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Female politicians have never had it so good—and yet…

A "childless politicians” list responding to Nicola Sturgeon’s miscarriage featured only women

By Jessica Abrahams  

Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. ©David Cheskin/PA Wire/Press Association Images

We are living in an unprecedented time for female politicians in Britain. For only the second time in history, the country is led by a female Prime Minister. Scotland also has a female leader, and Wales looked like it might do too for a moment earlier this year. The UK’s first female politician entered parliament less than 100 years ago. Sometimes, it’s easy to forget how much progress has been made.

And yet, and yet…

The article published by the Sunday Times Magazine this weekend, which included a roll-call of “childless politicians” featuring only women—in response to Nicola Sturgeon’s revelation that she had a miscarriage while she was Deputy First Minister of Scotland—tells the other side of the story: that there is still much progress to be made.

The article rightly caused outrage for focusing exclusively on the family lives of female politicians. But, buried somewhere behind this, there is a point to be made: far fewer female than male MPs have children. According to a 2012 survey, 45 per cent of female MPs were childless, against 28 per cent of their male colleagues. The academics behind the survey, Rosie Campbell and Sarah Childs, concluded that there was “clear evidence that there are serious barriers to parliament for those with caring responsibilities, most often mothers.” This, of course, reflects barriers to work more widely. It is often noted that there is a “motherhood penalty” in the workplace: women with children tend to be judged more negatively and paid less than women without. The same effect does not seem to apply to men.

Last year, the New Statesman calculated that the men in the shadow cabinet had an average of 2.2 children each, while the women had an average of only 1.2. Even with women in charge, that gap remains in place. A third of the women in Theresa May’s Cabinet have no children, compared with just 7 per cent of the men. And the women who do have children have fewer of them: an average of roughly 1.3 compared with 2.7 for the men.

Sturgeon’s comments on the issue, following news of her miscarriage, have been laudably nuanced. “There are many reasons why women don’t have children,” she said. “Some of us simply don’t want to, some of us worry about the impact on our career—and there is still so much to do, through better childcare, more progressive working practices and more enlightened attitudes, to make sure we don’t feel we have to choose. And sometimes, for whatever reason, having a baby just doesn’t happen—no matter how much we might want it to.”

But she added something that deserves more attention. “If the miscarriage hadn’t happened,” she commented, “would I be sitting here as First Minister right now? It’s just an unanswerable question… I’d like to think ‘yes’, because I could have shown that having a child wasn’t a barrier to all of this, but in truth I don’t know.”

It’s a brave admission to make—that such an achievement might not have been possible without such a tragedy. And it should strike us all as incredibly sad that this should even be a possibility; that it should even be a question she is asking herself—one, I doubt, that has ever crossed a man’s mind in similar circumstances. Too often, women face a zero-sum game between career and family in a way that men do not, making careful calculations—often from a young age—about how to balance the two. That fewer women in parliament have children does not necessarily mean that they have prioritised career above family (as Sturgeon points out, they may simply not have wanted children, or for various reasons may not have been able to have them) but it does suggest that it is harder for women with children to reach that level of seniority.

At the same time, the Sunday Times article highlights how much more pressure female politicians are under to make the balance work, precisely because their family lives are scrutinised and politicised in a way that men’s are not. Andrea Leadsom got herself into trouble during the Conservative leadership contest for discussing, during an interview, the impact of her motherhood—in contrast to Theresa May’s childlessness—on her politics. But while the outcry this sparked was deserved, we should remember that had Leadsom been a man, she would probably never have been asked about the impact of being a parent on her work as a politician.

So before Sturgeon’s words get lost beneath controversy, it’s worth remembering that we all have a role to play here: in the assumptions we make, the questions we ask and the way we judge women in politics and beyond.

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