A Woman’s Place
Rt Hon Theresa May MP has just been named Home Secretary and Minister for Women and Equality in the Cameron-Clegg coalition government.
When I met Mrs May a couple of years ago, we talked about her career and her initiatives to get more women into politics. She was approachable, helpful and forthcoming – and genuine enough to renew my faith that at least some people are in the House of Commons for the right reasons.
There was no moment of epiphany that started Theresa May’s career in politics; no blinding flash or moment of realization that she wanted to change the world; not even a role model who inspired her to follow in their footsteps. As far as she can remember, she just always wanted to be an MP.
“My father was a clergyman, so maybe that had something to do with it. Indeed, there are quite a few clergy offspring in the House of Commons – put it down to a way with words and a concern for the well being of others. Right back to my early school days I was always involved with current affairs, and stood for election for the school council. It just blossomed from there.”
After graduating from St Hughes, Oxford, Mrs May started in banking, and after a number of roles, became Head of European Affairs for APACS, the inter-bank clearing service. Was this a move designed to advance her politically?
“Not really. They needed someone to represent the UK in bringing other banks into the clearing system. The role was offered to me, rather than me pursuing it. I think someone recognised that I was interested in politics and that I could make an argument. It was very enjoyable, but I didn’t plan it. I’ve never really planned my career. Perhaps I should.”
Between 1986 and 1994, Theresa cut her teeth in day-to-day, practical politics as a Councillor in the London Borough of Merton. She says that this long ‘apprenticeship’ gave her a platform to get on a list for a seat at a General Election.
“In hindsight, I did take a bit of a long way round. It’s quite common for Labour MPs, but not seen as the usual way for Conservatives. But no-one had ever told me any different.”
The usual route – especially for men – is to get a job as a research assistant to an MP, then to go into Public Affairs, and spend a lot of time in and around the House. And from there, prospective candidates get themselves onto a list – more often than not for a safe seat. Theresa unsuccessfully stood twice.
“By the time they arrive, they know this place very well,” she says. ” They have contacts, know their way around, and know how to get things done. I didn’t know anyone. Before I was elected I’d only been in place a couple of times. In hindsight, I suppose it was an outsider’s route.”
She was finally selected for a safe seat – Maidenhead in Berkshire – and elected to the House of Commons in May 1997. She was one of 121 women MPs.
A WOMAN’S POINT-OF-VIEW
Did the influx of women change the way the House operated?
“There was certainly a move almost immediately to change the way the House operated. It used to sit from 2.30pm to 10.30pm, and often later into the night. The women in the House – especially those with families – pushed for change.”
The House now sits 2.30pm to 10.00pm Monday and Tuesday, 11.30am to 7.00pm Wednesday and 10.30am to 6.00pm Thursday.
“That certainly makes for better planning, both of House business, and for constituency work. But we’re a long way from completing the modernising process. Unfortunately, most people only ever see the House of Commons through the lens of Prime Minister’s Questions. When I speak with people, especially women, about issues like transport, local hospitals, the regulation of childcare – things that impact their daily lives – then the political process is relevant. It’s is less about combat, and more about finding solutions.”
And one of the solutions that Theresa May is working to develop is how to get more women into national politics, especially as sitting MPs in her Party. To set this in context, in 1932 there were 13 Conservative women MPs. By 2006 that number was 17.
“At the General Election of 2001, there was not a single female candidate in safe seat. Not one. When I was Chairman of the Party four years later, I made a speech about the feminisation of politics – some call it my ‘Nasty Party’ speech – and I decided to do something about it. So we started Women2Win.”
NETWORK FOR CHANGE
Beginning as a virtual office, and running the occasional networking evening, Women2Win was an informal initiative to give women who were interested in politics the opportunity to find out more. Soon, it was supporting women who wanted to be candidates.
Mrs May says: “There ought to be a lot more women in politics. But the system – the way the parties select, the way the House runs – has been biased against them. There are women in Parliament who disagree totally with that statement; some of those who have ‘made it’ by playing the system as it is. But the question that I keep asking myself is whether we’re really attracting the best talent that can really represent the population?”
Today, Women2Win has an Executive Director, a business plan, a website and targets different groups with different needs.
“We run evenings for novices who just want to find out more about the political process. We run training courses, in things like public speaking and well as coaching women through their local Party’s selection process. And we’re running a formal mentoring programme.” All part of a support infrastructure that was not in place when she entered Parliament.
“But there were a couple of people who provided the trigger for me. They encouraged me to take steps that I might have wanted, but didn’t know how to go about it. I didn’t have the insider’s track. Now that I’m in here, I think I have a responsibility to make that available to a lot more women who will follow me. The more we make it available in a more formal way – rather than relying on chance – the wider the net will be.”
STEP IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION
It’s difficult to meet with or read about Theresa May, without thinking of the shoes. Every interview or profile of her references her flamboyant footwear. Does she think it demeans her as a serious politician?
“I have a choice of how to respond: I can either take issue with it or I can go with the flow. In truth, I think it makes me more human, more approachable. It is, after all, something that women relate to. It’s a great ice-breaker.”
She has three pieces of advice for women thinking of a career in politics – indeed, women in any career:
“First, be yourself. Be true to who you are. Don’t try to conform. That can make it harder in the short term, but more satisfying in the long run.
“Secondly, learn to manage upwards. I see so many women who think that doing a good job is enough in itself. If you don’t tell what you’ve done, others won’t notice.
“And believe in yourself. Believe you can do it. I know that sounds like a platitude, but the lack of genuine self-belief is the biggest inhibitor I see in the women who initially come to the Women2Win evenings. And that’s what we’re there, to provide encouragement to take the next step. And life’s really a series of next steps, isn’t it?”
Rt Hon Theresa May is MP for Maidenhead, Home Secretary and Minister for Women and Equality.