Wera Hobhouse MP: International Women’s Day 2024 might be behind us, but we should not put women’s rights in the rear-view mirror

The significance of achieving a 50:50 Parliament is not simply about numbers.


Wera Hobhouse is the Liberal Democrats’ Climate Change and Transport Spokesperson and MP for Bath 

2024 marks the highest representation of women in Parliament to date. While we have come a long way since Nancy Astor, the first woman seated as a Member of Parliament, the figures alone do not prove that barriers to women in Westminster have fallen. 

I am the 461st female Member of Parliament in the UK. While 461 may sound impressive, it was only in 2016 that the number of women ever elected as MPs equalled the number of men who sat in the House at that time. In today’s Parliament, we see 226 female MPs – which is just 35% of the House of Commons. This may be an all-time high, but we only need to look at the Garrick Club’s men-only members list, to see that UK politics remains a painstakingly long way from 50:50 representation.

The significance of achieving a 50:50 Parliament is not simply about numbers. It is about ensuring all voices are heard. As an MP, my role, above all else, is to represent individuals in my constituency – half of which are of course women.  

But too often, policies that could create real change for women fall by the wayside. For example, while the Equal Pay Act was passed in 1970, the UK’s gender pay gap remains, hitting 14.3% in 2023. As pioneering as this legislation was, it’s clear that it is ineffective for today’s employment conditions and in urgent need of reform – but that reform is nowhere near the government agenda. What’s more, ethnic minority women earn an average of 2.1% less than white women. Our efforts to close the pay gap will only be as successful as our efforts to ensure that women from all parts of society are included.

It is no secret that we remain a long way from equal pay, and employment conditions for women in the workplace are not much better. Support for those experiencing menopause at work is gravely insufficient. Eight out of 10 women say their employer has not given them adequate assistance to cope with symptoms at work, and one in 10 end up leaving their jobs as a result. Women with years of experience are forced to sacrifice their career, retire early or choose not to put themselves forward for promotion. Yet, there is still no interest from the government in piloting a trial on menopause leave

So how can we ensure women are being heard? All-women candidate shortlists, of which we Liberal Democrats have been long-standing supporters, are part of the solution. However, gender parity in Parliament cannot be achieved without dismantling the ‘boys club’. Being in the public eye as an MP requires more than thick skin to deal with the constant slew of misogynistic comments. Only recently did Tory donor, Frank Hester, say that Diane Abbott made him want to “hate all black women.” Such abhorrent, racist and misogynistic comments must have no place in our society.

Members have been calling for years for Parliament to be a welcoming space for all, so that more women feel empowered to enter politics. It is high time it heeded these calls to show its commitment to equality. Importantly, this does not end with tackling misogynistic language. My ex-colleague Jo Swinson ran a tremendous campaign to allow breastfeeding in the House, but her calls were rejected. If we cannot afford female Members the same basic rights in motherhood as in other workplaces, it is no wonder we are a long way from equality.

Looking toward national policy, the picture being painted is no better. Despite Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Mark Rowley, putting violence against women and girls on the same footing as terrorism, sexual violence, harassment, and domestic abuse remain endemic in our society. It is clear that policies to tackle these horrific offences are disturbingly thin on the ground. However, my time in Parliament has afforded me a platform to encourage vital legislation that combats violence against women and girls. In 2019, my Private Members’ Bill to criminalise upskirting – the degrading act of taking a photo up a person’s skirt without their permission – became law. At the end of last year, my Worker Protection Bill to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace passed into law. Both of these Bills represent monumental shifts in legislation for women’s rights across the country. 

Nevertheless, I am mindful that neither law would have gained the traction nor support that they did were it not for the encouragement of other women in Parliament, nor without my platform as an MP. This is why I will continue to champion the voices of women in Parliament and never stop calling for greater representation within the House of Commons. Legislation to improve women’s rights in the UK must be informed by, and tailored to, women’s experiences in order to deliver real support. Without giving women the platform to make their voices heard, we will not see the changes to UK law we so desperately need. 

It is clear that we still have a long way to go in making progress, but I urge people not to become disheartened. Change is possible – and together we can make that change happen.

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