Cracks in the glass ceiling: mentoring programme evalution report

By Christine Megson, coordinator of the Fabian Women mentoring programme.

This post originally appeared on the Fabian Women blog

glassceiling_FWN_web.inddToday the Fabian Women’s Network and Birbeck, University of London launch Cracks in the glass ceiling: Assessing the Fabian Women’s Network’s mentoring programme.

A timely but chance encounter led to the creation of the Fabian Women’s Network (FWN) Mentoring and Political Education Programme. When I met Felicity a student studying politics and French at an annual FWN reception, I asked the obvious What Next question. For women interested in politics without role models at home or local networks there is no easy way of knowing what answers you can give to this question. Even if you are clear on what you want to achieve, the route can be difficult to navigate and particularly so if you live outside London.

As I looked round the room of Fabian women and saw members of the cabinet, MPs, the prime minister’s wife, peers, chief executives of charities and a campaigner against child poverty, I realised the answer was in the room. Within the FWN there exists massive social and intellectual capital just waiting to be tapped and Fabians tend to share the same values. I was a mentor at the time and realised how powerful the process could be. Felicity and I approached Seema Malhotra, FWN director, and the planning of the first mentoring programme began. 75 amazing women in three cohorts have benefited to date.

The aims of the programme are to increase women’s political understanding and the impact and influence of women in politics and public life. There are many women who we see as having “made it” in that they have got to the “top” in their chosen field, but the common theme they relate to us is that it was a harder journey than it should have been and took a longer period of time. They recount the difficulties of navigating choices, often without empathy from work colleagues, not knowing who to ask for advice, and the challenges of work/life balance that women tend to face more than men at different stages of their lives.

We knew that in addition to mentoring we needed to organise a flexible skills training programme based on a robust political skills framework Seema devised from her own experience. We use the power of place so participants can feel what it is like to sit round the Shadow Cabinet Room table or gain confidence in talking about Europe from sitting in the European Parliament. The model needs consistent support with invaluable input from Caroline Adams from the Parliamentary Labour Party but draws on expertise from within the group.

The strength of the peer network is the backbone of the programme and is what will sustain it for years to come. At each induction there is immediate respect of the sheer wealth of experience and diversity in the room. As planned, we have attracted women from their 20s to their 60s, from different social class and ethnic backgrounds and all sectors of employment. This remains a strong objective so we widen the range and appeal of the scheme. A ‘buddying’ system from earlier cohorts allows new mentees to extend their networks.

Since the programme began nearly 30 women have put themselves up for selection at local, national and European level, often earlier than planned; a number have become trustees of charities and many have rapidly gained promotion at work. They have published articles and spoken at conferences and in the media. Each of these has acted as a role model and inspiration to the rest of the group. There are regular opportunities to manage or support each other’s campaigns.

On 21st January we are delighted to be launching the evaluation report produced by Professor Joni Lovenduski and Dr Rosie Campbell of Birkbeck, University of London. They have measured the progress made by the women in the first two cohorts, analysed the success of the programme through focus groups and interviews and their observations on the challenge of funding and the need for a wider geographic pool provide us with a clear steer for an even more successful future.

Additionally we have been capturing the views of mentees to illustrate their progress:

“The programme came at a really timely moment as I was considering standing for election as a local ward councillor. The elements of the programme were excellent for educating and empowering me to take a route into public life. My mentor taught me how to do it on my own terms. More than that, it facilitated a brilliant network of like minded women who have continued to be a valuable sounding board and source for motivation to continue in public life”. Eleanor

“The FWN mentoring scheme had a really significant impact on me. As a young woman who had recently moved to London doing a commercial job I didn’t love, the knowledge sessions, networks, and relationship with my mentor gave me the confidence to switch careers into politics. To have a shadow cabinet minister give me an hour of her time to update my CV and practice interview questions was amazing!” Kate

“Without a doubt I would not be the Labour candidate for Manchester city centre in next year’s local elections or the co-founder of Fabian Women North West without taking part in the FWN mentoring scheme. The scheme provided me not only with essential skills to run for public office, but most importantly the confidence and support to actually carry it out. From walking the halls of European Parliament to eating Pringles in the shadow cabinet office in Westminster, the mentoring scheme gave me an invaluable insight into the real world of politics and opened the seemingly closed doors that surround public life. Being part of the FWN mentoring scheme taught me that if you want to see progress and change you have to be part of that yourself. The scheme points to the glass ceiling and hands you the hammer to break it down.” Beth.

Applications for the next cohort open in March

This Ludicrous Obsession, Parents in Parliament: The Motherhood Trap

By Dr Rosie Campbell and Professor Sarah Childs

Men’s over-representation and women’s under-representation in the UK Parliament is pretty well known, even if the public sometimes over-estimates just how many women MPs there are, bedazzled by their bright clothing in the Chamber.[1] In fact, men outnumber women by more than 4:1.

Some people may not find this particularly troublesome. Lord Hurd has recently been cited saying that there is a “ludicrous” obsession with ensuring there is equal representation of men and woman in parliament and other areas of public life.[2] We believe very strongly that a diversity of background and experience does matter.[3] And there’s another serious flaw with the Hurd line of reasoning. He says that if voters didn’t want a “good looking chap from a public school” as prime minister they wouldn’t keep choosing them. But the reason feminists have campaigned for All Women Short-lists as a means to get more women at Westminster is precisely because it’s political parties not voters who choose our candidates and party leaders. We the voters don’t get to choose our parliamentary candidates, and therefore who our MPs, are. The reasons there are too few women in politics stems from both a lack of demand for and supply of women candidates: voters don’t punish women candidates. But in the absence of equality measures such as Labour’s All Women’s Shortlists, parties are much less likely to select women in winnable seats, even if fewer women seek selection as parliamentary candidates overall.

Having children is frequently cited as a barrier that holds women back from seeking parliamentary selection. But of course not all women are mothers. And both men and women are parents. So we need to question whether the problem is less about the equal representation of men and women – or parents and non-parents – and perhaps more about the exclusion of mothers?

Until now, the UK Parliament simply did not know how many mothers or fathers sat on its green benches. During the new Labour years, and again since 2010, a number of women MPs have given birth: the latest being the Liberal Democrat Minister Jo Swinson, who is currently facing criticism for wanting to have her child with her in the division lobby.[4] We doubt that the vocal hostility to the needs of a new mother, that her comments have generated, are likely to increase the supply of mothers seeking selection for the 2015 general election.

In our survey of MPs in 2012 we found a startling set of facts about mothers and fathers in Parliament[5]:

• 45% of women MPs have no children, compared to 28% of male MPs, and compared to an average of about 20% of the population who remain childless[6]
• Of all MPs with children, male MPs have on average 1.9 children, whilst women MPs have on average only 1.2
• The average age of women MPs’ eldest child, when they first entered parliament, was 16 years old ; the average age of men MPs’ eldest child when they first entered parliament was 12 years old
In sum: women MPs are (1) less likely to have children than male MPs; (2) more likely to have fewer children than male MPs; and (3) enter parliament when their children are older than the children of male MPs.

These staggering differences are clear evidence that there are serious barriers to Parliament for those with caring responsibilities, most often mothers.

Reactions to these statistics will likely vary depending on whether you believe that the House of Commons should look like the society it represents for reasons of justice; or whether you think that good-looking public school educated men are equally capable of understanding the complexities of juggling work and family life. There will be those who have no fear that without mothers in Parliament the soaring costs of childcare and the disproportionate effect of the economic crisis on women in low paid and part-time work (mostly mothers) will reach the top of the political agenda. We’re not so sure. And that’s why we want more mothers in Parliament.


[1] In his 2009 survey conducted by YouGov Professor Phil Cowley (Nottingham) asked respondents what they thought was the correct percentage of women MPs was. At the time the average response was 26% when the actual figure was closer to 20%.

[2] http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2014/01/14/lord-hurd-feminism_n_4598256.html?utm_hp_ref=uk

[3] For more information on this see http://www.psa.ac.uk/insight-plus/blog/whistling-dark-conservative%E2%80%99s-strategy-winning-women%E2%80%99s-votes-optimistic-and

[4] http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/womens-blog/2014/jan/07/breastfeeding-workplace-jo-swinson-cathy-newman

[5] The survey was supported by the Speaker of the House of Commons and the Commons Diversity and Inclusion Unit.

[6] According to the Office for National Statistics 20 percent of women born in 1966 remain childless.

Time for All-Men Shortlists?

By Dr Rainbow Murray

This post originally appeared on the PSA Political Insight Blog.

It is now two decades since the Labour party introduced All-Women Shortlists (AWS) in an attempt to redress the serious gender imbalance within the parliamentary party.  These shortlists have been controversial, but relatively successful in their goal of increasing women’s representation.  They are the main reason why the percentage of women in Westminster doubled overnight after the 1997 election, even though the policy was temporarily scrapped in 1996 following a legal challenge. (It was reintroduced in 2002 after a change in legislation; the percentage of women in parliament actually dropped in 2001, demonstrating how much the parties have struggled to increase women’s representation without the use of mechanisms such as AWS).

Other parties have contemplated following Labour’s lead, but have hesitated for a mixture of pragmatic and ideological reasons.  David Cameron preferred the “A-list”, with mixed results, while the Liberal Democrats openly rejected the idea of AWS.  However, women who once proudly sported t-shirts saying “I am not a token woman” have since changed their minds. Jo Swinson, for example, has acknowledged that 147 out of 237 districts in 2009 had an all-men shortlist for the Liberal Democrats.  Although AWS have been contested on the grounds that they are unmeritocratic and unfair to men, the evidence suggests that parties do not incur a penalty for their use and they are widely acknowledged as being the most effective means of increasing women’s representation.  It is no coincidence that more than half of the women sitting in Westminster are on the opposition benches, even though Labour have a minority of MPs in parliament.

So why on earth am I advocating all-men shortlists?  The reason is simple.  They already exist in practice, and the failure to acknowledge this properly creates a host of problems that could be resolved by labelling them explicitly as constituencies for men.

At present, the Labour party has two kinds of seat: “open” seats, and AWS.  Where a “favourite son” wishes to stand, the party will avoid ring-fencing the seat for a woman.  AWS constituencies are those where there is a favoured female candidate, and/or there is no strongly favoured male candidate.  Given the high levels of competition for winnable seats, it is a struggle to find enough seats without male incumbents or favourite sons that can be reserved for women; as a result, almost every remaining “open” seat is in fact effectively ring-fenced for a man.  No women have won nomination in an “open” target seat since the last election.  This is not because women are not competitive, but because strong women candidates are given AWS districts, while open seats are considered seats for men in all but name.

As long as women are still getting selected via AWS, you might ask what the problem is.  The answer is threefold. Firstly, labelling seats for women as AWS and seats for men as open is stigmatising to women.  It suggests that women are less competitive candidates and can only win in constituencies reserved for them, whereas men can win anywhere.  This denies the reality that many “open” seats are effectively stitched up for men.  If open seats are renamed “all-men shortlists”, both men and women are selected on single-sex lists, with no claims of special treatment, inferior status or discrimination on either side.

This brings us to the second issue – currently open seats are not all-men shortlists, even though men almost exclusively win them.  In fact, there is an obligation to ensure that there is at least one woman on the shortlist.  This is not a good thing if it means forcing a token woman to contest the seat, at considerable personal expense, only to endure the humiliation of losing.  If these seats are not truly open – and I argue that they are not – then there is no point in maintaining the charade of having women on the shortlist.  Better to recognise that these are seats for men, label them as such, and spare good women from having to maintain a facade of gender equality that only serves to reinforce false beliefs that women are uncompetitive.

If gender equality is truly to be achieved, treating men and women on equal terms is necessary.  Renaming open seats as all-men shortlists (AMS) removes the differential terms for men’s and women’s selection, but leaves open the third issue, namely that AWS currently comprise less than half of all constituencies.  If seats become split into AWS and AMS, it then becomes rather more difficult to justify having fewer than half of the seats for women.  Anything less than a 50:50 split would reveal rather transparently the ongoing inequalities in candidate selection.  Replacing open seats with AMS would therefore serve as a trigger for dividing seats equally between AWS and AMS.  If the seats are divided appropriately – with each sex receiving an equal proportion of safe, target and unwinnable seats – this would be a huge boon for gender equality and for women’s representation.

The idea of reserving half of each type of seat for women and half for men is not new, in theory or practice.  Known as “twinning” – with seats paired in terms of winnability, one reserved for a woman and the other for a man – this concept has been applied successfully in elections to the Welsh Assembly, and is one of the reasons why women’s representation is so much higher there than in Westminster.  AMS would therefore not be a giant leap into unchartered territory for the Labour party (and for any other party that wished to follow suit).  What AMS would do is remove the stigma of AWS, promote an equal distribution of seats between the sexes, and remove the humiliating obligation for women to feature on the shortlists of seats they stand no realistic chance of winning.  The first step towards ending discriminatory practices is to recognise that they exist.

Rainbow Murray is Reader in Politics at Queen Mary University of London. Her books include Parties, Gender Quotas and Candidate Selection in France and Cracking the Highest Glass Ceiling: A Global Comparison of Women’s Campaigns for Executive Office. She has published widely in journals such as Party Politics, Political Research Quarterly, West European Politics and Politics & Gender, and she is an editor of the EJPR Political Data Yearbook. Her article on ‘Quotas for Men’ has been conditionally accepted by the American Political Science Review. She tweets @RainbowMurray.

Poor Women’s Representation – ‘Shocking But Not Surprising’ – Don’t Blame the Women

By Dr Rosie Campbell and Professor Sarah Childs

Women’s under representation in Parliament has well and truly hit the headlines: Samantha Cameron isn’t happy about it; job-shares are suggested as the new solution; the Lib Dems face allegations of sexual harassment; and the 2013 Sex and Power Report confirms the ‘shocking’ but not surprising absence of women from public life.

Enough is enough, the recommendations of the 2008-10 Speaker’s Conference should be implemented immediately: it’s time for legislative sex quotas.

Party leaders have said it before, and no doubt they’ll say it again:

“… political parties… need to actively go out and encourage women to join in, to sign up, to take the course, to become part of the endeavour” – David Cameron

The problem is that exhorting women to participate in politics will not address the ‘scandalous’, as Cameron also put it, under-representation of women at Westminster. Men are nearly 80% of MPs; women are not even half-way to equal presence. Labour does the best with a third of its MPs female. The Tories at 16% come second, more than doubling their number in 2010. The Lib Dems trail in last, at just 12%, with fewer women candidates and MPs in 2010 than in 2005. The situation is depressingly familiar at other levels of government. Despite Nordic levels of women’s representation when first created, overall trends in Scotland and Wales are of stalling or falling numbers with campaigners there calling for legislative quotas too.

The reasons why fewer women seek parliamentary selection need addressing and greater diversity is required overall, but the most pressing problem is not that women aren’t putting themselves forward but that the parties fail to select and support qualified women to stand in winnable seats

Cameron again: “Just opening up and saying ‘you’re welcome to try if you want to’ doesn’t get over the fact that there have been all sorts of barriers in the way”.

These barriers were examined extensively in evidence given to the Speakers Conference. Yet only some of its recommendations have since been introduced. The coalition opted for a voluntary approach to one key recommendation – publication of candidate diversity data. Without this the public can’t see what is going on.

The barrier of party demand on the ground was widely cited. Equality and Human Rights Commission research shows local parties frequently pick candidates who fit an archetypal stereo-type of a white, male professional. The parties have addressed this barrier in different ways – with only Labour using a party quota, All Women Shortlists. The Speaker’s Conference recommended that Parliament should consider legislative quotas in the absence of significant improvements in the numbers of women in 2010 – there was none. Indeed, there is talk of declining numbers of Conservative and Lib Dem women in 2015.

The global evidence is clear: well-designed and properly implemented quotas are the most effective way to address the under-representation of women. The coalition could act. Legislative quotas – ensuring all parties use quotas – provide ‘political cover’. And both leaders’ positions on quotas are on the record. Clegg isn’t “theologically opposed”; Cameron said he would use some AWS in 2010, although he didn’t. We are pretty confident that Labour would be supportive, given its record.

We acknowledge that most people are hostile to quotas, but if we want real change they are the only mechanism proven to deliver. Quotas are not the electoral risk that some activists suggest. Studies show that being an AWS candidates does not cause electoral defeat; current selection processes are not meritocratic – Cameron said so himself. Nor do quotas produce unqualified or poor quality MPs – Labour’s 97 AWS women were equally as successful in being promoted. For some, the bottom line is what local parties regard as top-down measures. But if the truck is with ‘outsider’ women ‘being imposed’ then local parties should recruit local women to stand for selection.

Candidates are being selected as we write – the time to act is now. So, Messrs Clegg and Cameron, please be constitutionally radical and leave a legacy of gender equality from this Coalition Government. Let’s have a Parliament that closer approximates the sex balance of the UK in 2015. At a minimum, set up a second Speaker’s Conference to implement the recommendations of its predecessor, and to work with other institutions across the four nations. Or be even more radical: to expedite women’s representation introduce a bill establishing legislative sex quotas. The alternative is for us to wake up the day after the 2015 election and find the party leaders once again bemoaning the under-representation of women at Westminster.

Claire Annesley, Rosie Campbell, Sarah Childs, Catherine Durose, Elizabeth Evans, Francesca Gains, Meryl Kenny, Fiona Mackay, Rainbow Murray, Liz Richardson and other members of the UK Political Studies Association (PSA) Women and Politics group.

It’s a process

By Professor Joni Lovenduski

This post responds to Professor Phil Cowley’s earlier post, here.

Phil Cowley provides welcome empirical support for Puwar’s ‘amplification of numbers’ effect, whereby previously underrepresented groups are over counted when they appear in legislatures and other visible elite institutions. The over estimation of the numbers of women and minorities is associated with lower levels of support for their increased representation. Cowley’s recent research enables him to test this contention. His research suggests a dynamic process in which voter support for increased women’s presence changes with their knowledge of the sex composition of parliament.  In contrast to their ability to estimate the number of ethnic minority or gay and lesbian representatives whose presence is vastly inflated, it seems that the majority of voters have relatively accurate knowledge of the approximate numbers of women MPs. Moreover, it seems that voters are fair and logical; if they estimate a low number of elected women, they want to see more. Cowley infers that voters generally know what proportion of the population are women and probably do not know the proportions of other minorities, raising a number of interesting questions for further research about attitudes to descriptive representation.

Welcome though his work is, I do have some concerns about what he has made of the results.

Cowley argues that voters in many of my categories of opponents probably do not outright object to increased women’s representation but are ambivalent about it, have other priorities or do not like the methods through which increased representation is achieved.  In my view such attitudes are obstacles to the achievement of equal representation of women and men. However implicit or unconscious, the result is resistance to women’s representation. However the opponents I am interested in are not the vast majority of voters but instead the influential activists, experts, reporters and commentators who opine about political representation. It is their mistakes that I cite in the Political Quarterly essay, not those of the voters.

Second, Phil Cowley is reluctant to conclude that greater knowledge of their numbers will lead to more support for increasing the presence of women. Instead he suggests that when those who now underestimate the numbers of women learn the true position they will be less likely to favour increases. I wonder if such a mechanistic reading of the data can be accurate. Women are seriously underrepresented in Parliament, despite years of campaigning for equal presence. This is an obvious injustice. Cowley is arguing only from numbers while ignoring the crucial context of the justice argument for fair representation.  But surely his apparently logical and fair minded voters will object to the continued injustice of women’s underrepresentation and demand 50% women in parliament rather than be satisfied with the current meagre 22%.

My third concern is more of a quibble. Phil Cowley says that his evidence demolishes the claims I make in support of ‘the mistaken’ one of my eight categories of opposition. In fact, I identified at least five kinds of mistake. Moreover, his evidence does provide some support for the amplification of numbers effect.  Far from being demolished, the ‘mistaken’ continue to be an obstacle to the fair representation of women.

On women, political knowledge and Space Invaders

By Professor Phil Cowley

Why aren’t more people angry about women’s political under-representation?  That was the core question posed by Joni Lovenduski in a recent article in Political Quarterly, reporting on a workshop on the subject.  “Participants in the workshop”, Lovenduski noted, “wondered why the political under-representation of women in the United Kingdom is not treated as the public disgrace that it is”.

“Undoubtedly,” she went on, “there is continuing resistance to sex equality, but from whom? Who opposes increases in women’s political representation?” Lovenduski split opponents of increased female representation into eight categories (also discussed here):

1. The uninterested, who think it does not matter

2. The complacent, who believe women’s interests are well represented

3. The traditionalists, who believe that politics is about the representation of class

4. Diversity advocates, who argue that gender is only one of many identities

5. Anti-essentialists, who think that claims for more women ignore the great differences among women

6. The optimistic, who think it is just a matter of waiting

7. The dinosaurs, who think politics is best left to men

8. She argued these contribute to: the mistaken, those who misread or misconstrue data about women in politics.

Anyone who has read or thought a little about this subject will certainly recognise the validity of these various categories – although it is a bit of a stretch to claim that all of them oppose increases in women’s representation.  Some do, but some are disinterested, others would support an increase in women’s representation but do not see it as a priority, and yet others support the end (more women) but not the means (such as quotas).

In research forthcoming in the journal British Politics, I examine some of these issues, as part of a wider investigation into the politics of representation – and here I want to focus on argument 8. those who are mistaken.  Lovenduski cites Nirmal Puwar’s concept of the ‘amplification of numbers’ from her book Space Invaders – the idea that when previously excluded groups begin to be present in politics their very novelty will lead to perceptions of their presence being exaggerated.

The survey I conducted looked explicitly at this, asking respondents to estimate the proportion of the House of Commons that came from a range of different groups – which, as well as women, included the disabled, those educated at Oxbridge, Muslims, and the elderly.

At the time the survey was conducted (2009), some 20% of MPs were female.  Estimates of their presence, however, ranged from zero (from a not particularly perceptive respondent) to 91% (ditto).  Some 4% of respondents got it spot on, with 31% under-estimating women’s presence and 65% over-estimating.  Most respondents, then, did over-estimate women’s presence, but not by much: the (mean) average was 26%, relatively close to the actual figure, and a majority of respondents were within +/- 10 percentage points of the actual figure.  There was almost no difference depending on the sex of the respondent (the mean for women was 26%, the mean for men was 25%).

Indeed, of the groups that the survey asked about, respondents were more accurate in their estimates of the number of women than they were any of the other groups.  At a time when there were only four Muslim MPs, for example, the public’s average estimate of 14% would have represented some 90 Muslim MPs.  The public similarly believed gay and lesbians to be nine times better represented than they actually were; the young to be sixteen times better represented than they were.  It may once have been true that there were so few women in the Commons that people noticeably over-estimated their presence, and it certainly still holds for other groups, but it no longer holds for women.

More importantly, almost all respondents estimated a figure of below 50% for women MPs; just 4% estimated 50% or more, with 90% of respondents estimating 40% or lower.  Whilst the survey did not ask people what proportion of the wider population belonged to each group, we can reasonably safely assume that most people will have noticed that men and women constitute roughly half of the wider population – and on that basis around 19 out of every 20 respondents believed women to be under-represented in the Commons in proportion to their presence in society.

(A side note for pedants: the fact that women in fact make up a narrow majority of the population does not alter this conclusion, both because it is moot whether the public know this – and it is their perception that matters here, not the reality – and because the figure of 4% would be the same whether we used 50 or 51% as our cut off).

This is, however, not to say that knowledge (or ignorance) has no effect.  The survey also contained a question asking if people would like more or fewer women MPs, and as respondents’ estimates of women’s presence increases, so support for having more women in the Commons decreases.  If we divide respondents into the categories famously devised by Drude Dahlerup, then those who thought parliament’s composition was uniform (that is, where women constituted just 0-15% of an institution) were overwhelmingly in favour of having more women MPs (68% of these respondents wanted more, as opposed to just 28% who wanted the numbers to stay the same, with a mere 3% who wanted fewer).  That is a net score (More minus Same) of +40.  Of those who thought the Parliament ‘tilted’ (that is, where women make up between 15 and 40%), the net score was +12.  But of those who thought that the Parliament was ‘balanced’ (40% or more) the net score had fallen to -14.

The public are then, broadly, logical in their responses: if they think there are relatively few women, they are more supporting of an increase in their numbers; if they think they are already present in numbers, they are less supportive of an increase.

This does not mean, however, that giving the public a more accurate understanding of the composition of the Commons would lead to more support for an increased number of women in politics – not least because the figure for the most accurate respondents (those who thought the Commons was ‘tilted’) was, at +12, exactly the same as the figure for all respondents.  In other words, whilst improving the knowledge of those who (erroneously) think women are represented in large numbers might make them more supportive of increasing women’s presence, it would presumably have the opposite effect amongst those who currently significantly under-estimate the level of women’s political presence.

We can therefore safely reject the idea that opposition to, or ambivalence about, the scale of women’s representation is due to ignorance about their existing presence.   As for the other seven explanations, well, they’re for another day…

This post was originally published on Ballots & Bullets, the blog of the University of Nottingham’s School of Politics and International Relations.

For and against women’s political representation

by Professor Joni Lovenduski

Who opposes increases in women’s political representation?  I can think of at least eight types of opponents.

The uninterested who think it does not matter; the complacent, who, if they think about it at all, believe women’s interests are well represented; the traditionalists who believe that politics is about the representation of class interests hence other inequalities are a diversion; the diversity advocates who argue that gender is only one of many identities;  their mirror image, the anti-essentialists who think that claims for more women ignore the great differences among women; the optimistic who think it is just a matter of waiting and the dinosaurs who think politics is best left to men. Each of these in different ways contributes to the eighth type, the mistaken who misread or misconstrue data about women in politics.

The uninterested simply ignore the issue. They are probably the majority of political commentators and are dangerous because they are part of the reason why sex inequality is so often below the radar of discussion of political events, behaviour, issues, electoral forecasts and so on. When pressed they may opine that it simply does not matter [i]. The complacent, if they argue at all, hold that underrepresentation does not really matter because the UK does well on issues of sex equality. That is not the case. The UK ranking in the World Economic Forum’s Annual Gender Gap Report has fallen steadily since the first report in 2006. The report measures inequalities between women and men in Economic and Political Participation, Health and Education. In 2011 the UK was 16th of 135 countries; in 2006 it was 9th of 110 countries. This is a real fall; the UK has not been pushed down the rankings by new entrants to the list. It is 34th in the rank order of economic participation and 23rd in political participation, rankings that are disguised at the aggregate level by relatively more equality in education and health. The data show that in each case except education where it ranks first, the position of UK women is improving relative to men’s but more slowly than in comparator countries where women’s political participation is higher [ii]. The UK position on other league tables is worse. Using the simple indicator of the per centage of national legislators who are women the Inter-Parliamentary Union’s ranking places the UK at  a wretched 54th  behind not only the worthy Scandinavian states but also Canada, Mexico, Latvia, the Philippines and Malawi [iii].

The optimistic will have to wait a long time.  At the current rate of increase in each party and assuming a normal election cycle, it will be at least 100 years before parity of women is reached in the House of Commons, not a fast track to equality by any reasonable standards.

Traditionalists probably operate on the assumption that political inequality is a zero sum game. Often they argue that more women means more middle class women and fewer working class men. This impression almost certainly reflects party candidate selection regimes in which to be successful women aspirants must be more ‘qualified’ than their male opponents. But it is selector stress on particular ‘qualifications’ that squeezes working class aspirants, not prioritisation of women. Class and gender interact. A wealth of social research shows that it is women who bear the brunt of class inequality, that gender and class are so intertwined that treating inequalities of sex simultaneously treats those of class. Some diversity advocates and anti essentialists make similar assumptions, failing to recognise that identities such as race, class, sexuality and disability cross cut each other. They also fail to recognise that with more women representatives there are more opportunities for those who are working class, members of ethnic minorities, disabled etc.

Political dinosaurs are not quite extinct. Some thrive in UK politics sometimes as eccentrics who take pride in their exaggerated outdated prejudices. They are useful for equality advocates because they are so easy to discredit as is the sexist behaviour that characterises their condition. Like the smile of the Cheshire cat their influence may be evident even as they fade from view. Their attitudes leave an afterglow that encourages sexist remarks which are then excused as parliamentary humour. While David Cameron is probably not a dinosaur he sometimes behaves like one. Examples include his ‘calm down dear’ remarks to Angela Eagle and  his accusation that Nadine Dorries’  interventions took place because she was ‘frustrated’, not exactly hilarious comments for which Cameron apologised. Press dinosaurs are very much in evidence. As recently as April 2011 the Telegraph ran an item entitled ‘whose boobs are these?’ using photos of a woman MP sitting behind Ed Milliband during PMQ [iv].

Finally the mistaken come in various forms. Some argue that women candidates cost votes for parties who select them. Yet UK data on voter preferences for different types of candidates consistently shows that votes do not penalise women candidates [v].

Another common mistake is making unsubstantiated assertions about women’s political preferences implying that they differ from men’s.  An example is the widely reported Netmums claim that women were turning to the Tories in 2012, based on a survey only of women, that is with no male comparators [vi]. Contrast this with contemporary evidence that women are turning away from the Tories [vii]. Women may have been turning right, but the evidence was flawed. Often commentators use data and/ or to design research badly to draw unsound conclusions. Common errors are women only samples, badly framed questions and mixed samples that are too small. It is bad science to design and use of social surveys or other studies that examine only women to claim that women are distinctive in some way without systematically comparing them to men. It is bad science to collect evidence from such a small number of respondents that variations within groups are not reflected.

The case for more women in parliament more or less mirrors the arguments of its opponents with one exception. Current absolute and relative numbers are low, policy is often unfavourable to women, but concealed by gender blindness, the rate of progress is glacial, traditional roles are no longer sustainable, not least because demography shows they are rarely found. To this we must add the argument from justice. The representation of women in political decision making is vital not because it will necessarily make a difference for women, though it often does, but because justice demands it. Equal representation should be taken for granted, part of the institutional fabric. Women should not have to justify their political presence on any other basis than justice. To do so puts a special burden of representation on women MPs who become subject to scrutiny and pressure that male politicians largely avoid, a point well made by Ruth Fox. Yet as Rosie Campbell shows there are subtle but important differences in men’s and women’s political attitudes that warrant representation. Political parties, not voters are responsible for the male domination of politics. This is sometimes defended by the assertion that men can and do represent women’s interests. While true, it begs the question of which particular version of women’s interest is being represented. Moreover evidence from more balanced legislatures than ours shows that is membership of women increases, so does the sensitivity of male MPs to the range of women’s concerns. So men can act for women but they may be more likely to do so when there are more women around.

The debates at the Centre on women’s representation in the UK see the resulting special issue of Political Quarterly here.

The full text of this article can be downloaded free here

References

[i] Rosie Campbell and Jason Edwards, Men’s voting behaviour: it’s a hunter-gatherer thing apparently! http://www.csbppl.com/blog/ Posted on January 12, 2012.