Never mind lean in – hands up!

15 November 2013

Getting women to talk about themselves and their success is not easy. But this week, marking the start of our new women leaders series, we heard from three women from three political parties talk about their common experience of a career in politics.

The IfG has expressed concern about the low numbers of women in the Cabinet and at the top of the Civil Service. With only 24% of MPs being women, we wanted to find positive examples of success to help inspire others and help government be more effective in his area.

We asked the speakers, Stella Creasy MP, Jo Swinson MP and Liz Truss MP to talk about how they work. We learned that women want to succeed in politics but need encouragement from families, especially their mothers, nerves of steel and the courage to raise their hand and say ‘I am here’.

Their tips for making a career in politics a success were:

• Say ‘yes’ and not ‘no’ to challenges and don’t be afraid to take risks.
• Practice public speaking early in your career – at school.
• Be assertive, raise your hand and ask for what you want.
• See the job as that of an entrepreneur and make your own path and success.
• See public scrutiny as part of the job – you will get scrutinised about your weight, hair, shoes etc. but Creasy said re-tweeting nasty twitter-troll comments gives you a sense of some justice.
• Even if this advice doesn’t apply to you, pass it on to your daughters and tell them to put their hands up!

Recipe for success starts in early life

All three women had parents and peers who believed in them and seized the opportunity when it came to stand as candidates.

Liz Truss was outraged as a young girl when on a plane to Canada her younger brothers were given junior pilot badges and she was given one for a junior air stewardess. And this was the ‘80s when women wore shoulder pads and were told they too could become a Prime Minister. But her parents told her she was equal to her brother and to go for it.

Stella Creasy wanted to bring about change locally campaigning against live animal exports and saw politics as the best way to do this. She had stayed away from student politics in favour of local politics. Her chance came when her local MP stood down but she remembers being frightened. Her mother helped her believe she could do it and still does.

Jo Swinson seized the opportunity to become a candidate when a boundary change opened up a seat. She quit her job, moved back in with her parents in Glasgow but she acknowledged not everyone could do this. She also acknowledged it was not an attractive job without training or a clear career path or adequate childcare, which was still seen as the woman’s role, even by women.

Dealing with ‘drip-drip’ sexism in parliament and government

Parliament has now adopted more family friendly hours – but has sexism gone from politics? The overt sexism was less apparent, Liz Truss said, but was now more of a drip-drip effect. We heard plenty of examples.

Stella Creasy was asked to comment by the media when Louise Mensch resigned. Not being a parent, she said ‘how would I know anything?’ She gave journalists a list of male counterparts who were parents to comment. None of them were contacted.

Liz Truss was fed up being asked how she does such a job with children – she was sure her male counterparts were not asked this quite as much. When her children visited Parliament one day one female MP said, ‘goodness you must hardly see your Mum!’ These types of comments hold women back and we have a responsibility to pull those people up on it, she said.

Inside government Truss talked about improving the diversity of staff in the ministerial back rooms. She said diversity in government was like working back in Shell in the 1980s. She is still the only woman in the room at times.

There was some disagreement on whether all-women shortlists would be the right way to encourage more women into Parliament. Liz Truss felt this would exclude other backgrounds and preferred all parties to opt for open primaries. Stella Creasy felt all-women shortlists were the way forward, and she was proud she was selected this way.

Stella Creasy said that research showed that an 80:20 ratio of males to females in the room looks like 50:50 to most men and that many thought the job was done. A poll this week about women in parliament came to a similar conclusion.

Holding back

Jo Swinson admitted that, unlike male colleagues, she had not pushed herself forward to be a minister. It was her husband who said she should let her boss know she wanted to be considered and that she should say so early. All three agreed that women are less inclined to put their hand up and say ‘I want this’ and ‘I need that’. Liz Truss said that when visiting schools, it was the boys who first put their hands up to ask questions. Despite much talk of the difficulties, there was sound advice for women thinking of entering politics and all agreed it was a fascinating and rewarding job and that we need all kinds of people to get the best outcomes in government and society.

Our thanks to Rosamund Urwin, Evening Standard columnist, for chairing this event.

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One Response

  1. Angela Fearon on 18 November 2013 at 9:43 pm

    The experience of Julia Gillard (Australia’s first female PM) is a marked example of much of what is said here.

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