triggered the #MeToo avalanche, and a Westminster harassment scandal that has engulfed all major political parties, the need for change has rarely felt more urgent.
Miller’s committee has just announced an inquiry into sexual harassment in public places, following a string of recent surveys revealing the scale of the problem. One YouGov poll reported that 85% of women aged 18–24 had experienced unwanted sexual attention in public places, while 45% had experienced unwanted sexual touching. The inquiry sounds like a massive undertaking, but Miller is confident. “I don’t think this is difficult at all,” she insists. “I think it’s very easy to dismiss this as something that’s very difficult and will lead to men not being able to have conversations with women ever again because they don’t quite know what constitutes sexual harassment. The law is pretty clear already in the Equality Act on what constitutes sexual harassment in the workplace, sexual harassment is something that makes people feel uncomfortable and which they believe diminishes them or undermines them. There are already concepts that are well entrenched in law that we can easily take out to the public realm.
“The problem is that it’s not being taken seriously.”
She adds, a little controversially, “Perhaps women themselves have been at fault in putting up with it for so long that it’s almost become accepted as part of the price for being a woman. Well now perhaps we’re calling time on that and saying that’s not good enough.”
But she goes on to explain: “It’s very easy to criticise women for not asking for a pay rise, not asking for a promotion, which in my lifetime have been things that businesses have done, suggested it’s women’s fault for not putting themselves forward. When you start to think of the price some women are having to pay when they do put themselves forward then perhaps we need to take another hard look at that and say it’s not women who are letting themselves down it’s the fact that the environments that they are in are choosing to ignore many of the pressures that they are under.”
Of course, the sexual harassment allegations at Westminster, and those engulfing Hollywood, have dominated media coverage over the past few months. But Miller’s committee is taking a wider view. “I’m very concerned that current issues around Hollywood and Westminster are only the tip of an iceberg around sexual harassment. We cannot allow people to portray sexual harassment as something that is simply a problem for Hollywood stars and politicians. Sexual harassment is a problem for women day in day out in this country and our inquiry that focuses on the public realm will show that it’s a problem well beyond the workplace.”
And she puts the government on notice that, as with previous Women and Equalities reports, her committee will pull no punches. “It’s a tough thing to challenge and perhaps I feel like as a select committee we can challenge it because our remit is very clear – it’s to make sure that government policy is working and at the moment two thirds of women say they experience sexual harassment, not only here but throughout Europe. We can fairly firmly say that government policy isn’t working for those women and it needs to deal with it.”
But parliament has its own problems with sexual harassment. Two cabinet ministers – Michael Fallon and Damian Green – resigned at the tail end of last year after women spoke up about their past behaviour, and the Leader of the House, Andrea Leadsom, is leading a panel hammering out a new set of structures to help victims of bullying and abuse. Depending on which source you believe that process will result in perpetrators either being threatened with little more than a slap on the wrist or a recall process that could see MPs sacked. The latter would certainly answer the question of why the likes of Fallon and Green must resign from cabinet yet are still deemed fit to stay on as MPs. Miller, not a part of Leadsom’s panel, is staying on the fence when it comes to her preferred outcome. “I think the best way to deal with it is to stop it happening in the first place and if it does happen to have proper sanctions in place.”
While she doesn’t necessarily think parliament is any worse than other workplaces when it comes to the incidence of sexual harassment, she does concede that there are special circumstances with the combination of power and booze within the Palace walls. One of which ought to change in her opinion. “Quite why in the 21st century we need to have alcohol available from midday to midnight in multiple outlets, I think many of our constituents would ask why is that necessary,” she says. “I for one feel strongly that we should wake up to the fact this is a place of work not a place of leisure.”
Miller has identified a number of issues deterring women from standing for parliament. As well as the culture, she believes many are put off by the level of abuse, particularly online that goes with the job. She has called for anonymity online to be banned and for a levy on social media companies to pay the cost of policing the problems that arise on and because of their platforms.
Asked if she’s had online abuse she snorts. “Every single Member of Parliament has online abuse. What is concerning is the lack of seriousness from social media platforms.”
She speaks from experience. She received a “very violent rape threat” and she explains what happened next: “I didn’t think it was credible so I didn’t tell the police – maybe I was wrong in that respect – but Twitter lost the report, thought about it for a few months, and it was only in a face to face meeting with them that they took it seriously enough to tell me how it was going to be dealt with. Even now you really don’t know what’s happened to that or whether the individual concerned has been taken to task. More transparency, both in the identity of people who are online and in transparency in what action is taken, would be welcome.”
A third change Miller is keen to see is that working practices alter to make parliament more family friendly. “I’m not talking about compromising the way parliament works but simply making it a working place that we can be proud of and showing a way to other industries that may be less enlightened,” she says.
In 2016 Professor Sarah Childs published The Good Parliament report, having been invited by the Speaker to study parliamentary procedure and recommend changes to modernise the way it works. The report called for gender quotas for parliamentary candidates if the parties can’t achieve a 50/50 split voluntarily, more diverse select committee witnesses and more women in the parliamentary press gallery. The need for the latter suggestion was only reinforced when journalists focused on the possibility of boobs on the green benches if parliament took up the idea of allowing breastfeeding in the chamber. “I don’t think we should judge the report by the reaction of the media,” Miller frowns. “We should judge the report by whether there are things that can be done to make parliament a better place for everyone to work in. Gone are the days that we need parliament to fit around the working hours of the inns of court or indeed the agrarian calendar.”
Professor Child’s report seems to have been quietly shelved, but Miller’s committee echoed it at the end of its own inquiry into improving female representation last year. The final report contained six recommendations including setting a target of 45% of MPs being women by 2030, sanctions for parties that fail to field female candidates in 45% of seats and imposing section 106 of the Equality Act that would force parties to publish their own gender pay gaps just as businesses have recently been made to. Miller sums up the government’s response by making the noise associated with wrong answers on Family Fortunes. The administration rejected all six proposals, something Miller described as “startling” in a debate on the report at the end of last year. But something which she thinks will change. The government rejected the need for parties to publish gender pay data claiming it would be too onerous an obligation on small parties struggling for funds, but Miller points out that small businesses are exempt from the gender pay audit legislation. “I believe that the government will see the inconsistency in its position,” she adds.
Her committee is rebooting the inquiry in light of the most recent election at which female representation rose to a record 32%, and aims to put pressure on the government to rethink. But her optimism is also driven by a simple quirk of the calendar. 2018 marks 100 years since the first women won the right to vote. “I think 2018 is an opportunity of a lifetime to really push forward the agenda of gender equality in parliament.”
The centenary will be marked by a huge variety of events across the UK, starting with a reception in Westminster Hall to which every living woman who has ever been an MP is invited. The fact they can all fit in one room is testament to how few there has been. “I’m the 265th women to ever be elected, I was the 38th woman to ever have a cabinet position. This is not a good record for an institution which is responsible for laws to do with equality,” Miller says.
“The pace of change is far too slow and it’s an embarrassment that more has not been achieved in the last 100 years.”
It’s clear that while 100 years may have passed for Maria Miller the history is very alive for her. She says she feels a “visceral” connection to the suffragettes who will be celebrated this year, and adds: “Every woman who is here is playing a part still in creating an equal voice for women in this country and we have to take that very seriously.
“This fight may have started more than a hundred years ago but it’s far from finished.”