Findings: Bad manners pay off for MPs

January 3, 2003

Female MPs are being marginalised because their male counterparts in the House of Commons are more prepared to bend and break the rules, writes Steve Farrar.

A linguistic analysis of parliamentary debates found that men barracked their opponents, cracked jokes at their expense and were more adversarial. Some had even made "melon weighing" gestures when female MPs spoke, and shouted abuse.

As a result of their more even-handed approach, women were still not playing an equal role in the life of the house.

Sylvia Shaw, senior lecturer in communication and language studies at Middlesex University, studied the transcripts of 60 hours of debate to reveal the reality behind the ideals of Westminster. She found that the two sexes initially gained floor time in proportion to their numbers in Parliament.

When it came to interrupting someone else's speech in a bid to capture the floor, women were responsible for 21 per cent of the legal interventions logged by Dr Shaw but only 10 per cent of illegal ones.

"Men tend to break the rules and hence get the floor more often than women, putting them at an advantage," Dr Shaw concluded. She said that many of the women felt like interlopers and hence not confident enough to follow suit.

Similarly, with the exception of a few individuals, such as Ann Widdecombe, Dr Shaw found that men indulged in more adversarial language, filibustering and humour.

One Labour MP told her: "You don't have the underdogs cracking jokes, and (in Parliament) women are the underdogs."

Dr Shaw said the situation did not seem to be improving, despite record numbers of female MPs. "It calls into question the critical-mass theory that as numbers of women increase things will automatically improve for that minority," she said.

The findings are published in a PhD thesis.

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