Women in Westminster (or the time I became the tea maid)

The Palace of Westminster

The Lobby, the group of political journalists accredited by Parliament to loiter in the corridors of power, has long mirrored the politicians it covers by being very male dominated. This situation is improving, with the growing presence of a highly talented female political journalists, many of whom will be familiar to readers.

This week one of those, the Spectator’s Assistant Editor Isabel Hardman, sparked a debate about sexism in politics by revealing on Twitter that an MP had referred to her as “totty” to her face. Following the incident, the Daily Mail’s Isabel Oakeshott wrote a column saying Hardman should not have said anything publicly.

At this juncture I should say that Isabel Hardman is one of the best editors I have ever worked for, a top journalist, and absolutely did the right thing to highlight the incident without naming the MP, and then let the Whips know what had happened. She, and other female colleagues, should not have to put up with such sexist, disparaging behaviour.

Never mind basic manners, it is as important to have a diverse group of people covering Parliament as it is to have a diverse group sitting as members.

In the wake of Isabel Hardman revealing what had happened to her, other female journalists have shared their war stories of sexism in Westminster, so here is mine. It came actually not when I was working as a journalist (I’ve never been a Lobby correspondent,) but when I was an intern for an MP.

I was the only female member of staff in the Westminster office, and the team was planning a big meeting with someone or other. We were just making sure that everyone knew what they had to, including who had to make the teas and coffees.

Guess who the Researcher, who ran the Westminster office, assigned for this task? Yup, me. When I asked why, he actually replied “because you’re a girl”.

In his head he may have been joking, but it certainly did not feel like it at the time. In fact, it felt utterly degrading. I’d gone from writing press releases and conducting research to being the tea maid. I should point out at that the MP we were all working for, to his immense credit, clearly registered the incident and very obviously made sure that one of the men was on tea duty for a good chunk of time after that.

Politics is changing, and I hope the fact that the Whips appear to have dealt with the incident involving Isabel, and that it has come out in public, demonstrates to others that this kind of behaviour is not acceptable. I hope that more women realise that they can and should cover politics.

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