There is a shortage of women in leadership roles across the board: in industry, business, the arts, sport, academia, the judiciary and the media for example, as well as politics. The reason for this shortage is no longer a lack of aspiration, or lack of talent. Sex equality laws have changed attitudes and practice, but only up to a point. There is still a ‘glass ceiling’ in many walks of life.
This matters, whether in the boardroom, in the courtroom or in Parliament. This is not only because millions of women are frustrated by failing to achieving their true potential, but also because the nation is missing out on talent and ability that is going to waste. To change this we don’t need new laws or punishments, but we do need a wholesale change in attitude among both men and women. The expectation that cripples many women’s opportunities remains the one which ties them to childcare and home making. Sharing family tasks should be the norm, not the exception.
Some say that men will always be more ambitious than women, and this limits the objective of parity at the top, but liberating ambitious and capable women to compete should be the objective. This must be for the whole of society. Politics is part of this.
It is a little under a hundred years since women gained the vote in elections here in the UK, yet in that time remarkable changes have occurred in public life, not just here but all over the world. For over half that period we have had a successful and popular female monarch on our throne. Women from both our major political parties have sat in Cabinet; women have led big business, have become judges, and will soon be bishops. Margaret Thatcher, Angela Merkel, Benazir Bhutto, Indira Gandhi, Hillary Clinton, Condoleeza Rice, Christine Lagarde and many others have shown and continue to show that it is the quality of leadership, not their sex or gender which matters. Nevertheless, countless unreasonable disadvantages still beset many talented women as they choose their career path in so many walks of life, including in the sphere of public or political service.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in politics. The Conservatives, Labour, Liberal Democrats and all the smaller parties all struggle to increase women’s involvement in front-line politics. Yes, the Conservative Party can proudly boast Margaret Thatcher as the first female Prime Minister; Nancy Astor as the first female MP to take her seat; and Janet Young as the first female Leader of the Lords. Labour and the SNP can lay claim to the fact that their deputy leaders are women. But the record of all the major parties is lamentable. The Labour Party only has a better record on numbers by getting women into Parliament through the use of all women shortlists – bringing in a new generation of capable women MPs.
Attitudes matter. More than three decades after Lady Thatcher’s historic victory in the 1979 election, only 22 per cent of all UK MPs are women, and that reflects how attitudes are slow to change in all the parties. This places the UK 64th in the world (as of April 2014), a disappointingly low ranking given the history of democracy in this country. It is worth pointing out that many of those countries which have a significant number of women MPs have achieved this through the use of some form of positive action. More than a hundred countries use some form of sex quota in politics.
Instead of trying to score points off each other, all the political parties, and the men and women in them, MPs, party workers and party members, should be working together to tackle the habits, attitudes and behaviour which inhibits the ability to attract, recruit and indeed retain the “best and the brightest” men and women willing to serve the country as Members of Parliament. This requires a new and different strategic determination and energy than we have yet seen. We welcome the current investigation being undertaken by the All Party Women in Parliament Group into working practices and barriers into entering Parliament, and look forward to reading their recommendations when they report later this year.
More equal women’s representation in politics would strengthen the decision-making process of government. Equality of representation is not an add-on, an afterthought, or a ‘nice-to-have’. Dr Rosie Campbell, Reader in Politics at Birkbeck, University of London, and specialist in women’s voting intentions, agrees that female role models are ‘good for democracy’. In an interview with Women2Win earlier this year, she said: “Women, as 52 per cent of the population, are obviously not a homogenous group and there is no simple link that can be made between the presence of women’s bodies in Parliament and the representation of women voters’ preferences. However, research I have undertaken…has used survey data to demonstrate that women voters of all parties are more concerned about gender equality than men.”
She added: “There is a growing body of evidence that women politicians can have a ‘role model effect’ whereby their visibility encourages other women to become more politically active. This is good for democracy.”
A recent survey found that 72 per cent of girls aged 11 to 21 wanted to see more women in Parliament. It also showed a link between a narrow range of role models and limited aspirations. This supports the argument that those women already in the Conservative Party need more visibility and to be seen to progress up the ministerial ranks. Another opportunity would be to have more female role models and systematic mentoring in politics. This would lead to a virtuous cycle in which women could see themselves actually going into politics as a career.
We need to do more to develop a pipeline of young women who are interested in becoming more politically engaged. Until this happens, we will continue to have a shortage of female candidates and will miss out on a potential 52 per cent of the talent that is available in our society. As a Party, we need to work to address this by talking to young voters – at schools and at universities – in order to highlight politics as a potential career path. This doesn’t just mean becoming an MP, but becoming involved as campaigners, councillors or possibly taking up a public appointment. We welcome the fact that the Party is arranging a series of road shows around our major cities to talk about the journey and what the job of being an MP actually involves.
Is the Conservative Party modernising as well?
The outlook for the Conservative Party going into the next General Election is mixed. At the 2010 General Election, the number of Conservative women MPs increased from 17 to 49, a significant increase, up from nine per cent to 16 per cent of the Parliamentary Party. To put this in context, the Labour Party currently has 81 women MPs (31 per cent of the Labour Parliamentary Party) and the Liberal Democrats have seven women MPs (12 per cent of the Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Party).
The United Nations emphasizes the importance of women constituting 30 percent of elected political institutions; increasingly, advocates for women’s political representation use the language of parity – of women and men’s equal presence. Recent selections ahead of the coming general election have shown that, while roughly a third of seats have gone to women, only a quarter of retirement seats to date have selected a woman, although this is a small number and there will be more to come. It is the vacant seats already held by political parties, that, all other things being equal, turn women candidates into women MPs.
Additionally, a number of women MPs who were newly elected in 2010 have announced their intentions to stand down for a whole host of reasons. Moreover, there are a number of current female MPs who will go to the polls in 2015 to defend their seats with small majorities. All of this adds up to a major challenge for the Conservative Party. In order to move forward, the party needs to deliver a significant increase in the number of women candidates selected in seats that the party expects to win. Going backwards should not be an option or a possibility.
The party has taken steps to address the shortage of female MPs over the last decade. The Prime Minister’s calls for women to seek selection are to be welcomed. And Women2Win are working hard to reduce the barriers to women through a combination of mentoring and training. Regular practice Q&A sessions, along with a series of mock selections have helped female candidates to rehearse their arguments, improve their public speaking and presentational skills as well as to network with each other.
We need to appreciate, however, that it is Conservative Associations that make the final decision in selecting their Parliamentary candidate (although in some recent selections, candidates were chosen through an open primary). In UK politics, parties act as important gatekeepers. Unless Associations, party members and local voters participating in selections acknowledge that women are able to do the job just as well as men, we will not see the shift in attitude from within the party translating into more seats for women.
Women2Win, together with the Conservative Women’s Organisation, who run regular “Introduction to Politics” and development programmes, are working to ensure that the number of women involved in public and political life continues to increase. However, without more buy-in from our Party membership we won’t be able to realise the change necessary to appeal to female voters in particular and to the electorate as a whole.
Selling the New Approach to Associations
CCHQ has made a video featuring a variety of MPs from different backgrounds. . The film has received positive feedback from Associations, and has shown the different aspects of an MP’s life. Normally, Associations only see their MPs through their work with the Association, without a full understanding of their roles in the constituency and Westminster. The video makes it apparent that a woman candidate is just as well suited to the role. Many women might be better suited to constituency work than their male counterparts. Selections have tended to focus on male stereotype strengths and skills which are perceived necessary for Westminster life. It is hardly a surprise that many female candidates struggle to match this to the satisfaction of those doing the selection. They then fail to demonstrate their own unique strengths, and even if they do, they are not valued as they should be and failto be selected.
What else can be done?
In order to encourage a better balance in future selections, the party can choose to implement new measures/mechanisms, ones that stop short of All Women Shortlists. First, we would like to see a change to the rules to ensure that every selection final has both male and female representation. This would allow Associations a better choice and to see both men and women perform. In some cases, women have been shortlisted, but have not got through to the final after being interviewed by the executive, meaning that the general public at the Open Primary stage or members at the final selection meeting are missing the opportunity to pick a female candidate. By ensuring that at least one male and one female candidate is in the final, we will be taking a step towards ensuring a better balance and a better choice in the candidates being selected to fight seats.
Despite the cost, the party should also consider more open primary postal ballots. In the two instances where these were trialled before the 2010 General Election, both constituencies selected women candidates. Open primaries also have other advantages. Postal primaries can engage attention and participation far wider than the narrow party membership. They favour local candidates, who tend to perform more strongly in marginal seats. For all these reasons, open, postal primaries, or even constituency wide ballorts conducted by local authorities, are the future for an engaged and relevant party. Any reference to gender should be removed from candidates’ application forms. Anecdotally, where this has been tried it has led to more women being selected for interview.
There is a need for policy makers and CCHQ to appreciate and understand the female perspective on policy. It is such a betrayal of unconscious male bias, that so many of the party’s senior policy researchers and special advisers are women. This is 2014, but the first female Director of the Conservative Research Department, the first Prime Minister’s Political Secretary or Chief of Staff, have yet to be appointed. By bringing in more women, blunders can be avoided, there will be more new ideas, and the party’s messaging and tone could be tailored effectively and women voters in particular would better understand the benefits of policy changes being implemented.
The Conservative Party should make better use of the talented women ministers, MPs and councillors it already has. They are talented women who should be far more visible. They should also use other women in leadership positions such as “Business Ambassador” Karren Brady, at all possible opportunities.
We welcome the recent appointment of a new Vice Chairman for Women to address the question of whether women matter to the Party. She will also be able to co-ordinate the activities in this area, and provide a focus for communication with all the women’s groups.
We need to think harder, too, about the tone and language we use when explaining our policies and appealing for votes. Women will tend to question not just the policy but also the intentions of the person introducing it. Recent media coverage has also questioned the Party’s attitude and intentions towards women. At Prime Minister’s Questions recently, the Leader of the Opposition attacked the Prime Minister for the lack of women on his front bench team and for the lack of women in the Parliamentary Party.
Unless there is a significant increase in women MPs at the 2015 general election, the Conservative Party will need to look at this issue in detail. It needs to have a strategy to address this important issue, and all options should be on the table. Complacency should not be an option and more radical ideas may need to be considered if progress towards both increased female representation and an understanding of the female voter are to be achieved.
This is an extract from ‘The Modernisers’ Manifesto’, which will be published by Bright Blue on April 30.