Britain’s Parliament Is Rocked by Sexist Episodes. Again.
LONDON — The resignation of a lawmaker who viewed pornography in Parliament. Another lawmaker’s claim that a female colleague crossed and uncrossed her legs to distract the prime minister. Dozens of lawmakers referred to a watchdog over sexual misconduct allegations.
A series of incidents of misogyny and sexual harassment in the halls of Westminster have laid bare in recent weeks a pervasive problem in Britain’s Parliament, raising broader questions about the need for institutional change in a body sometimes likened to an unruly boys’ club.
While the episodes and allegations are new, the problems they spotlight are longstanding, the subject of many embarrassments and reports over the years.
“We’ve always known that this culture and these norms are damaging, and that these things are happening” in Parliament, said Jessica C. Smith, a lecturer in politics at the University of Southampton, but that it often takes a particularly bad event for them to come into the light. These incidents “show that it’s still not a place that women can fully participate in as equals,” she said.
Crucially, Dr. Smith and other critics contend that there has been a backsliding in recent years, saying the current government has abandoned an earlier reform agenda.
“In an era of polarization and populist politics, we shouldn’t be surprised by that,” said Sarah Childs, a professor of politics and gender at the University of Edinburgh. She said it was important to recognize that “we have a Conservative government that is engaged in culture wars,” and that current politics are “challenging some of the gains of gender equality.”
Over the weekend, Neil Parish, a Conservative lawmaker, resigned after admitting to watching pornography twice while seated among his colleagues on the green leather benches of the House of Commons.
Days earlier, a British tabloid printed a report based on an unnamed Conservative lawmaker’s claim that Angela Rayner, the deputy leader of the opposition Labour Party, had tried to distract Prime Minister Boris Johnson in Parliament by rearranging her legs, comparing her to Sharon Stone in “Basic Instinct.” Mr. Johnson, no icon of political correctness, called the report “sexist, misogynist tripe.”
A week before that, The Sunday Times reported that sexual misconduct claims against some 56 lawmakers, including three cabinet ministers and two shadow cabinet ministers, had been referred to an independent watchdog since its creation in 2018.
And in mid-April, Imran Ahmad Khan, a Conservative lawmaker, was expelled from the party and later resigned his seat after being found guilty of sexually assaulting a teenager.
The latest incidents come five years after a series of sexual misconduct scandals — which came to be known as “Pestminster” — triggered soul-searching in Parliament and eventually led to reforms.
A 2018 parliamentary report found that nearly one in five people working in Parliament — with women twice as likely as men — had been sexually harassed or witnessed sexually inappropriate behavior in the previous year. Nonsexual verbal abuse was also rampant.
On the heels of that report, Parliament created the Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme, the watchdog body currently investigating dozens of lawmakers on allegations of sexual misconduct.
Parliament has “historically been a hugely elite, masculinized institution, dominated by men, by their preferences, and dominant ways of behaving,” said Dr. Childs, but it is not bound by the same workplace standards that apply to the rest of Britain. Recent incidents, she said, can be seen in part as a backlash against advances in gender equality, playing out in Parliament as it is elsewhere.
“Some men don’t like the fact that their long-established power is being challenged. I think it’s also the case that women are not accepting behaviors they used to have to tolerate,” Dr. Childs said. “And so what we need to be thinking about is how we transform the institutions to reduce the prevalence of this kind of behavior.”
The representation of women in Parliament is at an all-time high, with 35 percent of members elected to the House of Commons — compared with 27 percent of the U.S. Congress — despite the fact that ahead of the last general election in 2019, a number of female lawmakers said they had decided not to run for re-election because of misogynist abuse and threats. But experts in politics and gender say that numbers alone have not been enough to change the culture.
A number of women in Parliament have joined the conversation around the latest allegations, with many denouncing the institution as sexist, including Conservative lawmakers.
Caroline Nokes, a senior Conservative lawmaker, told the Times of London that she had been on the receiving end of misogynistic slurs and said that her party was inherently sexist.
Rachel Reeves, a senior lawmaker with the opposition Labour party, told The Yorkshire Post that it was a “sad truth” that all women in Parliament “have their own story of sexism.”
Anne Jenkin, the Baroness of Kennington and a Conservative member of the House of Lords, said that while she didn’t believe the workplace environment in the halls of government was that different from many others, there were elements of the culture that allowed bad behavior to thrive.
“I do think that the toxic mix of stress and booze and power and testosterone and opportunity inevitably leads to worse behavior,” she said, pointing to late nights and a heavy drinking culture as part of the problem. “One thing you can do something about is the booze.”
Lady Jenkin added the caveat that it was a “a small minority that end up getting themselves into trouble” with this kind of problematic behavior, which had “always been there.”
She has pushed to bring more women into politics, and along with the former prime minister Theresa May co-founded Women2Win, a campaign to elect more Conservative women to Parliament.
But Lady Jenkin said the way that parliamentarians are treated by the public — particularly in commentary on social media — has been a bigger deterrent to women entering politics in Britain than a hostile environment in Westminster.
The vast majority of people in Parliament “know well how to behave,” and while she said there should certainly be a zero-tolerance policy for sexual harassment, some recent media coverage had been “counterproductive in terms of the agenda.”
She said the focus should be on the political establishment having more women run for office, and making it clear that their voices are valued.
But for Dr. Smith, the issues run far deeper. “It’s not just ensuring that we have the numbers of women, but how those women can then operate in Parliament, both as a place of democracy and the workplace, is vital for our democracy,” she said.
Dr. Childs agreed, noting that there is no centralized process to hold lawmakers accountable, and rather than incidents of misconduct only being addressed one at a time, there needs to be a broader overhaul.
Positive changes have been made, “but it takes political leadership to do that,” she said. “I just don’t think we have that at the moment.”