They change their pretty little minds over allegations of sexual harassment more often than they change their shoes. One man in particular, Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats, has got his recollections in a twist over the latest imbroglio to engulf the party.
It was not enough that the flighty Mr Clegg failed to remember that promise he once made on tuition fees. Hey, he was young, he was starry-eyed, and he was looking for election victory when he pledged to vote against a rise under any circumstances. Later, having fled to the altar with the Tories, he duly backtracked and apologised for his earlier flibbertigibbet ways. Hubby was pleased; students were not.
Marriage, alas, has failed to settle Mr Clegg. When placed under pressure, as he has been over allegations that Lord Rennard, the party's former chief executive, behaved inappropriately towards women – allegations the peer has denied – Mr Clegg has acted with all the grace of a fridge on roller skates.
From saying he did not know about the allegations until shortly before they were broadcast, he then recalled "indirect and non-specific concerns" – whatever they are – reaching his office in 2008. His latest footprint in the sand statement is that when Lord Rennard stood down in 2009 for health reasons "these things were in the background".
Quite the mess, and one that has doubtless caused women considering a career in politics to think again. If this could happen in the "nice" LibDems, what other nastiness lurks out there?
Leaving aside whether the LibDems really are a more female friendly party – they only have seven women MPs – the reputation of politics in general has taken a dunt. It is not just Westminster where sexism festers, however. Swing a handbag in many a workplace and it is a safe bet it will hit a woman with a sorry tale to tell of sleazy asides or leering men. Westminster is one of the hotspots, but it is far from the only place in the UK where the clock seems forever stuck at 1955, when men were men and women put up with it.
Westminster, the place I called a home from home during much of the1990s, is a strange universe. As bizarro as SW1A could be, I do not however recognise the almost Sodom and Gomorrah picture that has surfaced this week. Perhaps I mixed in different circles. What irked more than the occasional obvious creep was the silent sexism that hung over the place like a toxic cloud. You could arrive in Westminster with qualifications coming out of your lugholes, but to some men in the place you were still there on sufferance, as set dressing. Plenty of Mad Men attitudes, and lots of women being quietly furious about it.
The answer, as it is in so many places, was to work harder, and choose your bosses carefully, if possible. It wasn't just men at fault; some women were more enemies to other women than allies. Politics is a rough old game for either sex, but at there was at least a sense that progress was being made, that the age of the dinosaurs was on its way out.
You would not be so optimistic about that after this week. While the pay gap remained persistently wide (now 14.9%, despite legislation on the books for 43 years), there were signs that women were catching up in other ways: more women entering the workforce, more women in senior positions, and more on the way. In reality, progress was not nearly as fast and decisive as it appeared. While thinking how wonderful it was to have more women at Westminster, few wanted to spoil the mood by asking why there were not more. Slow and steady was the motto. But slow and steady did not work, particularly when the recession came calling. Women are now more vulnerable in the workplace, more undervalued, more likely to be penalised because of their gender.
Just at a time when this should be inspiring a greater push for change, feminism, at least among younger women, appears to be falling out of favour. These are times when someone like Katy Perry, a singer with many young female fans, can pick up a woman of the year award and declare, with a straight face: "I am not a feminist, but I do believe in the strength of women". To this generation, being a strong woman means sporting a tattoo declaring such. All those years campaigning, all that sacrifice and lives lost, when all that was needed was a little ink on skin. Such follies are not confined to youth. Shirley Williams has waded in to describe the Rennard situation as "hopelessly exaggerated". How prescient of the good baroness to know how the party's two inquiries are going to pan out.
For all that the past week has appeared to show a Britain where not much has changed for women, there are reasons not to despair. For one, people are talking about sexism in the workplace again. Women are coming forward to speak about their experiences. The shutters have been opened and daylight is coming in. It may yet be only a sliver, but it is more than before.
That there are more women in politics – practising it, reporting on it, becoming, as in Scotland, party leaders – has been fundamental in forcing change. Like everything else, it comes down to numbers. Just as there is safety in numbers so there is succour. More women in politics, in the boardroom, on the shopfloor, does not make change inevitable but it does make it more likely. Each time the position reverses, as in the Scottish Parliament, where the number of female MSPs is down from 51 in 2003 to 45 today, a drop from 39% to 34%, it is a giant leap backwards for women everywhere.
The LibDem leaders have shown that for them, like too many other organisations, women's rights, at the very least the right to be listened to and have concerns acted upon, was an optional extra, there to crow about in the good times, discretionary if a situation was difficult or embarrassing. In not demonstrating clear leadership on this matter from the off, Mr Clegg has shown himself to be as wrong on equal rights within his party as he was on tuition fees. Eastleigh by-election over, it is time for him get in touch with his feminist side again. Woman up, man.
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