Two of Westminster’s top female journalists say they want to make women’s voices more widely heard as the lobby moves away from the traditional “boys’ club” culture of Westminster.
The Telegraph’s Kate McCann and Buzzfeed’s Emily Ashton, both senior political correspondents, recently started their new posts as chairman of the press gallery and chairman of the lobby – the body of political journalists based at Parliament – respectively.
It is the first time women have filled both positions at the same time, coming coincidentally in the same year as the centenary of female suffrage.
Speaking to Press Gazette for International Women’s Day today, Ashton (pictured) said she hopes such a line-up will soon become unnoteworthy.
According to the most recent listings on the Parliamentary Press Gallery website, around 39 per cent of its members across all divisions are women, with 153 men and 60 women.
Ashton said: “I don’t really want it to be a big thing. I hope that in the future it just becomes the norm for two women to do it and it’s not even mentioned. A woman can do the job just as well as a man and that’s all there is to it really.
“But if this helps shine a light on the fact that women are in the lobby and doing political journalism then maybe young female students might think ‘great, that’s a job for me actually’.
“If it helps to raise awareness, that’s great.”
McCann, who hopes to use her year in charge to get more female voices at press gallery lunches and help organise more mentoring for young people, said their dual roles are “really important” as people are becoming more aware of how few women are in the lobby.
“We need to be able to show as an organisation that the lobby isn’t an all-boys club, because it isn’t, and that it’s not a closed shop,” she said.
“This year you’ve got two women – you’ve also got a print journalist and someone from an online publication, Buzzfeed, which is also really important to show we can move with the times.
“And it helps people feel a bit more like there are people like them. I don’t have any family members who had ever done journalism before, I didn’t study journalism, I didn’t do a City course, so I think it helps people feel like they could maybe do this job.”
McCann interned at the Guardian before getting a staff job at the paper. She then headed to City AM – where she joined the lobby – and has also worked at the Sun.
Last week, Theresa May used her Westminster Correspondents’ Dinner speech to credit both McCann and Ashton and call for “a lot more ambitious women in top jobs”.
Although both women emphasised how supportive their male lobby colleagues are, McCann noted sexism from MPs can still be a concern.
She said: “When I first started, a lot of MPs assumed I didn’t know anything at all about politics, so often, if you were in a conversation or a briefing with a male journalist, they would focus their conversation almost entirely on those other male journalists and they wouldn’t look at me at all.
“I think a lot of that is to do with [them] either thinking I didn’t know what they were talking about or I didn’t really have anything to say and that can undermine your confidence a bit – you feel like you’re not allowed to be part of those conversations.
“That was difficult in the beginning, but I think as I’ve been here a bit longer and I’ve got more confident and I feel I do have something to say that doesn’t happen as much.”
McCann also found that, in the traditional lobby culture of late night socialising with contacts, MPs can sometimes overstep boundaries when “lines are blurred”.
“I have encountered sexism in parliament from MPs and people in senior positions. Sometimes it’s ignorance, sometimes it’s deliberate and sometimes it’s just going a little bit too far,” she said.
Ashton said she has not personally experienced sexism from MPs but is pleased the “blokey culture” of Westminster is changing.
For both women, motherhood is an important aspect of their careers. Ashton has a 16-month-old daughter named Lucy, while McCann said she wants to have children and continue doing her job.
Both felt one of the difficulties facing young parents in Westminster – not only women, although it affects them disproportionately as they often bear the brunt of the childcare – is the long hours.
Ashton said: “You do see women in journalism teams but you don’t see many female political editors and I think part of the reason for that is the long hours that journalism involves.
“You could say that about any industry but journalism in particular – if you’re working at a newspaper – requires you to be there for deadlines, 7pm or 8pm at night. How can you do that with a baby at home?”
McCann said: “The lobby definitely needs to make a shift towards the idea that we are not just journalists we are also parents, or we might have people that we have to look after or we might want to have children.
“So there needs to be the idea that it’s okay to do that and it doesn’t make you any less of a journalist or any less dedicated to your job.”
Ashton spoke about a recent parliamentary debate on baby leave for MPs as an example of why it is important to have women’s voices in senior political roles and in journalism.
She said: “The more women you have in the lobby the more you can write about these issues. It’s not that men aren’t interested, but women can see stories from different angles and better reflect the readership.
“I’m not saying women should be pigeonholed and only write about women’s issues, but if you only have men writing about politics then you might miss out on certain stories [because] it doesn’t even occur to them that that is a story.”
McCann encouraged more young women to enter political journalism and join the lobby to keep the institution going “at a time when newspapers are under attack from all sides”.
“The way to do that is to get more people to join it and to get people to want to join it and make it accessible and make it more appealing,” she said.
“The only we do that is to get more young women in, more young men in, and get people to come and love it as much as we do.”
Picture: Emily Ashton