The first day I came to Parliament Hill in 2008 an MP told me I had a “fine body.” I was startled and offended. Remarks that sexualize a colleague in the workplace are not a compliment.
As one of the few young women in Parliament I had MPs discuss my clothing: “Hey, Megan, those are some pretty pink tights you have there.” When I heard that from six male parliamentarians in a day I began to sense their discomfort in dealing with me as a peer.
Parliament Hill as a workplace is so “special” it was exempt from the Canada Labour Code. It means federal employees here do not have the same workplace protection as other federal workers. This disturbs me. There is no real support network for many staff. It’s every woman for herself.
What is it like in the House of Commons? There is a locker-room mentality; some women have told me they’ve been touched by caucus colleagues: “You’re so pretty, look at you hair today,” with a pat. I would never walk up to the Minister of Defence and touch his hair. The treatment is different.
Gender-based heckling was so prominent some women were jeered just for standing to state a question or comment in the House. I’ve heard the remarks from male MPs: “Oh, sit down”; “What’s she going on about?”
Once in the Commons a woman cabinet minister who’d been asked several questions made a remark to the Speaker — “I’m up and down a lot today” — and I was struck by the crude backtalk from members of this minister’s own caucus. I had to turn in my chair and say, “I’m sitting right here!” They were the kind of remarks these men would be too embarrassed to say directly to the minister, or me; but the mentality was there.
Truthfully, the House is the least of our worries. I can handle myself. And there is a basic equality to the Commons: She is one vote and he is one vote. Outside the chamber the lines become blurred.
When will the parliamentary workplace improve for women? We often hear the election of more women will solve the problem but this is uncertain. Parliament first must change before more women stand for office.
I’m an active recruiter of women candidates regardless of party. In speaking with these women, so often I hear them say: “If I’m going to run, I’ll run municipally.” They don’t want to leave their families to work in the Parliament Hill environment.
I don’t know what the solution is anymore. But my advice for women of all political stripe is the same: Talk to other women. It makes it so much easier when you realize you’re not alone.
(Editor’s note: the author was a two-term New Democrat MP from Halifax. Ms. Leslie’s commentary was originally published May 26, 2013)