Frequently Asked Questions on Women’s Representation

Don't Turn Back Time on Women's Rights - Day of Action, Westminster, 2011

What does the ‘supply of women’ refer to?

The supply of women or the ‘pipeline’, refers to the numbers of women available to take up positions of power/influence. There are different routes into politics; women may come from other professions, local politics or from other backgrounds. One of the issues which can have a direct effect in reducing the numbers of women in the pipeline is the rate at which women leave careers before reaching senior levels. It is important that we make sure that there is a healthy supply of women who are enabled to reach senior positions of power across public life. This means that we need education that encourages future generations of women to aspire for top positions across public life, and strong networks of mentoring/shadowing schemes for aspiring women. We also need to be able to financially support women from diverse backgrounds in training and bearing the costs of selection and we must ensure positive profiling of women who have successfully reached powerful positions to inspire tomorrow’s leaders.

What is candidate selection?

Candidate selection refers to the ways in which political parties choose their Prospective Parliamentary Candidates (PCCs). Each party has different ways of selecting its candidates and can use everything from voluntary party quotas (where a party has a target for how many women they wish to have on their candidate shortlists) to All Women Shortlists (AWS) that are shortlists comprising of only women candidates for a given constituency, to ‘priority lists’ that require a certain number of selection boards to consider candidates from a given ‘priority list’ of candidates. Parties can employ different strategies to ensure gender balance in their selection of candidates. Where there is political will and commitment to increase women’s representation, there is a way.

However, it is well documented that political parties are the gatekeepers to women’s representation and it is within their power and political will to make sure that their selection processes proactively seek to increase women’s representation.

What is positive action?

Positive action is a generic term used to describe a range of measures that parties/organsations can adopt to increase the representation of different groups, such as women in training, work and public life. Positive action not only helps to boost the numbers of individuals from underrepresented groups but can also help increase the power of their voice in public life. Positive action can be used to counteract the effects of past discrimination by levelling the playing field and helps to put an end to stereotyping about certain groups. For example, having equal numbers of women to men on boards is fair, improves corporate performance but also quashes stereotypes about the business world being the preserve of men.

Positive action is a catch all phrase used to describe the different ways used to increase the representation of women. Positive action measures need not be implemented on a permanent basis. Instead they can be time-limited and regularly re-evaluated to gauge their utility and necessity. Given the longstanding dominance of male MPs, positive action measures can provide a boost to the change already in process. Raising the number of female candidates and MPs can help to stimulate the style, content and perception of politics – in turn feeding the re-balancing of the number of women and men in politics.

Positive action can include but is not limited to the following measures:

–          Zipping: where women and men candidates are equally alternated on party shortlists;

–          Twinning: where two constituencies pick candidates at the same time, requiring that one female and one male candidate is selected respectively;

–          Quotas:

  • Constitutional – in which the requirement for there to be a certain percentage of women in the legislature is part of the constitutional arrangements.
  • Electoral – in which the electoral laws of the country require quotas to be implemented.
  • Party – in which some or all of the political parties in the country voluntarily apply some form of positive action or quota requirements. This is the type of quota system currently in use in the UK.

–          Gender targets: where targets for increasing women’s representation are set for parties/organisations to reach; and

–          Priority lists: where a list of ‘priority’ candidates are identified for parties to select from.

What are winnable seats?

A winnable seat is a term used to describe a seat which is regarded as fully secured, by a given political party, the incumbent representative personally or a combination of both. In winnable seats, there is very little chance of the party losing this seat at election because of the political positioning of the electorate in the constituency concerned and/or the popularity of the incumbent member.

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