No more excuses: Why gender matters in politics

Katie Ghose, former Chief Executive

Posted on the 7th March 2012

What would society be like if four out of five parliamentarians were women? Maybe we’d be failing on men’s health; or the armed forces (as 9 in 10 recruits are still men), or on the specific challenges of educating boys?

On the other hand the Defence Select Committee would probably have looked sooner at one of the biggest issues facing morale in Britain; housing and family life, something they only got to after 1997 when more women joined the Committee.

The key point is that in this scenario; without any male role models in parliament, it would be near impossible to get boys to take politics seriously.  They would lack the confidence to put themselves forward and would be faced with a host of other cultural and practical barriers stemming from the fact that politics would simply not be seen as the terrain of men. Sound familiar?

Ignoring half the population is never a good idea. It means we lose the talents and perspectives of a huge cross-section of society and we are the poorer for it. The current lack of women in our parliaments also perpetuates the lack of representation of social class, income, life experience, type of education, ethnicity, sexuality and age in these institutions and sets a terrible example for other sectors.

Our political institutions shouldn’t be carbon copies of society, but when they represent an entirely distorted picture of who we are, this can’t help but create a parliament which is out of touch with the people it serves.

For the politicians and parties trying to build bridges with voters at a time of low trust, this is a massive own goal.

When I joined the Electoral Reform Society there were more Keiths than women on our Board: Three Keiths and only two women. I am pleased to say that after our elections in September we now have five women (and only one Keith) on our 15 member Board which is certainly progress but remains far from perfect. I say this because it’s important to recognise that change isn’t easy but this is no excuse not to take action.

First we need to stop saying that positive measures lead to mediocrity. This is an argument with no evidence and no logic. We see mediocrity and brilliance across politics and it never has anything to do with gender. Secondly we need to act now. The idea that the situation will eventually right itself is a cowardly excuse for doing nothing. The number of women MPs has increased by only 4% since 1997. If we don’t do something our daughters will be drawing their pensions before they have an equal say in how our country is run. Is that really the message we want to send to our kids?

Women were angry about the last election; they were angry that the papers focused on what the few female politicians were wearing not what they had to say, and they were angry that women seemed to be entirely missing from the debate; especially obvious in the complete lack of female faces on televised debates and press conferences.

The new campaign: Counting Women IN, was born out of this anger. Five democracy and gender organisations – The Centre for Women & Democracy, The Fawcett Society The Hansard Society, Unlock Democracy and the Electoral Reform Society – came together to campaign for equality: for equal numbers of men and women in our Parliaments and institutions by 2020. It’s a positive campaign designed to work with parties in recognition of their separate cultures, histories and practices to achieve real change.

We should never have another General or any other Election that leaves women out in the cold. We want the parties to up their game, to try and out-do each other to become leaders in the field. Who knows, voters may even reward them for their efforts.

In an age of localism and big society, politics is increasingly something which happens in town halls and is not just confined to the corridors of Westminster. This represents a huge opportunity to begin to tackle the gender gap at a local level.

The business sector is waking up to the issue of gender representation in their boardrooms. They know that they need to fish in the biggest pond to attract staff with a broad range of ideas and experience which in turn will attract more customers generating more profit. Will our political institutions really allow themselves to be left so far behind?

Find out more about our work with the Counting Women IN campaign.

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