“Since women were first able to stand for Parliament in 1918 just 450 have been elected. Well over half of those women have only been elected in 1997 or since, and it was not until that year that the percentage of women MPs even reached double figures.”
So begins the Counting Women In coalition’s new report launched today, ‘Sex and Power 2015’. Written by the Centre for Women & Democracy’s Nan Sloane and supported by coalition partners the Electoral Reform Society, the Fawcett Society, the Hansard Society and Unlock Democracy, it’s a thorough analysis of women’s places in politics after May’s General Election.
It’s no secret that women are inadequately represented in British politics. ‘Pale, male and stale’, while not as accurate a phrase as it was in the past, is often what comes into people’s heads when they think of Westminster. It has implications for what kind of country we are – when women are excluded, that’s half the talent and experience of the country left out. And that in turn affects the priorities and decisions that impact all of us.
Parties are getting better at increasing female representation. With the exception of UKIP, all of the main parties in Great Britain fielded more women candidates in terms of both numbers and percentages than they did in 2010. Some 29% of MPs are now women – the highest ever level, and up on 22% in 2010. But it’s not quite the ‘one in three’ that many have been claiming.
None of the main parties have hit the 50% mark for electing female MPs. And no party came near to reaching that mark for female candidates, with the Greens in the lead on 37%, just ahead of the SNP (36%) and Labour (33%). The DUP failed to field a single woman candidate, while the Lib Dems are now left with no female MPs. This isn’t a blame issue though – Some parties clearly have more work to do than others, but all parties need to up their game.
Yet while equality has, on the whole, taken a step forward in Parliament – with Cameron essentially meeting his target of one third cabinet ministers (it’s 7 out of 22 – 32%) – many key decision-making bodies still leave women out in the cold. Just 20 (24%) of the 82 junior government posts, which are often a path to the Cabinet, are held by women. And under a quarter of policy-focused Select Committees are chaired by women.
Some parts of government are worse than others. Neither the Cabinet Office nor the Welsh Office team includes any women. And in both the 12-strong Treasury team and the Treasury Select Committee, there is just one woman on each. That means the decisions on where money goes – which Departments should have what, how much they should have, what should be prioritised – are almost entirely being made by men. That can’t be good for democracy.
So we’ve produced some key recommendations on what should be done about the huge imbalances which remain in terms of gender representation in politics. Here’s what we’re calling for today:
- Know the Facts: If we don’t know where we stand, it’s hard to know how to improve. So we’re asking that the Electoral Commission gather information on the diversity of candidates, with Equalities Monitoring Forms.
- Commit to Change: A big part of why female representation has gone up is that parties have made it a priority. But since there’s still a long way to go, parties should take urgent steps to boost the number of female candidates – reviewing selection procedures, publishing action plans and considering positive action.
- A Better Working Environment: Politics is, sadly, still inaccessible to large numbers of women. Parliament and parties should implement paid maternity and paternity leave, revisit working hours, and offer diversity awareness training and advice. All parties should have rigorous complaints procedures regarding sexual harassment
- Promote Women: Parties should commit to 50:50 cabinet/shadow cabinet teams by 2020
- An Equal Voice: The presentation of female politicians in the media is often, unfortunately, still quite disheartening and sexist. The media should cover female politicians in line with the National Union of Journalists’ Code of Conduct – on policies and actions, not on their appearances.
We’ve looked at the problem, and we’ve outlined the solutions. Now it’s time for parties, government bodies and the press to commit to dealing with the underrepresentation of women in Westminster so we can get the fair and balanced politics Britain deserves.
This piece was first published on Huffington Post