“It’s so important that women break into politics because if we don’t, it won’t change”
Since the rise of the MeToo and Times Up movements from 2017, it’s no secret that there has been a growing consciousness within our society about the mistreatment of women within the workplace. While sexism exists within every sector, there is no doubt that the Westminster harassment scandal brought this conversation to a new level of prominence within the UK and beyond. With complaints made against 36 different MP’s from across all political parties, it was no longer possible for the media and politicians alike to ignore the culture of silencing that lay behind Westminster’s doors.
Behind much of this uncovering of sexual assault within Westminster was Labour coordinator Tara Jane O’Reilly. Starting as a campaign assistant on Sadiq Khan’s mayoral campaign in 2016, she continued working within politics and now works for Labour’s Clive Efford. Alongside this, Tara remains outspoken about the issues which women and minorities face within Westminster. However, this has not been easy. While Tara acknowledges that speaking out in politics and online is ultimately the right thing to do and helps with making politics a better place, it also comes with its challenges.
It can’t be easy being an outspoken woman online and in politics, especially with the topics you cover. Are there a lot of downsides to speaking out, would you say?
“I sometimes get abuse on social media – it’s definitely a risky thing to do. You’re often challenging very powerful people and systems that have been in place for a long time. I also worry about the impact speaking out can have on my career. While I’m lucky that my boss [Clive Efford MP] supports me and encourages me to speak out, I know that I’m considered by some politicians to be ‘too troublesome to be hired by them.”
“Being in Westminster for four years has been intense as it is, and this has undoubtedly taken a toll on my mental health. I had a breakdown in summer 2019 because of the pressure I put on myself – and I need a better work-life balance. Still, then also I worry it’s easy to become institutionalized and part of the Westminster furniture if you stick around too long without getting some outside perspective, and I always prided myself on not being fully comfortable in Westminster, and I’ve definitely become too comfortable. At the very least, I’d like to do something else as my 9-5 very soon!”
Despite the strain which speaking out within Westminster has put on her within her career and mental health, being outspoken remains a priority for Tara – as this is often not an option for others within her field.
“This might sound reckless – but every time I speak out or campaign, I have already considered the consequences, and I am very aware of the risk. But if you have a privilege that others aren’t afforded – in my case, I’m a white woman with access and profile in politics – you need to spend it. If ultimately, I were to lose my career in politics because of speaking out, then fine. I’ll be even more annoying if I’m on the outside, guys!”
As a response to those working within Westminster speaking out about the issues of harassment, bullying, and rampant inequality, there have been some positive changes. This has taken the form of initiatives such as the Independent Bullying and Harassment Network and The Independent Grievance Scheme. However, are these measures enough to tackle the root cause of the issue?
“The independent grievance scheme recently passed by Parliament is a great step – and probably one of the first significant steps in terms of structural change – because staff didn’t have a truly independent system up until it was introduced, which is huge. And totally crazy when you think about it – we didn’t have an independent system at all a few years or months ago! So, the introduction of the scheme is significant – however, it is just one part of the solution. It doesn’t tackle the root cause, and it doesn’t challenge or change the culture in Westminster that allows abuse to happen. Ideally, we want to be in a place where people don’t use the scheme because there isn’t abuse to report anymore, right?”
Clearly, many of these issues within parliament are structural and deeply embedded within its structure – therefore, unlikely to be solved by the measures that have been put in place by Westminster thus far. Also, women are still underrepresented within politics in the UK – and if women remain underrepresented, how are their issues ever going to be taken seriously?
Thankfully, there is hope. Working behind the scenes, Tara is the chair of Women in Westminster. This organisation was set up to help and support women working behind the scenes in politics. Holding coffee mornings and meetings, this has been a factor in helping to create a supportive environment for women – something which was previously unavailable within Westminster.
“Women in Westminster helps to support and mentor women working behind the scenes in politics. They often hold coffee mornings and meetings where all women are welcome to come together in a supportive environment. As Westminster can be such an intimidating and largely male-centric environment, organizations such as these are absolutely vital to encourage more women to want to continue to work in Westminster. Without support networks, it can be extremely isolating. Ultimately, it’s so important that women break into politics because if we don’t, it won’t change.”