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Last Updated: Tuesday, 27 April, 2004, 10:55 GMT 11:55 UK
Can Westminster become female friendly?
By Nick Assinder
BBC News Online political correspondent

In 2003, after decades of campaigning, the sitting hours of the House of Commons were finally reformed to make them more "family friendly".

House of Commons
Spot the women
Out went the afternoon starts and late night sittings in favour of more regular hours that, it was hoped, would allow MPs, particularly women, to have normal family lives.

So, was this the beginning of the revolution that would finally kill off the traditional image of the Palace of Westminster as the most exclusive gentlemen's club in the country?

Resoundingly not. Unless you are an MP with a London or home counties seat, the changes have had no effect on your ability to go home to your family each night.

Instead, MPs are often left with empty evenings in an empty Palace of Westminster without the old, informal support structures previously provided by colleagues.

And it is unlikely the new hours will survive unchanged for any length of time.

Name calling

But beyond the hours, there is another, more fundamental reason why women appear turned off by Westminster politics.

Debate in the chamber usually veers between testosterone-soaked posturing and playground-style name calling.

Ballot box
There's an issue of trust and dissatisfaction for all women voters
The odour of cigar smoke, stale beer and pumped-up machismo still hangs over the place - mixed with the smell of historic boiled cabbage which has soaked into the very stonework.

It is hard to work in Westminster for any period of time without feeling this is still a male dominated establishment engaging in male pursuits and where concessions made to women are just that.

The old silverbacks have marked out their territory in just about every nook and cranny of the Palace.

Vicious circle

It is not simply because women are vastly outnumbered in just about every job in the place, except, needless to say, the support industries like catering and in the hairdressing salon.

It is the very nature of the political process in Westminster - marked by confrontation and aggression rather than consensus - that seems to turn women off.

Even the famous "Blair babes" appear to have had little impact on the place.

This is, of course, a vicious circle. Without more women MPs in more powerful positions, women will not feel this is a place where they are welcome.

Still, at least there are now some women's lavatories within walking distance of the chamber.

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05 Jan 04  |  Business

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