Women and politics

What is the problem?

Across the UK today, women are dramatically underrepresented in positions of power and influence – especially in politics.

Currently, men outnumber women 4 to 1 in parliament  – just 22 per cent of MPs are women.

Out of a Cabinet of 22 Ministers, only 4 are women.

In the devolved assemblies, women’s representation is higher: women make up 42% of Welsh Assembly members, 36% of Scottish Assembly members and 19% Members of the Legislative Assembly of Northern Ireland. Although women fare better in the devolved assemblies, progress is stagnating at best, if not declining.

At a local government level, around a third –  32 % –  of Councillors are women, but only 12.3 % of council Leaders in England, 13.3 % of elected Mayors and 14.6 % of Police and Crime Commissioners are women.

The lack of women in political positions of power represents a real democratic deficit.

(all figures taken from Sex and Power 2013: Who Runs Britain? unless otherwise stated)

Why does it matter?

It’s unjust: Women have a right to an equal say in politics; it is a matter democratic legitimacy that our institutions better reflect the country they represent. The current situation means the UK is experiencing a democratic deficit.

It undermines good decision making: Decisions of national importance – about everything  from what we teach in our schools, whether to go to war or how to balance the country’s budget – are being made with too few women around the table. The views and experiences of one half of the country are not being properly represented, and so are not adequately informing the decisions made.

It sends the wrong signal: When our most high profile and influential bodies – such as Parliament – display such a dearth of women, they send a  message to other walks of life: ‘it is acceptable to cut women out of decision making.’  The lack of women in powerful roles in politics also reinforces stereotypes of what a leader looks like: male, pale and stale.

What do we want to see happen?

Improving women’s participation in British politics requires action on three main fronts – political parties must ensure more women get selected and elected; democratic institutions such as Parliament must adopt more modern working practices; the media must ensure women candidates are treated and portrayed without prejudice.

Political parties: In Britain, independent elected representatives are few and far between; political parties act in effect as gatekeepers. As such, they are key to improving the representation of women in politics.

There are three main points at which parties  can intervene to ensure more women get selected and elected:

Supply of women: Parties should ensure that robust training and mentoring structures are in place and make sure that their recruitment strategies encourage diverse women from wide ranging backgrounds to come forward.

Selection of women: Parties should ensure that members of selection panels are diverse, that equality and diversity training is given to all panel members, and should use an array of positive action mechanisms to ensure a target number of women in candidate selection.

Election of women: the electoral success of women depends on parties placing women in ‘winnable’ seats. Parties must ensure that women Prospective Parliamentary Candidates (PPCs) are fielded in winnable seats in order to increase their chances of being elected.

Fawcett is working with each of the three main parties to support and bolster their efforts to increase women’s representation. We are providing robust research and analysis to influence parties’ strategies around increasing women’s representation.

Parliament and other democratic institutions

Currently, MPs count as self employed. This means they are not entitled to any specific provision for maternity leave or paternity leave, rather they must negotiate these arrangements direct with their parties. We believe Parliament should abide by the same employment law and working practice requirements as the rest of the public sector – MPs shouldn’t be treated as self-employed and exempt from normal employment regulation, such as formalised maternity rights.

At the same time, many of the working practices adhered to by Parliament and other democratic institutions around the country are archaic and out of date. As well as long working hours and commuting times, the arrangement of the House of Commons is inflexible with sitting hours frequently being 2.30pm to 10.30pm, often with even later finishes. This can act as a deterrent to potential politicians with responsibilities outside of work. Because women still tend to do the bulk of caring for children, they are disproportionately affected by rigid working hours.

Fawcett wants to see Parliament adopt the recommendations of the Speakers Conference on Parliamentary Representation, a seminal cross party report considering the why Parliament looks so unlike the country it serves.

 Media: all too often, the media treat women politicians differently from their male counterparts. More attention is paid to their appearance and their family situation – whether or not they have children for example. This can serve to undermine women politicians, while also meaning the public do not necessarily learn as much about their opinions and policies as they do their shoes.

The media should approach and portray politicians without prejudice.

What is Fawcett doing?

Highlighting the problem: we work hard to make sure there is wide awareness of the current situation, researching and publishing policy reports and generating media coverage of the problem.

Joining forces with other campaigners: We are a founding member of the Counting Women In coalition, which came together in the wake of the 2010 General Election. This is a unique campaign bringing together equality campaigners such as Fawcett with democratic improvement and reform organisations such the Hansard Society, the Electoral Reform Society, Unlock Democracy and the Centre for Women and Democracy.

As part of the Counting Women In coalition, we produce an annual audit of women’s representation across public life, Sex and Power: Who Runs Britain? Our research highlights the dearth of women in positions of power across public life and the detrimental effects the exclusion of women has on social, political and financial institutions across our democracy. You can download the latest Sex and Power to the right of this page.

Lobbying for change: Sign our petition calling on the Prime Minister to honour his pledge to make a third of his Ministers female by the end of his first term.

Working directly with the parties: we are working directly with the three main political parties to ensure the 2015 General Election and beyond sees the number of women selected and elected improve.


How you can get involved

Join us  as a campaigning charity, we rely on the support of our members to keep our work going . If you’re not already a member, join today.

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