by GK Strategy 9th October, 2015
3 min read

Women in Parliament

It is the refuge of the apathetic to believe that sexism in the UK has gone and that we have achieved gender equality. As with other prejudices, comparing the progress of women’s liberation throughout the 20th Century to the current state of play leads many to contend that we are all now on an equal footing. Whilst anti-discrimination laws, such as the Equality Act 2010, offer some protection, it is a dangerous assumption to make that a person is no longer disadvantaged because of their sex. Cultural issues in the UK still present some very real obstacles for women in particular and this is no more evident than in Parliament.

A record 191 women MPs were elected at the 2015 General Election, but while the number of female candidates has risen at every general election bar one since 1966, the fact that women make up less than a third (29%) of current MPs, and 26% of all candidates, reveals that progress is moving at a glacial pace. Indeed, since 1918, 450 women have been elected as Members of Parliament, which would collectively still not be enough to fill all the seats in the Commons chamber.

Examining the Prime Minister’s new Cabinet reveals that there are only 7 women out of 22 posts (32%), and while Labour may boast a majority of women in the Shadow Cabinet (52%), party leader Jeremy Corbyn has faced criticism for not promoting women to more senior Shadow Cabinet roles, and opting instead for the creation of new “cabinet” positions, such as Shadow Minister for Young People and Voter Registration, which were given predominately to women.

Looking at local government and the devolved nations, there is less disparity in the gender split than in the UK Parliament, but not to a great extent. As of 2013, 32% of local authority councillors in England are women. In the Scottish Parliament, women make up 35%, which is slightly higher than the UK Parliament, but striking when you consider all three leaders of the main parties are female. The gender split in the Northern Ireland Assembly is the largest, with men making up 81% of the chamber while, by contrast, the Welsh Assembly leads the country with women representing two-fifths (40%) of its members – roughly the same as the proportion of UK MEPs.  However, on the whole, women still remain substantially under-represented at the top level of our democracy.

Many commentators have sought to explain this disparity. Notably, several newly elected female Conservative MPs decided not to run for re-election in 2015 – leading some to suggest that the macho, outdated cultural attitudes found within Parliament were too off-putting. Others question whether women are too often placed in unwinnable seats (e.g. 29% of Conservative candidates with the narrowest margin to win were women, compared to 53% of Labour candidates). It is also popularly thought that parliamentary working life, with long hours and constant travelling, is simply not conducive to family life, which may be of issue for current and potential women MPs. But a reason may lie behind statistics which are not publically available – those women who apply to be candidates but are not selected by the local party association. Associations typically have the last say regarding those that are representing them at the election, and could very well be the blockage to more women walking through the voting lobbies.

Whether it’s at an association, party, parliamentary or nationwide level, culture appears to be the main culprit for the lack of female representation in Parliament.  Parties and politicians must look for a way to break through these cultural barriers, whether by placing women candidates in safer seats or adjusting Parliament to be more accommodating as a workplace. The gap between our equality laws and our culture is equally as important as the gender divide. To ignore it would risk further hindering the progress we’ve seen since 1918.

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