Following the pink battle bus: where are the women voters in 2015?

By Dr Rosie Campbell, Reader in Politics, Department of Politics, Birkbeck

male-and-female-relationship-sign 250 by 250On 11th February Harriet Harman launched the Labour party’s magenta battle bus intended to reach out to women voters. The bus generated a fair amount of publicity and was explained on the basis that women have been less likely to vote in previous elections.

Women are less interested in formal politics than men, but there is little convincing evidence that significantly fewer women than men have voted in recent British General Elections. Take the last general election. The 2010 British Election Study post-election face-to-face survey shows that 77% of men and 76% of women said that they had voted, a gap between men and women of just 1% that is not statistically significant. As well as self-reported turnout the survey includes a validated vote variable (the survey team used electoral registers to establish whether respondents voted in the election). Using these figures, 57% of men and 56% of women in the survey were found to have voted in the election, again producing a gap of just 1% between men and women, and a gap which is again not statistically significant. In my view it is difficult to use this miniscule difference between men and women in the survey to claim that there were a disproportionate number of missing women voters in 2010.

So why else might women voters be receiving so much attention? First, women are often over represented in the ‘don’t know’ category in political survey questions (as reflected in the figure below). But given the lack of a significant turnout gap between men and women it is likely that a sizeable proportion of the women represented in the ‘Don’t Know’ category will vote for a party’s candidate on May the 7th. Women are also somewhat less likely to be strong partisans than men, and again, as a result there are slightly more women among the undecided voters who are the target of the parties’ activities during the campaign.

Vote intention by sex, 2015 BES online panel wave three

Rosie Table 1

Second, there are some differences in men and women’s political attitudes. Women are on average a little more hostile to cuts in public spending than men, with 5% more women than men judging that cuts to public spending have gone too far and 10% more women than men believing that cuts to the NHS budget have gone too far. Given attitudes to austerity are likely to be a crucial decider in this election these small gender differences between men and women may have some impact on the result.

However, as things stand there are only relatively minor differences between men and women’s vote intention evident in the BES 2015 wave three. After removing non-voters and the ‘don’t knows’ 31% of men and 30% of women intended to vote Conservative, 33% of men and 36% of women intended to vote Labour (the largest gap between men and women in vote intention). Thus it would seem from this data that Labour have a marginal lead among women, but the differences are small indeed and should not be overstated.

This blog was originally posted on the British Election Study website.

Missing Women: It’s Time for Legislative Quotas in British Politics

By Rosie Campbell, Sarah Childs, and Meryl Kenny and the other members of the UK Political Studies Association (PSA) Women and Politics Specialist Group

Originally posted on the PSA Women and Politics Specialist Group blog.

Last week the Counting Women In coalition published its 2014 report into Sex and Power in the UK. Yet again women will be reading that they are under-represented in British politics: at Westminster, Holyrood, Cardiff, Stormont, and in local government across the UK. Meanwhile, resistance to gender quotas continues, with a recent YouGov poll highlighting the lack of popular support for all-women shortlists. It’s time for political parties to show leadership on this issue and follow the global evidence – well-designed and properly implemented quotas are the most effective way to address the under-representation of women. Patience is no longer an option – the time has come for legislative quotas in British politics.

Still Counting

The findings from last week’s Sex and Power in the UK report are stark: women constitute more than half the population but only 23% of MPs and Government Minsters, 35% of MSPs; 42% of AMs; 19% of MLAs and 33% of local councillors. Globally, the UK’s performance on women’s representation is slipping – in 1997 the House of Commons was ranked 20th in the world for women’s representation; it is now 65th.

No one who knows anything about British politics will be surprised about this. Sure there are frequently lots of brightly coloured jackets on show at PMQs , but earlier this year the maleness of politics was laid bare at Westminster: the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister apparently failed to realise that their front bench was men-only. While the Sex and Power report is welcome, it’s but another in a long line of reports over the last decade and a half which show substantially fewer women than men in politics[i]. We also now know – for the first time systematically – that mothers are a particularly absent group in the House of Commons. Working class women are rarely part of elite male claims about the under-representation of working class MPs. And BME women are fewer than they should be despite gains and ‘firsts’: in 2010, the first BME Conservative woman MP and the first Muslim women MPs.

The research evidence is clear about the causes of women’s under-representation: a combination of a lack of women coming forward and obstacles placed in their path. Academic research also shows – based on UK and global analysis – that something can be done about it in the here and now. The use of gender quotas by the Labour party in the form of All-Women Shortlists (AWS) for Westminster elections in 1997, 2001, 2005 and 2010, and twinning in Scotland and Wales in 1999, reveals the critical role that UK political parties play as gatekeepers to political office. In short, when a political party has adopted a quota for women in the UK, women’s representation has increased.

Sex and Power shows clearly the impact of Labour’s quota for the 2015 general election on the numbers of women selected as parliamentary candidates relative to the other two main parties. While not all selections have been completed, the Tories lag well behind Labour and the Liberal Democrats in terms of the number of female candidates selected in retirement seats, and behind Labour in target seats. Admittedly, the Conservatives might be able to increase their selections of women candidates in the last year; meanwhile, the Liberal Democrats will need localized above national swings to protect their sitting women MPs. In contrast, Labour should – as a direct result of AWS – see a PLP that is more than 40 percent female.

If we look to Scotland and Wales, Labour’s advantage remains, again thanks to quotas. Yet while Labour women continue to hold up headline figures, the previous Nordic-level highs of women’s representation at Holyrood and Cardiff are beginning to look rather like distant memories. In Scotland, the decline in women’s representation has been particularly dramatic, with the current SNP government only delivering a ratio of 1 in 4 women to men in their parliamentary group. This is likely to stall if not fall in the event of another SNP victory in 2016, given the party’s reluctance to follow Labour’s lead in adopting quota measures.

Following the Evidence: The Argument for Gender Quotas

As soon as quotas are raised critics are quick to tell us that everybody hates them. Male and female politicians (the usual suspects) are vocal in the media rubbishing them, from across the political spectrum. And a YouGov poll reported last week found that the public don’t like them, with not one group in favour of them. Indeed, if you ask the public what kind of representative they want, they don’t want women, even as they will agree that in principle there should be more women in politics. The findings of the YouGov survey should again not come as a surprise; surveys have repeatedly shown that voters are hostile to the concept of gender quotas or all-women shortlists. However, parties that present an all male face to the public risk looking out of touch and out of date, and the only short to medium term fix to this problem is to apply equality guarantees; be they AWS or ‘A lists’ rigorously applied.

Do quotas work? The global evidence is overwhelming – quotas that are well-designed and properly implemented are the most effective way of ensuring significant increases in women’s representation. Indeed, 17 of the top 20-ranked countries for women’s representation have used some form of gender quotas – ranging from voluntary party quotas to statutory legislative ones. Rather than follow the evidence, however, opponents of quotas usually advance a set of well-worn criticisms – quotas are un-democratic, they discriminate against men, they create ‘token’ women politicians, and so on. Well, here’s a few counterarguments to the critics, in the elite and in the wider society:

  1. ‘Just be patient, increases in women’s representation will happen naturally’. The evidence is clear – gains in women’s representation are too small and they are taking too long. As the Sex & Power report highlights, a girl born today in the UK will be drawing her pension before she has an equal voice in the government of her country. Such a scenario also presumes an upward linear trajectory – which in the UK and elsewhere is demonstrably not guaranteed.
  1. ‘There just aren’t enough women’When parties are required to select women, they usually manage to ‘find’ that they had women who’d been willing to stand all along, if only somebody had asked them. Indeed, both Wales and Scotland managed to find women to stand for the new institutions, achieving record levels of women’s representation in 1999 and 2003. Many studies have shown actual increases in the share of women candidates following the introduction of quotas. Do we really think the UK does not have 300 women good enough to be MPs out of a population of 65 million?
  1. ‘Quotas promote unqualified candidates’First, as above, qualified women are out there, just not ‘seen’. Second, the concept of merit is itself gendered, in that it privileges the ‘male-politician-norm’ over the ‘female-politician-pretender’ – there is no evidence to support the assumption that men are ‘naturally’ better at politics than women. Indeed, analysis of the career trajectories of Labour’s women MPs shows that they were as successful as their male colleagues.
  1. ‘Quota women will be stigmatised’. This may be a problem if there are only a few women, but where a larger number come in this is less likely. Labour’s AWS women have reported that their colleagues and the public rarely have an accurate sense of who was and who was not a ‘quota woman’. Finally, if one has sex neutral quotas – for example, 50/50 for both sexes – then you also create ‘quota men’, and the argument simply disappears.

The long Grass is no longer an option: time for legislative quotas now

Quotas work, but they lack popular support – does this mean that the issue of women’s under-representation is irresolvable? Absolutely not, there is a space for political leadership on this issue. As recent Scottish polls demonstrate, opinions change – voters agree that there should be more women in politics and they don’t penalise women candidates at the ballot box. When faced with an AWS woman the voter does not discriminate either.[ii]

Yet, the political parties have not yet tried to lead rather than follow public opinion on this issue. As a result, the UK debate over quotas has been marginal (within the parties, and only to any effect within Labour), parochial (refusing to engage with the global evidence), non-scientific (failing to follow the evidence), and ideological (refusing to accept that gender matters to democracy). The leaders of both main parties in England who are resistant to quotas have a tendency to raise their spectre only not to follow through: Cameron in 2010 said there would be some when the best candidates were women; Clegg is apparently prepared to countenance them after the next election…..we have become sceptical of such promises.

In this context, the debate about quotas in the UK can no longer be left in the hands of the parties. In all of the recent reports, recommendations have suggested that it is time for the UK to consider legislative quotas:

And

  • The concluding observations of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, which call on the UK to consider more prescriptive measures to address the political under-representation of women in political life

A Labour government is probably the most likely direct route; but a cross-party group of women MPs post 2015, if the numbers of women on the Tory and Lib Dem benches decline, would be another. Of course the House would need to be persuaded. Political leadership is essential – not just from the women who are most vocal on this, but from the men too who support the principle of equality. The exclusion of women from British politics is a serious democratic deficit. As such, it demands not patience but a solution that works: that solution is quotas.

 

PSAWomenPollogoThe PSA Women and Politics Specialist Group provides a focus for members of the UK Political Studies Association whose research focuses on women or gender, and is also a resource for women in the PSA. The group has a commitment to ensure the visibility of women in the PSA and the discipline, while combating sexism.

 

[i] See for example Sex & Power 2014published by Counting Women In (the collective voice of the Hansard Society, Fawcett Society, ERS, CFWD and Unlock Democracy), September 2014; Improving Parliament, published by the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Women in Parliament, July 2014; The Speaker’s Conference Report on Parliamentary Representation, 2010; and the Hansard Society’s Women at the Top, 2000, 2005, 2011.

[ii] Cutts, David, Sarah Childs, and Ed Fieldhouse. 2008. “‘This is what happens when you don’t listen’: All-women shortlists at the 2005 General Election.” Party Politics 14(5):575-95; Cutts, David, and Paul Widdop. 2012. “Was Labour penalised where it stood all women shortlist candidates? An analysis of the 2010 UK General Election.” British Journal of Politics and International Relations, 15 (3), 435-455.

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.

Women on top – promotional patterns in the House of Commons

By Peter Allen

This week saw the publication of the Counting Women In report ‘Sex and Power 2013’. As I have written elsewhere, with Philip Cowley, the media reacted by focusing on a the most troubling cases, The Observer announcing that the number of women in professions including politics to be ‘plummeting’, despite plummeting of any sort being in short supply.

Much of the focus has been on the number of women in the Cabinet, something we address there, showing that the Cameron Cabinet has exactly the same number of women in right now as Blair did at a comparable point in his premiership (the percentage is slightly lower given an overall increase in the number of ministers eligible to attend Cabinet).

Behind much of this comment, however, seems to lie an assumption that women do badly in parliament – that once elected, they will struggle to get on, and get promoted, relative to their male colleagues. This simply isn’t the case.

Looking at the largest group of women ever elected to parliament at the same time, the 1997 intake, there is no (statistically) significant difference between the promotional paths of men and women, with women actually having more success in reaching the very top jobs in British politics.

178 Labour MPs were elected for the very first time in May 1997, 114 men and 64 women. Out of this group, only 10 ever made it into Cabinet office during the Labour government of 1997-2010 – five men and five women. In terms of percentages, that’s 8% of the Labour women, but only 4% of the men.

The next office down the ministerial ladder has a similar story – only 17% of Labour men made it to office of Minister of State compared to 20% of women.

Now turning to the lesser offices, lower down the governmental pecking order, men outnumber women. Undersecretary of State, for example; 14% of Labour men counted this as their highest office compared to only13% of women, and as for PPS, this was the best it got 18% of men compared to just 16% of women. Finally, looking at those MPs who never got off the backbenches and into governmental office of any kind, this was again the case for more men than women, 47% and 44% respectively.

Highest office reached (n=178); no statistically significant differences (Fisher’s exact test).

The obvious retort to this is that despite the percentages, there are still more men in these positions overall, which is true. However, what this highlights is that the problem is the low number of women in parliament overall, not that they are being passed over for promotion in favour of men.

As academic work, including my own, has repeatedly shown, candidate selection is the real battleground here, in addition to other political pipeline institutions such as local councils – for example, why don’t more women make the transition from councillor to MP? This is a common route to parliament, one which 42% and 63% of the 2010 and 1997 intakes respectively, but three-quarters of MPs who did so are men. A concerted effort to get more women making this move would have a big effect on their numbers in parliament.

Focusing on the number of women in Cabinet may be an easy target and may engage the media, but it misses the point. It is no doubt true that women have suffered from discrimination in parliament, but it would seem that this hasn’t stopped them getting on, ultimately beating their male colleagues to the top jobs.

Peter Allen is a doctoral research student in the Department of Politics. He writes about political careers and has published work in Parliamentary Affairs and British Politics.

Job-Shares for MPs: A Step on the Way to Resolving a Major Problem

By Dr Rosie Campbell and Professor Sarah Childs

In a blog on Wednesday, Ruth Fox from the Hansard Society argued that job-shares for MPs are a marginal solution for a major problem. Dr Fox is right, introducing job shares will not solve the significant under-representation of women in the House of Commons overnight. To do that, international research clearly demonstrates, parties need to employ equality guarantees.

These can take the form of all-women-shortlists, zipped lists in proportional representation list systems, or reserved seats for women. So far, for the UK Parliament, only Labour has been prepared to adopt such measures; unsurprisingly they are the only party to deliver more than 30% women MPs. Women in the Conservative parliamentary party constitute 16% and in the Liberal Democrats just 12%.

The need for equality guarantees is acknowledged in the Liberal Democrats’ proposals, but given past division on this, we’d be surprised if they moved to adopt them. But in the absence of such measures – indeed even when a party uses equality guarantees – job sharing is another measure that should help deliver more women into politics.

Ruth Fox outlines some of the challenges of adapting the role of an MP to accommodate job-share. How will conflict of how to vote be resolved? As any job share team knows, there must be clear expectations, set out at the point of interview (and in politics at the point of election), as to how the job will be divided; who will work on what day, who will take responsibility for what, and how decisions will be made. Different job shares might approach the issue of voting differently, by either agreeing that ‘who is there on the day makes the decision’ or by agreeing a position in advance, or in respect of different policy areas.

In any case, we doubt very much that job-share candidates from either ends of a party’s ideological spectrum, or taking opposing views on conscience issues, would put themselves up for selection as a team in the first place. Crucially, and just like other MPs, job share MPs are accountable for how they act: both to the party selectorate and ultimately to the electorate. If they failed to make the partnership work – for whatever reason – they would be unlikely to be reselected or reelected.

Dr Fox also questions what would happen in the event that one member of the job-share stepped down. We do not think this need be particularly problematic, given that both MPs in the job-share will have been elected. If one should be removed from office then the other could choose to continue as a full-time MP until the next election, or they could choose to stand down with their job-share partner. Accordingly, job-shares need not increase the likelihood of by-elections

Furthermore, it is our belief that job-share MPs may prove to be more attractive at the ballot box than critics imply. The professionalisation of politics and the narrowing of the political class is an issue that resonates with many.

Philip Cowley’s work with Rosie Campbell shows that voters respond negatively to candidates without local connections, those with high incomes, and those who have only worked in political occupations. Job-sharing might encourage the local GP who wants to maintain a reduced practice, or someone who runs a family business, or the parent who wants to do the school run a couple of times a week to consider standing.

The challenges for job-sharing at Westminster are by no means insurmountable, as Dr Fox admits. And we believe them to be worth the extra cost. We do not imagine that Parliament will suddenly become dominated by job-share MPs, just as other organisations that allow job-shares are not; neither will they double the numbers of women in the House. But they would facilitate people, men and women, who make a contribution to society beyond their ‘day jobs’, through caring for children or dependent adults, sustaining a professional career or contributing to their local community, to stand for election to Parliament. Crucially, job share enables them to do so without having to put aside all of their other commitments.

Job-shares should be strongly supported by those who want to see more women elected to Westminster. This support need not be dependent upon job-share delivering a large number of women MPs at the next election. And their value is not limited to women. Job-share is about enabling both women and men who currently feel unable to participate in politics but have a significant contribution to make. The value of job-share is also symbolic – about making it clear that being a representative is a job not just for the professional or unencumbered politician but a job open to all.

This post was originally published on Huffington Post.

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.