Women in Westminster: Tackling the gender divide

Across the political spectrum parties needs to increase female representation. A gender balance of Parliamentarians that reflects modern Britain is an achievable goal

How can we encourage more women to walk in Parliament's direction?
Theodora Clarke
On 17 April 2012 10:01

The debate on whether we should have more women in Parliament is once again back in the news. The Conservative MP, Priti Patel argued in The Sun last week that Westminster IS women’s work. This week women from both mainstream and fringe parties took to the airwaves to debate whether we need more female MPs. The general consensus was that Parliament should be more representative of the British electorate. However, despite agreement on the lack of female representation the parties all disagree on how to tackle the problem.

The first question is do we need more female politicians? Yes. Women constitute over 50 percent of the country’s adult population. There are currently only 143 women MPs which equates to 22 percent of the House of Commons. This means fewer than a quarter are MPs and the fact remains that we have had only one female Prime Minister in our history, Margaret Thatcher. Parliament therefore needs to be more representative of the UK as a whole.

The Prime Minister has already made it his aspiration clear that 30 percent of his ministers should be women at the end of the first parliament of a Conservative Government. And we already have females in senior ministerial roles such as Justine Greening in Transport and Theresa May in Home Affairs – but there is still a long way to go for gender equality.

In 2008 a new committee was set up to discuss parliamentary representation. They made recommendations for rectifying the disparity between the representation of women in the House of Commons and the UK’s population. Labour’s response was to argue in favour of quotas. As a result Labour has proportionately more women MPs (32 percent) than any other political party. The Green Party also uses quotas for women such as in their top up lists for the London Assembly. Both parties argue that positive discrimination in their selection process has resulted in more women being elected.

The Liberal Democrats, in contrast, do not support quotas. In 2001 at their conference the party debated proposals to improve the gender balance at Westminster. Plans for all-women shortlists were rejected on the basis that rather than sexism being the central problem, the real barrier to equal representation was a lack of women coming forward for political roles at all levels.

I personally don’t support all women shortlists. A meritocratic system is essential when selecting candidates. This is also why the Conservatives are opposed to them. No one in this country should want someone chosen only because of their sex; we need the best person for the job regardless of their gender. Imposing centralised measures such as all-women shortlists does not solve the root cause of the problem that more men than women apply to be candidates.

Substantial progress has been made in the Conservative Party since David Cameron was elected leader of the party. The number of female MPs has increased from 17 to 49 (16 percent) which is a three-fold increase. A number of specialist bodies have been set up to encourage political participation and activism such as the Conservative Women’s Organisation and Women2Win.

In 2005 the Conservatives under Cameron’s leadership also announced a priority A-list. This was one of a number of positive interventions that helped deliver more than 80 women candidates in winnable constituencies. The list had a fifty-fifty split of both men and women for associations to choose candidates from. Many of the new intake, including Priti Patel, Claire Perry and Louise Mensch, were on this preferred list.

Another way to take positive action is to headhunt talent. Many women are actively involved in their local community and we need to reach out to them to encourage them to stand in local and national elections. This means engaging with women in their communities and getting them interested in politics on a local level. The core message needs to be therefore that more women should be encouraged to apply.

There is no set route to being an elected politician; candidates come from all walks of life and from across the UK. Some people have been a councillor or been active in their local political party. Others have been entrepreneurs, business leaders and have experience raising a family or being primary carers. There are successful women across the UK who would make good politicians. They have skills which would be immediately transferable to public life. The answer is to encourage more women to enter public life in the first place in any capacity. If we have more women choosing to engage with politics then we will have more women in Parliament.  

One of the serious barriers for women wanting to be Parliamentarians is the lack of flexibility provided to parents of young children and pregnant MPs. The House of Commons sits very late for the first half of the week with votes often held at night between seven and 10pm. These unsocial hours combined with the many weekend responsibilities in the constituency can be a deterrent. It is still the case that women do the vast majority of care and work in the home which provides them with less time for political activities. However, examples of senior politicians, such as Yvette Cooper, challenge this stereotype. She manages to combine her shadow cabinet responsibilities with being an MP and raising four children.

At the next election each political party is going to be aware that there will be fewer winnable seats with the proposed reduction in the number of MPs. This might mean a drop in the number of women in parliament at the next election. The Liberal Democrat’s fielded even less women candidates in seats in the last General Election than in 2005 and only seven out of 57 of their MPs are women.

Across the political spectrum parties needs to increase female representation. Each of the parties has committed to enabling more women to become elected and there have been real advances made within the parties. However, more needs to be done to increase female representation at all levels of public life. A gender balance of Parliamentarians that reflects modern Britain is an achievable goal. It has been over thirty years since the last female Prime Minister but with the talented new intake of women MPs leading the way this could be the moment for change.

Theodora Clarke is Director of Communications for the Conservative Women’s Organisation.  She is a lecturer and commentator particularly on the arts, politics and youth unemployment. She writes in a personal capacity. Follow her on twitter @theodoraclarke

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