The Rennard allegations have put Westminster's sexual politics in the spotlight. So how bad is it? Women who know tell of boozy conferences, wandering hands and the obstacles to complaining.

Oona King

Former Labour MP, now a Labour peer

When we arrived in 1997, it was institutionally sexist. When women would stand up in the chamber, men on the other side would be shouting "Melons! Melons!" while making hand gestures – that's how juvenile it was.

There was an extraordinary level of sexism in terms of power, which hasn't changed that much. It wasn't just from politicians – when the media contacted you, they were as likely to ask about your lipstick as your policies.

I think there was a step change in 1997, with the influx of Labour women – but 18% of a workplace can't revolutionise that workplace or overturn a culture that has been there for 500 years.

I never feared wandering hands in Westminster, but I did encounter them in the European parliament – from British politicians – and before that when I was a political assistant, from political advisers from Westminster. But a lot of women in many fields have been groped. We need to make it unacceptable in all spheres of life. Politics is no worse than other fields.

Gaby Hinsliff

Former political editor of the Observer

I felt safer in my 12 years working in the House of Commons than I did in a newspaper office. And better treated. But it's always about power. I may have had my share of hand-on-knee moments in the Commons, but I never felt threatened because they were not my bosses. So I could say "Get off!" And you have the whip hand, because you can write about it. You are not in the same position as a researcher on a rolling contract who is worried about being let go – or an intern who has no rights.

I started in the lobby in my 20s and everyone assumed I was a secretary. The first time I went to a party conference with my boss, I was 26. He introduced me to an elderly Tory peer who leaned down and said, "Oh lovely! Are you doing work experience with your dad?" One frontbench MP rang the office and when I picked up the phone asked, "Can I speak to one of the men?"

Women MPs would swap notes like "don't get stuck late in an office with so and so", and warn women off working with certain MPs – known as "not safe in cabs". MPs are not employed by anyone – not their office or party – so there is a wild west approach to employment law. You are not an employee, so you don't have rights.

Today it's not the same: there is a critical mass of women. Also, it's less alcoholic, and MPs in their 30s are not the same as men in their 50s used to be. Female junior press officers and researchers may have stories though, because it's a competitive environment and a first step into politics, so they don't want to be the one who complains.

Edwina Currie

Former Conservative minister

When I first came into the house, there were 23 women MPs, but thousands more worked there in the library, kitchens and so on. And many of the blokes didn't see us as their equals. Occasionally, one had to speak quite sharply to them. For instance, an older chap in the lift said to me, "Hello! Who are you working for?", assuming I was a member of someone's staff. Of course I replied, "The people of South Derbyshire – who are you working for?" I was an elected member, and could look someone in the eye and tell them to push off.

I came into the house when I was 36, and I just found it irritating. There were always two or three men who were notorious. You would see them getting into a lift and you would wait for the next lift. You didn't want an argument and you didn't want to find that when you got to your floor, you were pushing their hand from under your skirt.

I didn't feel threatened because I knew I was the men's equal – if not their better! A lot of this inappropriate behaviour is power play, they do it because they can; 10,000 people have passes to Westminster and no one is in charge. Any other organisation that employed thousands of people would have an HR department.

People have legitimate affairs – but this is not the same as an unwanted advance from a person who is in a position to cause you grief. If they are predators, they will aim for those who can't complain. For young people it can be frightening – they may not be coming to harm, but they haven't consented to being pestered and it can affect them quite badly. The fat slob who does it doesn't think twice. It is much harder for younger members of staff who worry about upsetting somebody. MPs help make the legislation that protects people in vulnerable positions – they shouldn't create victims by their own behaviour.

Researcher (anonymous)

I worked as an intern and a researcher in Westminster after university. It is a very male-dominated environment, so it ends up being laddish.

Party conference is the main flashpoint, with a lot of alcohol and late nights. You get hit on a lot. People get very drunk on free wine and there is a lot of dancefloor groping. And what can you say apart from, "Don't do that!"? If you want a job in politics, you can't tell a current or future minister to fuck off.

In 2010, at party conference, someone who is a Tory minister had his hands all over the place – and it wasn't just me, but my friends and colleagues, too. He had to be told in strong terms to leave us alone. It's not just women – there are male MPs who are notorious for hitting on young male researchers, too. I know of one guy who worked for a married male MP with kids, and when the MP gave him the keys to his flat, he thought he was just being kind, until he was warned by other researchers that the MP just wanted to sleep with him.

Jobs in politics are about making connections and being sociable, and sometimes older MPs take advantage of this. I was asked by a senior MP, who I didn't know, to prepare his lunch for him – he said he didn't know how to use the microwave, and asked me to do it!

Angela Eagle

Labour MP for Wallasey and shadow leader of the House of Commons

Women did have problems. In Teresa Gorman's book The Bastards, she wrote that at the height of the battle over the Maastrict treaty, two male Tory MPs sat on either side of her, discussing what she would be like in bed. I have never experienced sexual harassment in parliament, but when I first came to Westminster everyone assumed you were a secretary if you were a woman.

Have things changed? Well, "Calm down dear" was said to me by the prime minister, who then made a sexual innuendo about Nadine Dorries being frustrated. Large numbers of people in the chamber found that hilarious, but it was humiliating for her. The Lib Dem women who complained to their party about Lord Rennard didn't want to embarrass their party. They thought it would deal with the situation, but it didn't. Women need to know that if they make a complaint, it'll be taken seriously.

Sara Kelly

Former employee in an MP's office, now executive director of Coadec, the coalition for a digital economy

I worked in Westminster from 2007 to 2008 for a Conservative MP doing constituency work. My MP was fantastic and I never experienced any sexism. However, I was aware of instances in other offices – comments on the way female staff members dressed, things like that. One big problem is there is no system to deal with complaints. There are no HR processes. If you want to complain about an MP, you have to go to the whips' office. I can imagine this would make you anxious if you wanted a career in politics and had to complain about an influential MP. I think there may be problems with individuals, but there is no way for them to be reprimanded unless someone speaks to the press.

Tessa Jowell

Labour MP Dulwich and West Norwood and former Shadow Olympics minister

Westminster is a male-dominated environment, because there are three men for every woman. But you have to draw a clear distinction between male domination and sexism, which I have not encountered on a systematic basis.

When I first arrived, there were more men called John or Jonathan than all the elected women put together. And we sat until 10pm every evening, so there was much more drinking. Today the hours have been modernised and it would be rare to see an MP voting drunk.

I was in my 40s when I was elected, but I remember in my late teens and 20s, feeling an ambient sexism in many circumstances. By the time I became an MP, we were moving towards all-women shortlists. There were a lot of furious men who felt they had been denied their birthright, and there may have been odd incidents of men trying to claim the women were inferior, but that was quickly disproved.

It's difficult to say if Westminster is worse than other workplaces, because it's such a unique place. A lot of the reporting of the Rennard allegations will have passed people by, but I hope if young women do read it and a man does try to exert their authority or touch them inappropriately, it will give them courage to report it and get proper redress.

Gillian Shephard

Former MP and current chair of the Association of Conservative Peers

When I came into Westminster in 1987, I had already had two distinct careers, as an educationalist and in local government. But I had not experienced sexism until I came to Westminster.

I didn't experience any of the crudeness we've been hearing about, or difficulty in getting promoted – I think being a woman actually helped me. But there were ingrained attitudes. For example, a Conservative backbencher once called me Betty. When I told him that wasn't my name he said, "All women MPs look the same to me, so I call you all Betty." I was sickened and I replied, "All right Harry", though that wasn't his name. You don't forget those things.

It's not like any other workplace – because there is no obvious recourse, and because of the power structures. I did find in 1997 that when all the Labour women came in, they turned to senior MPs – myself included, although we were not in the same party – because they couldn't believe what they found.

I think there is still a problem with female staff in parliament – the bar staff, cleaners, and others. I know some are addressed inappropriately, and it may be particularly hard for them to complain.

Joan Ruddock

Labour MP for Lewisham Deptford

When I arrived in Westminster, it was an incredibly sexist place where women were objectified, and there were always comments made of a sexual nature. When I was speaking in an army debate about Northern Ireland, one Tory said, in a voice that could be heard across the chamber, "I would strip search you any day." No one pulled him up. That's how they were used to behaving.

When people first get into the House of Commons there is often an attempt to intimidate them – whether you are a woman or a man. But if you are a woman, the comments are a different kind – "Oh she's mad," they'll say, or "she screeches". Barracking a woman can undermine her confidence, but it is also harder for her to be heard, too, because they have lighter voices.

I think it is better for women now as numbers have increased. But a recent example is when Stella Creasy was told by a Tory MP as she got into a lift: "This is for members only." Because she is a young, blonde woman, he couldn't believe she was an MP.

When I was younger, I had some serious pressure from someone very senior to me. I pointed out it was inappropriate because there was a power relationship, and they backed off. I can't imagine this would happen today.

Mary Macleod

Conservative MP for Brentford and Isleworth

I have quite a positive story to tell about Westminster. I spent 20 years in business, where it was a lot worse – people at senior levels going off to strip clubs after hours – although even there things have changed. I haven't found any issues in parliament. We have increased the number of Conservative women MPs from 17 to 49, and the volume has changed things. The 2010 intake – men and women – are quite a feisty, experienced bunch. And I have never had a meeting with a secretary of state or prime minister refused. So I don't feel there is a culture of sexism.

I was going up the escalator yesterday and the girl in front of me had a skirt that finished just below her bum. I turned to the male Labour MP I was with and said, "Oh my goodness! What a short skirt!" and he said, "Well, you can say that – I can't." So he didn't even feel able to comment on it.

I would like to ban the Sun and Page 3 from the members' tearoom. I am fed up with going for my morning cup of tea and seeing MPs looking at page 3. I would also like to change the way we do business in the chamber so it is less focused on personal insults to men and women. But I am convinced the prime minister didn't mean to be derogatory when he said Nadine Dorries was "frustrated". I do think women in parliament now support each other, and wouldn't put up with sexism towards each other. We are a force to be reckoned with.

Victoria Bleazard

Charity campaigner

I started working around parliament when I was 21, so I have been here for 10 years. There are elements of Westminster that feel old-fashioned – it's not a normal workplace, but I never experienced direct sexism. When I was 21, I thought the bars had a slightly leery atmosphere, but nothing more. I think it's a shame that the recent news stories reinforce people's beliefs that parliament is antiquated and generally for "others". My work is to try to make people from all backgrounds engage with it.

Max Freedman

Chair of the MPs' staff branch of Unite

I could not speculate about how much of a problem inappropriate behaviour is, because there is no way of knowing. People are not going to speak out when complaints have no chance of going anywhere. We have been trying to address the fact there is no proper grievance and disciplinary procedure for some time.

Parliament is basically 650 small businesses – the MPs' staff are employed by them. If your boss, the MP, behaves badly, you are expected to take up the problem about your boss, with your boss. And they are not going to find against themselves. If you want to appeal, it is, again, your boss you have recourse to. There is no independent process.

You could take things up with the whips, but I don't know of anyone who has successfully gone to them and said they had a problem with their MP – that's not what the whip wants to hear.