Women, politics and power - gender equality is not just a woman's issue

Ahead of the UK Feminista summer school this weekend, OK co-editor Anthony Barnett and director of IPPR Nick Pearce discuss what can be done to rectify the woeful under-representation of women in UK politics and public life.
Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett Nick Pearce
29 July 2010

Ahead of the UK Feminista summer school this weekend, Anthony Barnett and Nick Pearce discuss what can be done to rectify the woeful under-representation of women in UK politics and public life. As OurKingdom's contribution we are launching this thread in which men debate discrimination against women, its causes and what can be done about it. The second contribution by Mike Edwards is here. Tomorrow, we will launch a debate between women on political strategy, starting with revolution and reform. All genders may join in the comments.

Dear Nick,

Yesterday it was announced that the nine people who make up the Bank of England Monetary Policy Committee which sets interest rates for the UK will no longer have a woman member. It was set up by the new Labour government in 1997 and usually since then it has always had at least one women on it. A long way from gender balance! You'd have thought that the imbalance would have been improved across the decade, in fact it has gone backwards, and now for the first time in nine years it is a men only club.

I have been thinking about this as we are planning to renew OurKingdom and widen the debate about power, liberty, rights and democracy across the UK, which is at the core of our group blog. Deep cultural currents shape these issues as well as the daily political battles and the larger international influences, from the EU to the global economy.

At the moment in Britain high political strategy is pretty much a boy's game and this is doubly true when it comes to constitutional debates, that have been reduced here to technical issues very often (as a way of protecting the status quo from wider debate, in my view, but that's a larger issue!)
Its essential for a democracy to have creative input into policy-making from people with diverse experience. Gender is simply the first and most obvious expression of this.

There was an interesting package on the Today programme about the Bank's committee. The interviewer was a woman, and she talked to Diane Coyle, Sally Keeble and Dr DeAnne Julius, who was the first woman member when the Committee was set up in 1997. Much of the discussion was about why women are not interested in economics, assuming that the Committee's selection was justified and it was the fault of women not to have qualified. The points were made that there was a group think factor in any homogenous set of people, that the Committee had far too many academic economists on it (less independent minded, of course) and also that the Bank had failed to train internal women candidates.

One question went unasked. Why was the incredible failure of the Committee to recruit a single women an issue that only women were asked to talk about?  The issue itself was ghettoised as if it was a problem for women, that the bank should be run by an all-male cabal which by its nature is more likely to screw up the economy.

From your vantage point in the Downing Street policy unit I know you have considered improving the participation of women at the top of policy making. How do you transform the Whitehall and City cultures of male monopolies? How can we get to a situation where, without compromising quality or seeking tokens, it is inconceivable that the men on Committees like the Bank of England would imagine recruiting male-only replacements for themselves? Do we have to abolish public schools?


Dear Anthony,

I am not one of those who subscribes to the view that there is a distinct female way of knowing the world that is inaccessible to men: a gendered epistemology, if you like. But it is abundantly clear on a cursory look that even on the thinnest account of equality of opportunity, British society, and its public life in particular, fail the test of appointment and reward on the basis of merit. Policymaking in our country would be substantially improved if women were represented at every level of decision-making commensurate with their educational and career achievements.

In politics, the most important change that can happen is for parties to practice positive discrimation through all-women shortlists. That is why 31% of Labour MPs are women, slightly up on the 2005 Parliament figure (27%) and way ahead of the Conservative Party (48 MPs or 16%) and the derisory number of female Liberal Democrat MPs (7 MPs or 12%). Britain ranks 50th in the world for the proportion of women in its Parliament, a long way behind comparable Northern European countries.

The Welsh Assembly has led the way in the UK: in the Land of Our Fathers, half of all Assembly Members elected in 2003 were women (which fell only slightly to 28 out of 60 in 2007).

Actually, the senior mandarinate is now doing better on these measures than the 'Yes, Minister' stereotype would imply: some 28% of the senior civil service are women, a figure that is likely to rise to over 50% by the end of the decade. But only a smattering of Permanent Secretaries are women, such as the redoubtable Moira Wallace at the Department for Energy and Climate Change, and a scroll through the pay of top civil servants shows where the real money goes.

As with so many other areas, the public sector leads on pay and promotion prospects for women. Only in the public sector do highly qualified women not suffer a pay penalty for having children.

But even in the public sector, much has to change. In my view, real progress will only come about when men, and particularly fathers, change. Unless there is genuine equality between men and women in caring for children, as well as in working life, it will always fall to women to sacrifice their careers to their children. When I worked at No10, I did compressed hours, taking Friday at home to look after my young son. This was accepted, if not encouraged, and I had to spend most of my free time working in one way or another.

But if such flexibility can be offered to men in the Prime Minister's office, it can be offered anywhere. Men must learn to demand flexible working, job shares and other employment practices that enable them to contribute equally to the care of their children. The state has to facilitate this shift, setting out father-only parental leave entitlements when their children are very young (so called "use it or lose it" arrangements for paternity leave), rather than simply extending paid maternity leave. 

The other big policy bet that we need to make is to prioritise the extension of free and affordable childcare. Where such childcare exists - chiefly in the Nordic countries - women have employment rates that are commensurate with those of men. True, employment in these countries can be quite gender segregated, but if more women work, inequality overall falls and the risk of children growing up in poverty is substantially mitigated. In an era of cuts, that is a difficult argument to make, but social democrats should make it nonetheless.

By the way, abolishing public schools doesn't help here - although the issue of social class is a pertinent one, as ever, in these debates.

Yours ever,



Dear Nick,

I agree with you, I am not suggesting that there are special insights and arguments accessible only to those who can have babies or that a more feminine mentality and culture is not accessible to men - or a male one to women, we are all a mixture of the two. But I am trying to suggest that the argument goes further than discrimination and lack of equality of opportunity for women, extremely important though this is with respect to half the human race. 

A recent Pew Global Attitudes Poll reported in the New York Times shows both actual discrimination (even where attitudes overwhelmingly support equality) as well as widespread beliefs, especially in the developing world, that boys are more entitled to better education and jobs than girls. 

I was struck, for example, by this discrepancy: "One hundred percent of French women and 99 percent of French men backed the idea of equal rights. Yet 75 percent also said that men there had a better life, by far the highest percentage in any of the countries in which polling took place". One French expert was quoted as saying, “There are still very few women running large organizations, and business culture remains resolutely a boys’ club.”

Closer to home, when New Labour came to power there was a strong sense that for the first time we had a government where all the men would say that they supported gender equality. But Caroline Flint MP has just observed:

 "We have to recognise that at the top of organisations there are male networks that exist that are quite hard for women to break into. In certain areas men are still dominating and that leads to a self-fulfilling prophecy. We have seen a lot of men who have been special advisers become MPs, then ministers and, as we know, now leadership candidates. Rather than blame women for not being there, we should question how power works and how, at senior levels, women are excluded."

My feeling is that another form of argument is needed, in addition to this and to the major changes in male behaviour and child facilities you propose. It is not a matter of men agreeing that women are equal but then leaving it to women to 'make the grade'. It is in the material interests of men to ensure gender balance and the integration of women in the way society is run for everyone's sake and not just because it is unjust for women. 

In Living the Fishing published in 1985, Paul Thompson and colleagues did a study of Scottish fishing villages which compared those that adapted and flourished to those that stagnated and declined. As I recall, the ones in which women were an active part of the work force proved more adaptable and successful under the stress of change than those where women were segregated and excluded by Presbyterian regulation. 

That's why I support the idea of saying the cabinet will be 50 per cent women. This ensures they will be filling some of the important policy positions but more important it should mean better government for everyone. To put it another way, if half the Labour Cabinet had been women from 1997 onwards the overall quality of politicians would not have been lower but it would have had greater independence and after 2007 I doubt if Brown would not have been able to promise but not deliver change in the way he did! 

Warmest wishes,


Dear Anthony,

In Bolivia, Evo Morales has appointed a Cabinet made up of both sexes in equal number. They call it "chacha warmi": men and women working together as equals. Zapatero went one better in Spain back in 2008, appointing women to the majority of Cabinet posts

It is not revolutionary, just progressive.

I agree with you that we shouldn't just leave it to women to "make the grade". The point is not to replicate how men attain and exercise power. It is to change how power is distributed, so that men and women can achieve equality in their public and private lives. That requires reforms in the welfare state, egalitarian employment practice and new social norms. The welfare state is a critical driver of change: unless the "incomplete revolution" in women's roles is supported by structural changes in public services, the achievement of political power will take longer and the kinds of dysfunctions to which you allude will persist.

Should we argue that this will make for better government for everyone? Yes. But is this simply a matter of opening up politics? No.

With every best wish


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