Women make up more than half of the UK population—but less than a third of its MPs. After June 8, it'll likely be the same. What can we do to improve things?by Sam Smethers / May 31, 2017 / Leave a comment
There just aren’t enough women. In the world. In our society. Anywhere apparently. Over half the population just isn’t enough.
That’s historically been the reason given for the political parties failing to put more women forward for election. There is a truth in this, in that many women won’t consider themselves for political office unless someone proactively asks them to stand.
Persistence may be required, too, because women may take several attempts to be persuaded. 50:50 Parliament’s #Askhertostand campaign is spot on in that respect.
Why do women need to be talked into it?
Politics is still perceived to be a man’s world. Sad but true. Just look at Prime Minister’s Questions—or, if you have ever been to parliament itself, think about it: it just reeks of gentleman’s club, doesn’t it?
Women are often repelled by the thing they are being urged to join and, by joining, change it. But the institution of Westminster, we know, is very resistant to change.
It’s not family-friendly. The life of an MP involves long hours, working away from home in most cases. Women, particularly those with young children, are deterred by the inability to combine being an MP with their unpaid caring work.
This is why mothers, in particular, are under-represented in parliament. Some 45 per cent of women MPs do not have children compared to only 28 per cent of male members.
Recommendations such as permitting MPs to take young babies with them through the lobbies or even sit with them on the benches have been resisted. Yet in Australia, a woman MP recently breastfed her baby on the parliamentary benches. And democracy, apparently, survived. No, honest. It did.
The Fawcett Society has been running a project on women in local government and we have found that 38 per cent of women councillors have experienced sexist comments within their party, and 33 per cent from other councillors. 10 per cent have experienced sexual harassment. There is every reason to believe that this experience holds true for women MPs as well.
A turning tide
The selection processes by which candidates are chosen, too, can be sexist. On a positive note, there are signs that this may be changing (well, improving a bit; let’s not get too carried away).
This general election, Labour has selected a record percentage of women candidates at 41 per cent, up from 34 per cent in 2015. The proportion of Conservative candidates who are women is 29 per cent, up from 26 per cent at the last election, and the Liberal Democrats have risen from 26 per cent to 30 per cent. The proportion of SNP candidates who are women has fallen slightly from 36 per cent to 33 per cent.
But the key thing in our electoral system is, which of them have a good chance of being elected? Labour did very well on this last time, with a higher percentage of women MPs than they had candidates—i.e., they were selected in seats they could win.
The Conservative Party have made significant progress in this respect this time around. Over half of their “retirement” (or “safe”) seats are being represented by women candidates, and a further significant proportion have been selected in ‘winnable’ seats.
This means, according to Fawcett analysis, we are likely to see an increase of 32 Conservative women MPs elected on 8th June. Others put the figure higher still.
But if a number of Labour women lose their seats—and we predict 27 will—then the overall picture will be a static one, with women making up just 30 per cent of MPs after the election; the same proportion as we had before parliament was dissolved.
The need for quotas
It is situations like these which suggest we need quotas of some kind, or at least an enforceable target. The Women and Equalities Select Committee concluded as much in their report calling for a statutory minimum proportion of women parliamentary candidates of 45 per cent.
If you look around the world, 80 per cent of parliaments which have 30 per cent or more women elected representatives use some kind of quota. There’s a reason for that. It’s what works.