Tonbridge woman wants to end Parliament’s ‘big boys’ club’

Tonbridge woman wants to end Parliament's 'big boys' club'
TAKE A STAND: 300 women and their MPs congregate in Westminster Hall Photo: Liz Drake

Amanda Carpenter, 54, is founder and chief executive of a sustainability consultancy, mother of two girls aged 21 and 19, and a key figure in the local arts scene.

She believes that greater female representation would challenge the male-dominated culture which has brought revelations of bullying and sexual harassment – what she calls ‘a big boys’ club’.

Concerns about the situation surfaced once more before Christmas with the furore over Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn being accused of calling Prime Minister Theresa May a ‘stupid woman’ in the Commons.

At a time when politicians are held in low esteem for their posturing about the Brexit deal, she feels that the legislative body could do with more perspective – and more flexibility over working arrangements.

She was inspired to begin the long road to the hustings after taking part in a ‘shadowing’ day, when more than 300 women from across the country were invited by 215 MPs to visit the House of Commons.

The event was organised by the 50:50 Parliament movement, which is calling for half of all MPs to be female, alongside the Jo Cox Foundation and other partners. Male MPs outnumber women by two to one.

The group is promoting the #AskHerToStand campaign to coincide with the centenary of the first women to be given the vote – and the first female MP to take up her seat, Lady Nancy Astor.

“As a result of the day, 50 women put themselves forward to stand for Parliament,” said Mrs Carpenter.

“We need representatives at policy-making level and to be part of the law-making process. But they say that women have to be asked to stand three or four times before they will do it.”

‘We need to break down barriers and stop the sexual harassment that’s been going on. This is not just about being friendly and representative’

Citing the lack of female toilets as an example, she says: “Parliament is a very male place. That’s partly historic – like the buildings, which are very old-fashioned, compared to the Scottish or European ones, which are more modern and functional. There’s an imperceptible barrier in that.”

“Parliament is very like a big boys’ club, you don’t want to be endlessly critical but equally it’s far off the pace. It doesn’t have to be like this.

“We need to break down barriers and stop the sexual harassment that’s been going on. This is not just about being friendly and representative.”

She added: “I can’t comment on what Jeremy Corbyn said but what I would say is that any derogatory comment towards any female member of Parliament is reprehensible and unacceptable.”

Mrs Carpenter was co-founder of the Deeds and Words festival at the EM Forster theatre last summer, which celebrated the voices of women on the centenary of suffrage.

Since 1918 there have only been 491 women elected to Parliament, compared with 4,503 men. Why is there still such a gender imbalance in the political arena?

“There’s no simple answer,” said Mrs Carpenter. “It’s complicated for many women who take primary responsibility for caring, for their children or elderly relatives – their lives are full.

“There’s also a confidence issue – at least not until we’re older, and then women are told they’re too old in their early 50s, when actually they are coming into their prime.

GOING FORWARD: Fifty women said they will stand as MPs; Amanda Carpenter said ‘I feel motivated’

“And the system is difficult, appearing in front of the selection committees and other male-dominated bodies. There’s prejudice in the local parties – it may even be unconscious bias.”

The pressures of family life are something that the local MP, Tom Tugendhat, has spoken out about this year. He called for greater flexibility of working hours in the wake of his Conservative party’s chairman Brandon Lewis taking advantage of Lib Dem deputy leader Jo Swinson being away looking after her newborn son to ensure a Brexit vote was passed by the government.

“It’s a daft system,” says Mrs Carpenter. “There’s no formal maternity or paternity leave scheme built in, so women worry about having children, and there’s no job-sharing either, which has been shown to work really well.

“We make it more difficult for people with experience of families to be part of the legislature, which adds another dimension to your life. Is that really representative of us all?

“And the working day starts so late, and goes on so late, as we could see from the Brexit negotiations. It needs to be more family friendly.”

‘we’ve got 10 years until the 100th anniversary of Universal Suffrage, and if we can’t achieve it by then, shame on us’

Mrs Carpenter did not meet Mr Tugendhat on the day due to his other commitments but he told the Times: “It’s important to encourage people to take part in our political life. It’s how we discuss ideas and change our community for the better.

“That also means standing for election. I know that Amanda and many others had a chance to see Parliament close up and I hope this will encourage more women to think about using their voice in our national life.”

Mrs Carpenter, who is a director of 50:50 Parliament, realises that nothing will change overnight but the lack of progress is deeply unimpressive.

“I have just begun the process of putting myself forward,” says Mrs Carpenter. “I’ve signed up, and now I will try to get some support and go on a training course for prospective MPs.

“I’ve been thinking about it for a very long time, and now I’m doing it. I feel motivated by the events of that day in Parliament.

“As Helen Pankhurst said at the Deeds and Words festival, we’ve got 10 years until the 100th anniversary of Universal Suffrage, and if we can’t achieve it by then, then shame on us.”

Men dominate local council

There are 15 female councillors on Tonbridge & Malling Borough Council [TMBC] out of a total of 54 – or 27.8 per cent. In Tonbridge itself the figure is one third – five out of 15.

At the last election in 2015 there were a total of 145 candidates, of which 48 were female. The next election will be held on May 2, 2019.

A spokesperson said: “The local authority’s responsibility is simply to conduct elections as set down in statute, and thereafter support those elected councillors in their work.”

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