A leading Conservative backbencher has revealed the sexism she has endured during her 10 years as an MP – including being told she only got a position in government because “she’s got t**s”.
In an interview with Yahoo News UK, Caroline Nokes, chair of the House of Commons women and equalities committee, said entering parliament in 2010 was “like arriving at a boy’s prep school”.
Though she said the atmosphere has improved as parliament has diversified, Nokes – who on Wednesday criticised Boris Johnson for not taking female voices seriously – said she still experiences sexism in Westminster to this day.
She shared the following examples...
‘She’s only a minister because she’s got t**s’
Between 2016 and last year, Nokes held three ministerial roles in Theresa May’s government.
She says an unnamed person in parliament greeted her appointment by saying: “She’s only been made a minister because she’s got t**s.”
“They said that to my face,” Nokes recalls. “God knows what they said behind my back.”
‘Ooh, have you come in a gymslip today?’
To this day, Nokes says some male MPs comment on the clothes she is wearing.
“In this place [parliament], it happens all the time.”
She recalls a recent exchange in the House of Commons tea room while sat with a newly elected MP.
“It was one of those really hot days, I was wearing quite a short dress, not too short but shorter than I would normally wear.
“A male colleague then walked into the tea room, looked me up and down and commented on how short my dress was. He said: ‘Ooh, have you come in a gymslip today?’
“The new member, as soon as the older colleague had left, said: ‘Oh my god, I didn’t really believe you and I’ve just witnessed it with with my eyes.’”
‘Commons is a really uncomfortable place for women to work’
The Palace of Westminster is set to undergo a restoration costing £4bn later in the 2020s.
Nokes says the current 19th-century building is an uncomfortable place for women in particular.
“When we come back, parliament needs to be very different,” she says. “Much more accessible, a fair place for women and men.
“I know that sounds really basic, but when you go and sit on the green benches in a dress, you will suddenly discover it’s a really uncomfortable place.
“If ever I go shopping for clothes, I will always sit down in a changing room to see how far the skirt rides up. That will determine whether I buy it or not.
“Sitting on those green benches with the camera angles, sometimes you will see acres and acres of thigh on view.”
But… ‘it’s better than it was’
Nokes was first elected in 2010. Looking back a decade, she recalls it was “like stepping back in time, like arriving at a boy’s prep school”.
She says: “I thought the way to get on was to be one of the lads. I would let all sorts of comments pass. I would laugh at them because I didn’t want to make myself stand out as somebody who is not willing to fit in.
“The years passed and I started thinking: ‘I’ve just had enough of this.’”
Reflecting on the 2019 intake of MPs – which saw a record 220 females (34%) elected – Nokes says: “It has changed, it has improved. Not hugely, but it’s better than it was.
“With every intake of MPs, you get more diversity, more women, more people who have had an ordinary education.”