Zoom Parliament: a huge step for gender equality and greater diversity
©UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor
The House authorities have taken an unusual decision at an exceptional time in our history. This move could have benefits that last well beyond the crisis.
Today Parliament returns from recess looking markedly different. While a few members will be present in the chamber, many others will be joining the debates from their kitchen tables or bedrooms.
The coronavirus and lockdown have affected us all and changed many people’s lives forever. I know MPs have been working tirelessly to support constituents and as parliament returns, they will be keen to hold the government to account on the difficult next steps the country must take.
By introducing video conferencing - known to many of us now as Zoom - the House authorities have moved quickly to solve the problem of allowing members to make vital contributions when they cannot be present in person. An excellent step towards modernising the way Parliament works is a by-product of these strange times.
Without taking away from the tragic context, this modernising move could have huge implications for equal representation in the future and is something to be welcomed.
Parliamentary practices such as unusual and predictable office hours, a lack of maternity leave, and a lack of consideration for the caring responsibilities, which are generally heaped on women, act as a major barrier to women’s involvement in political life. Only a third of MPs are women and, at this rate, it could take another 45 years or nine general elections for parliament to have equal gender representation.
Post-Covid, wouldn’t it be logical for us to continue to use the advances of technology to allow a wider range of people - particularly women - to participate more actively in politics?
The motherhood gap in parliament means that before the 2017 election, 39% of female MPs had no children in comparison to 30% of male MPs. Despite a slight improvement since then, women are still more likely to enter politics once their children are significantly older.
A similar problem arises for people with disabilities. Some 16% of working age adults are disabled. Yet fewer than 1% of women MPs identify as disabled. Could it be that outdated working practices in Parliament deter this group of people?
We urgently need a political system that is diverse and reflective of the society it seeks to represent. This is not just because it is the most fair way to proceed but because policies are developed so much better when a wide range of views are taken into account.
The Covid crisis has highlighted how women and men are affected differently. More men seem to be dying and we need to know why. At the same time, more women are exposed on the frontline in care-work or in the NHS, pregnancy discrimination is on the rise and women are the prime educator of their children now at home - juggling this alongside their working and other caring responsibilities.
I set up the Centenary Action Group in 2018, a cross-party campaigning coalition of more than 100 activists, politicians and women’s rights organisations to work together to eradicate the barriers that prevent a diverse range of women from taking part in the decisions that affect their lives. The current crisis has highlighted the danger of gender blind policies.
Right across the world institutions are making the most of the new technology available to communicate across distance, to share their views, to bridge gaps. Post-Covid, wouldn’t it be logical for us to continue to use the advances of technology to allow a wider range of people - particularly women - to participate more actively in politics?
The House authorities have taken an unusual step at an exceptional time in our history. This step has benefits well beyond the crisis.
Parliament has followed all the other businesses in the land by looking at ways in which it can work remotely - my vote is for this to be institutionalised well beyond - thereby promoting a more diverse and effective parliament, one fit for the 21st Century.