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Addressing Female Representation in UK Politics

Naomi White
Naomi White

In the General Election of December 2019, the highest number of female MPs ever were elected, taking the proportion of female MPs to 34%. Despite this progress, however, the democratic deficit of female representation in UK politics persists.

Women often learn through gendered expectations and socialisation, that politics is a domain better left to men which they should not enter. In their work It Takes a Candidate, Jennifer Lawless and Richard Fox note the effect of these barriers is a “deeply embedded imprint that propels men into politics and regulates women to the electoral arena’s periphery”. When they do decide to push through this notion, they are often subject to a bumpy ride, experiencing barriers that their male counterparts usually do not have to endure.

Social & cultural barriers largely stem from expectations that women should have the majority of household responsibilities, or (for those with children) assume the role of primary caregiver. Women MPs are more likely to not have children than their male colleagues, illustrating the impact gendered norms continue to have on female candidates. Barriers such as lack of adequate creche facilities, inflexible working hours which are conflicting to family life and the perceived culture of the UK parliament as being an ‘old boys club’ all contribute to making standing for election for a political party a significantly harder decision to make than it would of a man who usually does not face these same barriers.

Structural and institutional barriers include political parties themselves in their approach to diversity and representation. These barriers can include a prejudicial party selectorate which is restrictive in its scope, opaque in its selection process or places women in marginal seats only. (For an interactive graph of female candidates in winnable seats by party for the 2019 General Election click here).

Knowledge and informational barriers relate to the access that women have of political networks. Political networks remain largely dominated by men, both formal and informal, and remain highly influential in British politics. The Gender-Sensitive Parliaments Global Review of Good Practice notes, that the UK parliament largely remains to be perceived as a “gentleman’s club”.

So, how do we overcome the barriers incurred by women who wish to stand for parliament? The most well-known method in addressing women’s representation is the use of quotas, such as All Women Shortlists.

All Women Shortlists have been used frequently by the Labour Party and have had significant success in improving the representation of women in political institutions, particularly when compared to other political parties which do not employ these methods. In 2017, for example, the proportion of female MPs in the Labour and Conservative parties were 41% and 21% respectively. It is worth noting however, while quotas increase the representation of women elected to parliamentary seats, there still remains a need to tackle cultural barriers within parliament.

The situation of female representation in Wales and other devolved nations is considerably better than in Westminster, with the National Assembly for Wales achieving a completely equal legislature in 2003. This has since decreased closer to the 42% mark and there are now calls for legislation ensuring 50/50 gender representation, highlighting the focus and attention gender equality receives by the National Assembly for Wales.

According to Professor Laura McAllister and Professor Fiona Mackay in their work Feminising British Politics, female Assembly Members in Wales have reported to feel a stronger sense of belonging and entitlement in comparison to their Westminster counterparts, where female MP’s often feel like outsiders. It has been argued that this is due to the focus on equality from the beginning of devolution and the creation of gender-sensitive machinery such as a Committee for Equalities, family-friendly working hours, commitments to the gender review and legal responsibilities to promote equality.

Overall, I think what is needed to effectively address women’s representation in parliament is a complete overhaul of the current system. A total overhaul of the current system is needed to provide an effective re-structuring of a political system to one which encourages participation of women not hinders it. This must include measures such as; a prioritisation of training and mentoring of women candidates, flexible working hours, childcare facilities provided in parliament, quotas, gender equality accountability mechanisms, proxy voting for members who are absent due to childcare responsibilities and breastfeeding facilities.

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