At conference in 2016, the Liberal Democrats passed a motion which sought to address the woeful under-representation of women among our MPs. At the time, there were no female Liberal Democrat MPs. Now, over two-thirds of our MPs are women. I am proud to belong to a party which has one of* the highest proportions of women in the House of Commons.
Figure 1: Percentage of women MPs in Parliament and by party
At first glance, this data may appear to show that the Liberal Democrats have beaten misogyny. This would be wonderful but despite this improvement in female representation, many women still feel this is not the case. Before writing this article, I spoke to women who shared their experiences with me. The response was overwhelming.
This problem is simply not going to disappear.
The women I spoke with all had similar stories of a lack of respect. Stories of having ideas glossed over in meetings, only to be heralded as genius when repeated by a male colleague. Stories of aggression and being shouted at. Women still face discrimination when their value to the party is being assessed if they have a family to commit to. So many of the women I’ve spoken to on this subject have discussed microaggressions which is where indirect and subtle forms of hostility are directed at women. This kind of behaviour is difficult to quantify and almost impossible to report in an internal complaint. The result is that this culture of disrespecting and undermining women in our party cannot be addressed through the party’s disciplinary processes.
Change will not come from all women shortlists. These are only addressing inequality at the most public-facing level. It’s important that we have balance, but it does not address the deeper attitudes at fault. The only way change can be affected is by seeking to change the attitudes and unconscious biases held by us all. This is something we can all play a part in.
When chairing a meeting, if you see that a woman’s contribution has been ignored until repeated by a man, address it. Explicitly credit her for the idea. If sexist jokes are made, ask to have the punchline explained. If you’re an organiser in any capacity, book your team onto a training session for unconscious bias, which can help people internally recognise and challenge their own thought patterns.
If we truly want to be a fairer and freer party, this change must come from within. All women shortlists might be a tool to show the electorate we care, but now is the time to show our own members.
*The Green party have only one MP, who is female, Caroline Lucas.
Rebecca Procter is Chair of Nottingham Liberal Democrats and served as an election agent in the 2019 local elections. She studies Computer Security at Nottingham Trent University.