Meg Munn, Labour MP for Sheffield Heeley, says women are too often assessed on their looks and clothes rather than their performance, but Claire Perry, Conservative MP for Devizes, believes she is judged purely on her performance in both the House and her constituency
Meg Munn says Yes
Golda Meir, Indira Gandhi, Margaret Thatcher - three women politicians who we remember more readily than their male equivalents. It's because they were different that they stood out. They were the exceptions to the rule that women do not have what it takes to be successful politicians. Writing these words seems to hark back toan earlier time, when women knew their place was in the kitchen and politics was a man's business. Has this perception changed?
Women complain that today's female politicians are too often judged by how they look and what they wear, not what political point they are making. Both of our female home secretaries have experienced this. Theresa May's shoes appear regularly in the newspapers, while Jacqui Smith suffered the indignity of references to her cleavagewhen she made an important announcement at the dispatch box.
We can look over the Channel to France where being glamorous is nigh on essential to being a successful female politician. There's Ségolne Royal, Socialist MP and presidential candidate, or President Sarkozy's ministers,Rachida Dati and Rama Yade. They all receive huge coverage in the media, but it's rarely about any political opinions they may hold; usually it's their attire or other personal details that get the column inches.
Perhaps this media obsession fuels the subconscious idea thatwomen can only handle the fluffier policy areas. In the UK we still have ministerial jobs that have never been held by women, or only rarely. There has never been a female Commons defence minister, although two women from the House of Lords did hold that brief. Female foreign ministers are rare, but the international development portfolio is clearly seen as the softer end of foreign relations, and has had several female ministers.
So yes, women politicians are judged differently. Some judgements of course are based on a level-headed appreciation that women and men are different; often have divergent attitudes, ideals and approaches to life. At other times, judgements can be based on outdated assumptions about what women can and should do. And thisis the area where it can matter.
There is the difficulty of getting selected to stand for Parliament, and here the numbers speak for themselves. More than 90 years after women could first stand, there have been fewer than 400 female MPs; that's less than the number of male MPs we have today. Some say it's that women don't want to stand for Parliament, but the truth is different.
Of the three main parties in the 2010 election, only Labour achieved the same proportion of women elected as the proportion of women candidates standing. Overall, a greater proportion of women from mainstream parties who wanted to become MPs failed to get elected than male candidates.
Historically, more women have been selected to stand in marginal or unwinnable seats than men. The result is that, on average, men stay longer in Parliament, making it more likely that they will hold senior positions and become the visible face of that House. This reinforces a view that politics is a mainly male occupation.
So what's behind the selection problems? Until recently women still reported being asked about their family arrangements, whereas few aspiring male candidates have ever been questioned in this way. But the truth is probably more subtle. Candidates are predominantly selected by ordinary party members - the majority ofwhom are male - and, consciously or unconsciously, men appear to look more like the next MP than women do.
But does it really matter whether we have a more equal spread between the sexes? To me, it's a matter of plain fairness - elected bodies should broadly reflect the population they represent. Women do have different experiences in life to men and that perspective should be included in the mix. Before we reached 100 women MPs in Parliament, a whole range of issues had barely merited a mention. They were not thought of as part of mainstream discussion.
I'm sure that nowadays most people believe women should have the same chance of becoming an MP as men. The public wants to see the best people there regardless of gender. But the fact that the UK still lags in the numbers of female candidates elected shows that there are still barriers holding women back.
Claire Perry says No
As I sit here in sunny Marlborough, having just finished my weekly surgery, I am giving much thought to whether we female politicians are judged differently to our male counterparts. It is a very interesting one to ponder, not least because we have had such an increase in our numbers on the Conservative benches at this election, up from 18 to 48 members. Despite this, the depressing truth is that only 22 per cent of British MPs are women. Theissue of female under-representation in Parliament is a perennial one and it is always tempting to say thatwomen are judged differently aspoliticians to explain away at least part of the problem. In my view, that is not the case.
First, the expectations are the same in our constituencies, regardless of whether there is a male or female MP. Did any of the people who have just travelled across Wiltshire to see me today care that I am in a skirt? Are theyjudging me differently because I am a mother, not a father, and had to spend 20 minutes blow-drying my hair this morning? Do they expect that I will deliver different results to a male MP for Devizes? I did not ask them but I am sure the answer would be: "Not on your life."
To my constituents, I am their MP, charged with defending their interests and championing their causes in the world, especially in the Westminster wilderness. My gender does not, and should not, influence my ability to carry out that job. If asked, I would imagine that some constituents might feel that women can be more empatheticin surgeries and meetings, and that what the celeb magazines call my life experiences may make me morein tune with the issues they are facing. But, ultimately, the true test of my performance will be whether I understand their concerns, deliver results and represent my constituency of Devizes to the absolute best of my ability - and that test is gender-blind.
Second, we all sink or swim according to the same standards in Westminster, regardless of gender. All new MPs are expected to get stuck in to the same rounds of debates, questions, events, bill preparation, votes and constituency correspondence. Our ability to make speeches, contribute to legislation, intervene effectively and (I am sorry to say, having initially pledged never to do it), heckle with a purpose are judged on the same basis by our whips and our peers.
Yes, it is a rough and tumble environment, but the House of Commons is at least blessed with ahigh level of courtesy, wit and cleanlanguage that many other working environments would envy.
Where else, for example, is one referred to as an "Honourable Lady" by a ferocious opposition attack dog, even while they intervene to try and take your arguments to pieces? During my six years on a trading floor, the interventions were a little more robust and accompanied with a well-aimed phone handset. My strong sense is that many of those who claim we are held to different standards lack experience working in the real world. The House is an oasis of calm compared to many workplaces, and all members should feel entirely privileged to be allowed in every day.
The only place where I think we are judged differently is at home. My children don't care two hoots about me being a female MP, although they quite like it that I hang out (in their view) with famous people such as DavidCameron and George Osborne, and they were very disappointed that I could not get the Queen's autographat the State Opening. Despite this reflected grandeur, they still want a mummy. This is a person that tucks them up at night, makes shepherd's pie, organises birthday parties, listens to their woes, finds their school tie and gives advice on snogging (Just Don't).
I have the best partner, and they have the best father in the world, but there are still some things that only mummy can do, and that is the inescapable and often daunting truth. This is, for me, the real reason why we have a dearth of women in the House of Commons. Being a female politician is the mother of all juggling acts, and until we treat the business of the House like a normal business - with sensible working hours and shorter recesses thatmatch school holidays - the underrepresentation of women across all our political parties will persist.
This article was first published in Total Politics magazine