Next Wednesday we’ll mark 100 years since Parliament passed legislation enabling women (over 21) to become MPs for the first time.
Sadly, since that landmark legislation, there has been a grand total of just 491 women MPs. This is only 50 more than the number of male MPs sitting in the Commons right now.
At 209, we currently have the highest ever number of women MPs – but this constitutes just 32% of the total chamber. This is a long way from where we should be.
Yet the UK lags behind dozens of nations when it comes to gender equality in politics.
Before we know how to improve the situation though, we need to know exactly where the problems are.
An obvious question to ask is: “How many women are being selected to contest seats at General Elections?”
Knowing what’s happening at the local party level is part of the solution to fixing the lack of representation at the national level. The problem is that parties are not required to report on the diversity of their candidates so we simply don’t know.
How can we know how far we’ve come for equality – or what we need to do – if we don’t even have the figures on women’s equality in politics?
Since this year, businesses have to be open about their gender pay gaps. Parties told them to open up. Yet political parties get off scot free when it comes to publishing data on gender diversity.
As the gatekeepers of political life parties must themselves act to improve political representation. Candidate diversity data is the only way civil society can hold them to account on this.
Like the gender pay gap, it is only when we know about individual practices parties can be held to account and change can happen. Transparency is key.
The most frustrating part of this is that the rules which would require parties to be transparent about who they are putting forward for election are already on the statute book.
Section 106 of the Equality Act 2010 includes a requirement for parties to publish the demographic makeup of their election candidates.
Yet it has not been brought to force. This is despite pressure from the Women and Equalities Select Committee, and the Centenary Action Group – a coalition of major charities and campaigning organisations.
The government has said it is concerned about the “potential regulatory burden” of enacting the regulations.
It is unclear what this supposed burden would actually consist of: political parties are best placed to know who they are standing in elections. If businesses can open up, why can’t our parties? The government appears to be imagining obstacles where they do not exist.
Even if there was a small amount of additional work required of parties, surely it would be worth it given that this information could help unblock the issues that are keeping women from equality in political life?
The gender inequality that exists in Westminster 100 years since the Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act was granted royal assent is a national shame. To fix it though, we need to know where we stand.
The Minister for Equalities could enact section 106 immediately. This simple change – which would have a significant impact – is the least government can do. It would be a fitting way to mark the centenary of women’s right to stand.