Boris Johnson’s view of women has been “forever impacted” by not mixing with girls until he was much older than the average child due to his all-male education, a senior Conservative MP has said.
Caroline Nokes, chair of the Women and Equalities Select Committee in parliament, told The Independent the prime minister’s ministerial appointments are based on finding the “right chap” rather than the “best candidate” for the role as she said women are “overlooked repeatedly”.
Ms Nokes argued that Mr Johnson, who has frequently been criticised for making sexist and racist remarks, is less sexist than he was, but noted he had “a long way to go”.
The MP for Romsey and Southampton North said she is “convinced” the Etonian prime minister’s “blokey mentality” partly stems from his education and “the type of upbringing he had”.
Ms Nokes added: “What we see is somebody who wasn’t educated with girls… who didn’t mix with them until he was significantly older than your average child. I think it has forever impacted his perceptions.
“Often when it comes to making ministerial appointments, it’s all about who is the best chap for the job, not necessarily who would be the best candidate for the job.”
Ms Nokes claimed that the fact that childcare was “shut and forgotten” in the first lockdown was “absolute evidence” that there need to be more women “sat around” the decision-making table to make “rounded” choices.
“It is really sad; even in recent months, we’ve seen the proportion of women in cabinet go down,” Ms Nokes added. “You wouldn’t have thought that was really possible.”
Johnson was originally educated at Eton College and went on to study Classics at Balliol College, Oxford.
Women account for about a third of MPs and local councillors, while only five out of 23 cabinet ministers are women. For more than six months at the height of the pandemic, there was not a single Downing Street press conference that was not led by a man.
Ms Nokes, a former Home Office minister, said Mr Johnson recognises he should have more women in his cabinet yet fails to appoint another woman at “every opportunity” he has.
“I don’t think he is a feminist,” Ms Nokes said of her party’s leader. “If he truly was a feminist then he would have far more of a commitment. He would be the sort of person who pulled himself up when he was making decisions. You don’t become a feminist by calling yourself one.”
Ms Nokes went on to say that, while she was not “shocked” by the outpouring of women’s stories about being sexually harassed, assaulted, or abused by men in public spaces after Sarah Everard’s killing, she was “appalled” that they were forced to endure such behaviour.
The politician warned that even in 2021 women are subjected to “hideous everyday incidents” of harassment and abuse – noting that they are often reluctant to report it to the police and have fears that their allegations will not be “taken seriously or investigated” if they do come forward.
In a wide-ranging interview, Ms Nokes argued that the backlash from some men over women sharing stories stemmed from an “oversensitivity” and a fragile male ego as well as a “lack of willingness to be an ally” to women.
The politician, who said she fears for her own 22-year-old daughter’s safety, added: “The good guys want to be an ally.”
Ms Nokes voiced scepticism at controversial plans for plainclothes police officers to patrol bars and nightclubs to safeguard women from predatory men.
Ministers announced the fiercely criticised plans in response to mounting anger that the government was not doing enough to tackle violence against women in the wake of Ms Everard’s death.
Ms Nokes said she was “sceptical” that such plans “would be successful”, and when pressed about whether it would be difficult to enforce the measures due to members of the public pretending to be police officers, she warned it could lead to “all sorts of strange situations”.
The politician said there is “a lot more to be done” to tackle violence against women and girls as she argued that the criminal justice system needed to work better for female victims of crime – adding that the “stats speak for themselves”.
Campaigners have long warned that rape has been effectively decriminalised, with prosecutions and convictions for sexual assault and rape reaching record lows last year. Government data shows that, in the year to March 2020, just 1.4 per cent of 55,130 rape cases recorded by police had resulted in prosecution.
“More CCTV, more street lights – these are physical deterrents but they’re not addressing the root cause,” Ms Nokes added, in reference to plans unveiled by the government in April.
“A few street lights are not going to prevent a perpetrator who is determined to harass, assault, or stalk a woman from doing so.”
A woman is killed by a current or previous partner every four days in England and Wales, while a recent survey by UN Women found that 97 per cent of young women in the UK said they had been sexually harassed and 80 per cent reported experiencing sexual harassment in public spaces.
“We have to address the culture around why some men think it is acceptable to abuse and harass women,” Ms Nokes added.
A government spokesperson said: “This government continues to deliver policies to improve the support, protection and opportunities available for women.
“This includes funding during the pandemic for sectors women are more likely to be employed in, specific protections for female-led start-ups, flexible furlough arrangements for those unable to work due to the closure of schools, nurseries, and childcare services, and enhanced childcare support.
“Alongside supporting jobs, action is also being taken to protect women and girls and support victims and survivors. The new Domestic Abuse Act will ensure that victims have the protection they need, and later this year we will publish our new Tackling Violence Against Women and Girls strategy to tackle all forms of this crime and bring perpetrators to justice.”