IT HAPPENED TO ME: As An Intern, I Attended a Training Session Entitled "What to Wear as a Woman in Politics"

If the male denizens of the Houses of Parliament are so devoid of self-control that they are powerless to resist stroking young, female interns, might I suggest that we have bigger things to worry about than my hair. 

Publish date:
December 11, 2013
sexism, beauty advice, interns

Law firm Clifford Chance recently sent out a 163-point memo entitled "Presentation Tips for Women." Its contents are both hilarious and immensely depressing. Advice ranges from the mundane ("don't use a draggy pace") to the bizarre ("move your mouth when you speak" -- how else does one speak?).

But mostly the document is patronising and offensive; women are told not to giggle, not to wear party dresses, and to lower the pitch of their voice (those shrill, inappropriately-attired harpies). Well thank goodness the women of Clifford Chance now know to put their cleavage away and "watch out for the urinal position" -- I can practically hear the glass ceiling breaking from here.

Reading this memo reminded me of when I attended a training session held as part of the Lib Dem Party Conference entitled "What to Wear as a Woman in Politics." Alas, the men were not privy to a similar training session and their sartorial blunders are undoubtedly thwarting their political careers as we speak. 

The Lib Dem image consultant imparted us with such timeless words of wisdom as "no knee-high boots" and "no animal print." She also instructed us how best to tie a scarf depending on the situation (use the Slip Knot while canvassing door-to-door but the more flamboyant Ascot Wrap for a hustings and which colours to avoid (pretty much anything bright). 

After giving general advice, the consultant then went around the room and pointed out the myriad ways in which the women in attendance were wrong. I was praised for my deployment of opaque tights (never go below 70 denier) and sensible flat shoes. Unfortunately I undid all my fine work in the tights-department by being in possession of long hair which I -- foolishly! -- was wearing loose around my shoulders. I was told that I should either get a haircut or tie my hair up or else men would be encouraged to stroke me.

If the male denizens of the Houses of Parliament are so devoid of self-control that they are powerless to resist stroking young, female interns, might I suggest that we have bigger things to worry about than my hair. 

I obviously found the suggestion that my hair was an invocation for gentle petting from my male colleagues utterly hilarious. But at the same time it's disheartening that the conference organisers thought that a training session on female politicians' fashion-sense was necessary.

I can understand the thinking behind it. I once had a conversation with former Lib Dem MP Sarah Teather in which she complained that whenever she said anything in Parliament, the media only ever reported on what she was wearing, not what she was saying. This was undoubtedly very frustrating for her and it makes me angry to think that female politicians' sartorial choices are being given more media attention than their opinions. But I don't think opaque tights and a pixie cut are the solution.

Parliament is woefully devoid of women, particularly young women, and telling current MPs to avoid colour or pattern or anything that might suggest they have a personality is not the way to encourage young women to get involved in politics. If we want the media to stop reporting every time a female minister sports ostentatious footwear, we shouldn't force her into sensible grey pumps, we should flood the Houses of Parliament with so many pairs of fabulous heels that it is no longer worthy of note.

What is particularly galling about both the Clifford Chance memo and the Lib Dem training session is that, at some point, other women thought that these things were a good idea.

The training session was not only run by a woman but also sponsored by a female MP, Jo Swinson. At the time, Jo Swinson was the Lib Dem shadow minister for Women and Equality; she currently chairs the Campaign for Gender Balance and has long been campaigning for banning the misleading use of airbrushing in adverts in an effort to curb poor body image in young girls. Why would such a stalwart champion for women think that it’s a good idea to run classes telling women to hide their personality behind dreary, colourless suits and demure scarfs?

Similarly, I find it discouraging that in the long process from inception, to drafting, to publication, not one woman at Clifford Chance read the memo and thought: “You know what, this advice is not only inane but also exceedingly patronising.”

When I first started working in Parliament I expected that my intrusion into the sacred boys’ club of Westminster would result in sexist jabs being directed my way. However, for the most part, this turned out to not be the case. Of course I didn’t spend the year in a gender-equality utopia; a coworker of mine once told me, while drunk, that I was grotesquely unqualified for my position and that I had only been hired because I had great legs.But his comments were less to do with systemic sexism in Parliament and more to do with the fact that he’s a dick.

After 18 years of men talking to me like I was an idiot and having conversations at my breasts, these kinds of comments were easily dismissed.

But what I did find upsetting were the comments I received from my fellow female interns. A few months into my internship, I found out that I had been accepted to an all-women’s college. This news was met, to my dismay, with fervent ridicule from my female peers. Apparently going to an all-women’s college meant that I was either a slut or a lesbian. I’d seemingly missed the scientific revelation that sexual orientation was determined by university admission.

First the long hair fiasco, now my accidental lesbianism; I should really be more careful. But why were my Parliamentary sisters-in-arms mocking me? Women need to stop tearing each other down; men are doing a pretty good job of doing that already.

So instead of telling women what to wear or belittling them for their life choices, we should celebrate their idiosyncrasies. Women should be able to make personal decisions without fear of recrimination from their peers. The halls of power and the boardrooms of law firms need to be awash with leopard-print clad women -- expressing their opinions in their shrill, nasally voices. Until then, lets forgo the patronising advice and woman-shaming.