14 Apr 2016

Sexism and the sisterhood in the corridors of power

So much for the sisterhood.

When the political journalist Isabel Hardman complained to the whips about an MP calling her “totty”, I thought she’d done exactly the right thing.

She didn’t name the man who’d offended her, but passed his name to a whip, who gave him a well-deserved dressing-down, leaving the MP, in Hardman’s words, “contrite”.  Job done.

Why then after her parliamentary lobby colleague took such a principled stand against the sexism that sadly still permeates Parliament did the Daily Mail’s political editor at large Isabel Oakeshott feel the need to give her a piece of her mind?

In a frankly poisonous article, Ms Oakeshott accused her of “running to teacher to tell tales”, a “humourless” response, and “attention-seeking”. Ouch.

And she informed Ms Hardman: “she certainly does not speak for me.”

Well I regret to inform Ms Oakeshott, that Ms Hardman does speak for me, and I suspect a great many other female journalists.

So many of us have been forced to put up with sexism in Westminster – the lascivious texts from a well-known peer; the “noble Lord” whose hand found its way to my bottom in a crowded bar; and the select committee chairman who assumed I was a secretary because I was the only woman in the room.

I never complained about any of it when I was working in the lobby five years ago. But I wish I had. It reflects badly on me that I didn’t.

Yes this was a relatively “trivial incident”, as Ms Oakeshott puts it.

But if this kind of low-level harassment is tolerated, the culture will never change. Women will be belittled, undermined and shown no respect. They won’t be equal citizens in male-dominated workplaces like the lobby, let alone securing the top jobs and equal pay.

Ms Oakeshott suggested Ms Hardman should have taken the errant MP to task in person. But why should she become embroiled in a spat face-to-face? Far better to make a formal complaint, and keep it professional.

She even opined that her colleague “should have been pleased” the MP took a fancy to her. As if female political journalists are part of a beauty pageant, rated for their looks rather than their professional skill. “If a handful of male MPs are a little more forthcoming because we wear skirts, who are we to complain?” she wrote.

I for one would be the first to complain if it was judged I’d built my career on my wardrobe rather than my ability. And I’m sure my male colleagues would have something to say about that too.

This might seem like a storm in a Westminster tea-cup, but it’s symptomatic of what women are subjected to up and down the land.

Campaigns like the “everyday sexism” hashtag have done wonders for naming and shaming inappropriate behaviour and more. So it’s a shame that one senior journalist tries to turn back the clock.

I’m with Isabel on this…Isabel Hardman.

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