Less than 100 years ago women in the UK were still disenfranchised. Now, there are more women in Parliament than ever before, although the fact remains that nearly 80% of all parliamentarians are men. It is clear that further steps are needed to increase diversity in UK politics, but what are they and how should they be approached?
Firstly, more action is needed at the grassroots, with steps being taken to increase the number of women entering politics in the first place. In order to promote politics as a career path to women, two key aspects need to be addressed – first more must be done to promote the worth of political studies at school-studying level, and second, there must be an attempt to revive the appeal of politics as a career lifestyle.
Statistics show that the number of women taking A Level Political Studies is about 20% lower than men. From 2013-2014, the overall number of students studying the discipline has also decreased by over 10%. If Parliament is to increase female representation for the longer term, it will need to find a way of promoting the value of politics, and sparking more initial interest and confidence amongst young scholars. It could be that a Government initiative similar to that of STEM is needed to implement such changes.
Beyond education, this country faces a wider crisis of confidence towards its politicians. A series of unfortunate events, (the Iraq War, expenses scandal and the ‘Sexminster’ allegations to name but a few) have resulted in people being less inclined to vote, let alone join a political party, with a significant proportion of the electorate feeling detached and disengaged from politics. Having said this, MPs are taking certain steps to address the public’s indifference; take for instance, the vote to recall MPs. Though this may seem an obvious and less-than-dynamic step towards diversity, more of the same is necessary, whether it be via legislation or the media, in order to lay the principle groundwork, and get more women re-engaged with politics.
Alongside grassroots efforts, policy-makers must take steps to encourage career longevity. The Cabinet currently consists of only five women, against a backdrop of 17 men – is this evidence of a failure of social mobility, or simply testament to the wider Westminster demographic and the overall Commons ratio of women: men? Well, the answer is that it is probably a mixture of both. When it comes to increasing social mobility and diversity, there is rarely a straight-forward answer. To ensure that more women can reach top ministerial positions, there will need to be an inevitable mix of change; some that happens organically, and some that is strategically thought out and carefully manufactured.
Cultural change can give way to an organic increase in diversity. Take for example, the introduction of shared parental leave – a piece of legislation that comes in to effect in 2015. Allowing men to take as much paid leave as women, may result in a significant cultural shift, where men are much more likely to take on the role of the stay-at-home parent or part-time worker. Whilst this is mere speculation, there is scope for such changes to create a more level and open-minded playing field over the course of the next 10 years, not only in politics, but in other industries with low female representation.
At present, women cabinet ministers preside over Education, Home Affairs, Environment, Northern Ireland and International Development. Moreover, look back over the past 30 years, and you will come across only one female Foreign Secretary, one Prime Minister and no women Chancellors. Although progress has been made over the last 10 years, there is still a feeling that women are overrepresented in so-called “softer cabinet” positions, being more likely to deal with women’s and social issues rather than the Treasury or Foreign Affairs. Taking steps to broaden female ministerial representation seems a direct way of breaking this trend. However, adopting a suitable approach in doing so is crucial. Promote a female candidate too quickly, and a party leader risks stepping into dangerous waters of controversy, where he/she will be criticised for promoting them based on gender rather than merit.
Overall, the solution to the women in politics question is one of grassroots and longevity combined. Steps are needed to insure the further introduction of women to politics, as well as the continuation of their influence. For the sake of its credibility however, it is important that the women in politics debate continues to be about ensuring that women can get to the top, rather than ensuring they have to. Given that low representation is widely due to lifestyle choice and public perception, measures to address these issues won’t be able to be implemented over night. There are direct actions that can be taken to increase the number of women appointed to junior and senior positions, however this will only carry change so far.
Everyone has a responsibility to enhance equal representation, and ensure the fundamental issues of the diversity debate are properly addressed. Failure to do this risks creating a box-ticking numbers game which doesn’t address the real underlying issues currently creating an unbalanced parliament.