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Women in Public Life

June 1, 2002

Women in Public Life

In a recent survey Patricia Hewitt, the Trade and Industry Secretary, was identified as the third most powerful woman in Britain.

The survey of powerful women was conducted by the business magazine “Management Today” and its editor put a business woman top, the Prime Minister’s wife second and Mrs Hewitt third. One can always argue with such opinionated research but the comment by the editor-in-chief was to say that the world of work remains moulded in the male image and women have yet to succeed in changing masculine workplace culture.

The same is true of the House of Commons. But should it be changed? I believe that it will but for the right reasons, not to make it easier simply for women. After the 1997 election there were more women members of parliament than ever before. To some it was seen as the start of a revolution. Creches were demanded. Sensible hours were insisted upon so that all members could enjoy a normal lifestyle.

But being a member of parliament isn’t a normal lifestyle. It is a public life with a unique set of demands. I believe I knew many of those demands before I was elected but the last year has convinced me that being an MP certainly does not lend itself to a normal lifestyle for men or for women. I wouldn’t be surprised if Patricia Hewitt laughs at the idea of being considered a hugely powerful woman but like all other female members I am sure that she had to work incredibly hard to become an MP in the first place let alone rise to become a leading minister.

In the House of Commons the most able people rise to the top whatever their gender but it would be naive not to recognise that it is not so easy for women to make it into parliament because candidate selection is still being made by people with an historically natural reticence to select a female. I am sure the very presence of a female Prime Minister after 1979 improved matters in that respect enormously and this process will continue to progress in the years ahead with the many successful women on both of today’s front benches. What is very different now is that I believe most women are much more aware of the demands that they face.

However the reality is still bigger than the expectation. During the last year my wife Michele has been amazed at the calls on both hers and my time and wonders how far it can develop. I am told by more experienced colleagues that one’s workload in the House of Commons increases further if one is promoted to the Front Bench.

The clarity of these demands in my opinion makes it more likely that more women will come through to be successful politicians. Today the effort required is much more transparent. There is little possibility of having a normal life, whatever that means. For any national politician spare time is at a great premium. Time for children and family life is much reduced if one is involved in any form of public service. In the House of Commons it is reduced even further. The juggling becomes a developed art.

I also know that I speak for many of the new intake of male MPs when I say that we support the idea of parliamentary hours continuing to take some account of family responsibilities. Good law cannot sensibly be made by exhausted MPs debating frequently into the hours of the morning.

Successful female politicians are the ones that fully recognise the effort that is needed and use their juggling skills to the best effect. I’m not sure that many aspire to be the third most powerful woman in the land but then again it was a man who cooked up the list.