The ‘problem’ of women and politics has not gone away

A woman doing the top job in UK politics is not enough when women's claims for representation are increasingly being questioned.

Sarah Childs
12 September 2016

Prime Minister Theresa May. Credit: Nick Ansell/PA Wire/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.

Prime Minister Theresa May. Credit: Nick Ansell/PA Wire/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.

With more women MPs than ever in the 2015 UK Parliament and a newly-appointed female prime minister, some might say the issue of women’s political representation had been resolved, that the feminists should be satisfied.

We are not. In late summer 2016, politics at Westminster appears — in ways not envisaged by gender and politics researchers — rather more inhospitable for women than we would like, or had expected.

The appointment of Theresa May as prime minister came in July 2016, following David Cameron’s post-Brexit referendum resignation. May’s appointed should be celebrated: a woman doing the top job in politics is still unusual at Westminster. It is over a quarter century since Margaret Thatcher departed Downing Street. My fingers are crossed that May will act as a role model, encouraging more women to participate in politics. Yet there can be no complacency.

READ MORE: "There’s nothing left" - women’s future under the Conservatives in the UK

There is a risk that May’s premiership will mask the ongoing under-representation of women (and especially mothers) in UK politics, at local, national, and executive levels. Feminists will also be holding May to account for her government’s policies — there is already a public campaign to ensure that women do not lose out in the Brexit negotiations (#FaceHerFuture).

In addition, the year-old Women and Equality Committee has publicly criticised the government’s efforts on maternity discrimination, and demanded “urgent action”.

There is a risk that May’s premiership will mask the ongoing under-representation of women in UK politics

Then there is the uneasy feeling amongst gender and politics researchers and activists that the case for women’s greater participation in politics, which had become almost commonplace in recent years, is being explicitly — and we would contend increasingly — questioned. We are told that if the public do not care as much as feminists (academic and activist) about women’s representation, then the issue of women’s under-representation is not really an issue at all.[I] The public may not care or prioritise particular issues, but this does not mean that they do not exist or should not be tackled.

A second part to this critique is that the under-representation of class is more important than gender — a claim that seemingly fails to recognise that (at least on most everyday definitions) women constitute half of the working class. Framed in this way, such a critique too easily acts to undermine the case for the political presence of middle-and-working-class women

The numbers remain telling. Women are under-represented in the House of Commons: it is currently 30% female when women constitute more than 50% of the population. At 70% of all MPs, men are over-represented relative to their percentage in the population. And it is ethnic majority men that dominate politics in the UK Parliament, just as they do everywhere in the world. [II]

There is also asymmetry of representation by party: Labour is 43% female, the SNP 36%, the Conservatives 21%, and the Liberal Democrats 0%. The ‘woman’ problem in Westminster politics is not solved, then, either by a female prime minister or by a percentage of women MPs lower than 50%. Nor can it be assumed that the numbers will always increase, especially at a time when the house is being made smaller. 

A truly gender-equal politics will have women at all levels and in parts of parties and political institutions, including in parliament and in government. 

Lots can be done to improve the numbers, although what is proven to work best across the globe — sex quotas — are mostly rejected in the UK. Not only do quotas enable women in the supply pool to be (selected) and elected, they can also increase the numbers of women seeking parliamentary candidature in the first place — affecting both the supply and demand side of political recruitment. So far, only Labour has used them at Westminster.

The murder of Jo Cox MP earlier this summer has also forced gender and politics researchers to admit that, just as in many other countries, British women politicians have particular, gendered experiences of security and violence. We had undoubtedly underplayed earlier examples, such as the hostility experienced by Labour women in Wales over All Women Shortlists

This concern, held especially amongst women MPs past and present, and amongst civil society activists, is that the current climate of (social media) violence will discourage women from participating in politics. And that those already in politics should not to have their concerns questioned or ridiculed, but taken seriously. 

British women politicians have particular, gendered experiences of security and violence

The specific accusation that the Labour party under Jeremy Corbyn is not showing sufficient leadership on the issue of violence against its women MPs is reminiscent of earlier Labour women’s criticism of a nostalgic, masculinised ‘blue Labour’, regarded as less than comfortable for feminists and the feminist goals central to the Labour message. Many Labour women, such as Jess Phillips, are calling out their party on these issues. 

That said, the contemporary gender and Labour story is not one-dimensional. Corbyn’s leadership has seen party membership re-balance a little, and both leadership contenders have agreed that there should be women amongst the party’s leadership team in the future. If there is a return to electing the shadow cabinet, the adoption of quotas could ensure a gender-balanced shadow executive. New party rules to institutionalise equality of representation might just happen in the near future.

READ MORE: A woman’s place? The British House of Commons

Parliament would benefit from some rule changes too. Recently published, The Good Parliament Report documents the extent of insensitivity to diversity in the House of Commons. 

Informed by the Inter-Parliamentary Union’s framework of a gender-sensitive parliament, the report makes 43 recommendations addressing three dimensions: (i) Equality of Participation in the House — ensuring a diverse composition of MPs and achieving equality of participation amongst MPs once elected; (ii) Parliamentary Infrastructure — how parliament organises itself and supports the work of members; and (iii) Commons Culture — making this more inclusive. 

The production of The Good Parliament Report importantly persuaded key parliamentary actors, not least the House of Commons Speaker and leading MPs to accept that the House should recognise an institutional responsibility to redress its diversity insensitivities.  

A new group of MPs, the Commons Reference Group on Representation and Inclusion, has been established. Chaired in its first year by the Speaker, it provides political and institutional leadership. It is itself responsible for a considerable number of the recommendations made in The Good Parliament , and it will hold other parliamentary actors to account for their recommendations. 

Its first job is to determine a Programme of Action for the rest of this Parliament. Its successes — themselves dependent upon the actions of the Members who are nominated to it, and the political capital they are able to deploy — will provide examples to other parliaments on how they can meet the international democratic standard for The Good Parliament: truly representative, transparent, accessible, accountable and effective.[III] 


[I] Campbell, R. & Cowley, P. (2014). What Voters Want: Reactions to Candidate Characteristics in a Survey Experiment. Political Studies. 62 (4): 745-765.

[II] Personal correspondence, Melanie Hughes, Univerity of Pittsburgh.

[III] http://www.ipu.org/PDF/publications/democracy_en.pdf

This article is published in association with the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, which is seeking to contribute to public knowledge about effective democracy-strengthening by leading a discussion on openDemocracy about what approaches work best. Views expressed herein do not necessarily reflect those of WFD. WFD’s programmes bring together parliamentary and political party expertise to help developing countries and countries transitioning to democracy.


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