Work to rule How working practices in the House of Commons keep women out

People often ask me what it’s like in the House of Commons, now there are so many Labour women MPs. But add up all the MPs today called John, David or Michael, and there are more of them (107) than there are of us (99). The idea that politics has been ‘feminised’ is wholly illusory. Yes, Labour women MPs have significantly impacted on policy – witness childcare, child poverty and domestic violence at the top of Government’s agenda - but that is in spite of their numbers, not because of them. Eighty-two percent of MPs are still men. I often look across at the opposition benches and see not a single woman. The Commons has a shooting gallery, but no crèche. And at this rate, we won’t achieve gender parity until the 23rd century.

More depressing, once women arrive at the House of Commons, the way business is run makes juggling caring responsibilities a near-impossibility. There are astonishing exceptions like Ruth Kelly MP - 35 years old, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, with 4 children aged 6 and under. But I could also site my best friend in the last parliament, Tess Kingham, an outstanding MP, who left after finding it impossible to combine a parliamentary lifestyle with 3 young children.

What makes the House of Commons unique, is that unlike other areas of the labour market, it remains a predominantly male arena, and one where gender ratios are worsening. There were fewer women elected in the 2001 general election than the 1997 election. In 2020 the prediction is that women will […insert stats from IF script re other areas such as business – showing increase in numbers of women]. But these gains will not be replicated in Parliament.

Work-life balance has rocketed to the top of the agenda as the issue that concerns people most. Anyone hoping to maintain even a semblance of work-life balance need not apply for a job in Parliament. Our democracy is a closed shop, open only to the socially maladjusted who can live without a life. The problem isn’t confined to Parliament – many city businesses are the same, but successful business seems more alert to the need to change.

The CEO of IBM UK, Larry Hirst, wanted to know why so many of his women managers left in their 30s – the age when they took on caring responsibilities, and also the make-or-break age for careers. He wrote and asked all women who had left in the last 5 years, what IBM might have done to keep them. The top answer was to provide more flexible working, - not just to help them fulfil caring responsibilities, but to help them ‘have a life’. He therefore directed IBM to become a ‘flexible-work’ company, and found that once the idea was mainstreamed, male staff thanked him as much as women.

This shows that it’s not about ‘feminising’ work culture, it’s about humanising it – for the benefit of both men and women. And it’s not just staff that benefit, but business too. The DTI is keen to promote work-life balance, because research shows the benefits to business: increased productivity and reduced absenteeism, maximised use of available labour, greater retention of valued employees, a more loyal and motivated workforce in a less stressful environment and, not least, the reputation of being an employer of choice. And then there’s the cost of the long-hours culture. Long hours and lack of flexible working have a detrimental effect on stress levels. British industry loses £370 million every year to stress-related sick leave. Another survey showed that British employees would rather work more sensible hours than win the lottery.

In the 21st century a successful business like IBM must maximise its talent-pool, retain women employees, and harness emotional intelligence (EI)– the new zeitgeist buzzword that affects the bottom line. A prerequisite for generating EI is a more representative workforce, one that reflects the community it serves. Shareholders suffer if their company is trapped in outdated working practices that deter the brightest and the best. The same is true of Parliament – the lack of a representative workforce damages our bottom line: democracy. The result is clear. We don’t have a representative democracy, and it’s our shareholders – citizens – who suffer.

Changes in the labour market, combined with an ageing population, signal a looming care crisis. Just last week another woman MP told me she was resigning due to work/life balance issues – in her case to look after her elderly disabled mother.

This evening BBC 2 broadcasts a programme that surveys British society in 2020, and follows a young woman MP who resigns to ‘have a life’. You don’t need a crystal ball to know that this is an issue that genuinely forces women out of politics. But will the House of Commons respond? Apparently not.

At present there is a concerted effort to actually change back working practices to how they were in the old Parliament, when we regularly had to vote in the middle of the night. Flexible working, as far as the proponents of the old working hours are concerned, means arriving at 9am or earlier, and being told at 7pm that you have to stay (with no warning) until midnight or later. That can work for some people. Especially if they have a wife to take care of all other responsibilities. I worked that way for five years, regularly starting at 9am and finishing at 3am. I can’t do it again. If they change the hours back, it will rule me out of politics. It will rule a lot of people out – men as well as women – the growing majority who feel it’s time institutions woke up to the 21st century need to achieve a work-life balance. Surely our Parliament should be spearheading these changes, not propagating 19th century working practices that protect the glass-ceiling.