On women, political knowledge and Space Invaders

Chamber of Commons

Why aren’t more people angry about women’s political under-representation? That was the core question posed by Joni Lovenduski in a recent article in Political Quarterly, reporting on a workshop on the subject. “Participants in the workshop”, Lovenduski noted, “wondered why the political under-representation of women in the United Kingdom is not treated as the public disgrace that it is”.

“Undoubtedly,” she went on, “there is continuing resistance to sex equality, but from whom? Who opposes increases in women’s political representation?” Lovenduski split opponents of increased female representation into eight categories (also discussed here):

1. The uninterested, who think it does not matter

2. The complacent, who believe women’s interests are well represented

3. The traditionalists, who believe that politics is about the representation of class

4. Diversity advocates, who argue that gender is only one of many identities

5. Anti-essentialists, who think that claims for more women ignore the great differences among women

6. The optimistic, who think it is just a matter of waiting

7. The dinosaurs, who think politics is best left to men

8. She argued these contribute to: the mistaken, those who misread or misconstrue data about women in politics.

Anyone who has read or thought a little about this subject will certainly recognise the validity of these various categories – although it is a bit of a stretch to claim that all of them oppose increases in women’s representation. Some do, but some are disinterested, others would support an increase in women’s representation but do not see it as a priority, and yet others support the end (more women) but not the means (such as quotas).

In research forthcoming in the journal British Politics, I examine some of these issues, as part of a wider investigation into the politics of representation – and here I want to focus on argument 8. those who are mistaken. Lovenduski cites Nirmal Puwar’s concept of the ‘amplification of numbers’ from her book Space Invaders – the idea that when previously excluded groups begin to be present in politics their very novelty will lead to perceptions of their presence being exaggerated.

The survey I conducted looked explicitly at this, asking respondents to estimate the proportion of the House of Commons that came from a range of different groups – which, as well as women, included the disabled, those educated at Oxbridge, Muslims, and the elderly.

At the time the survey was conducted (2009), some 20% of MPs were female. Estimates of their presence, however, ranged from zero (from a not particularly perceptive respondent) to 91% (ditto). Some 4% of respondents got it spot on, with 31% under-estimating women’s presence and 65% over-estimating. Most respondents, then, did over-estimate women’s presence, but not by much: the (mean) average was 26%, relatively close to the actual figure, and a majority of respondents were within +/- 10 percentage points of the actual figure. There was almost no difference depending on the sex of the respondent (the mean for women was 26%, the mean for men was 25%).

Indeed, of the groups that the survey asked about, respondents were more accurate in their estimates of the number of women than they were any of the other groups. At a time when there were only four Muslim MPs, for example, the public’s average estimate of 14% would have represented some 90 Muslim MPs. The public similarly believed gay and lesbians to be nine times better represented than they actually were; the young to be sixteen times better represented than they were. It may once have been true that there were so few women in the Commons that people noticeably over-estimated their presence, and it certainly still holds for other groups, but it no longer holds for women.

More importantly, almost all respondents estimated a figure of below 50% for women MPs; just 4% estimated 50% or more, with 90% of respondents estimating 40% or lower. Whilst the survey did not ask people what proportion of the wider population belonged to each group, we can reasonably safely assume that most people will have noticed that men and women constitute roughly half of the wider population – and on that basis around 19 out of every 20 respondents believed women to be under-represented in the Commons in proportion to their presence in society.

(A side note for pedants: the fact that women in fact make up a narrow majority of the population does not alter this conclusion, both because it is moot whether the public know this – and it is their perception that matters here, not the reality – and because the figure of 4% would be the same whether we used 50 or 51% as our cut off).

This is, however, not to say that knowledge (or ignorance) has no effect. The survey also contained a question asking if people would like more or fewer women MPs, and as respondents’ estimates of women’s presence increases, so support for having more women in the Commons decreases. If we divide respondents into the categories famously devised by Drude Dahlerup, then those who thought parliament’s composition was uniform (that is, where women constituted just 0-15% of an institution) were overwhelmingly in favour of having more women MPs (68% of these respondents wanted more, as opposed to just 28% who wanted the numbers to stay the same, with a mere 3% who wanted fewer). That is a net score (More minus Same) of +40.  Of those who thought the Parliament ‘tilted’ (that is, where women make up between 15 and 40%), the net score was +12. But of those who thought that the Parliament was ‘balanced’ (40% or more) the net score had fallen to -14.

The public are then, broadly, logical in their responses: if they think there are relatively few women, they are more supporting of an increase in their numbers; if they think they are already present in numbers, they are less supportive of an increase.

This does not mean, however, that giving the public a more accurate understanding of the composition of the Commons would lead to more support for an increased number of women in politics – not least because the figure for the most accurate respondents (those who thought the Commons was ‘tilted’) was, at +12, exactly the same as the figure for all respondents. In other words, whilst improving the knowledge of those who (erroneously) think women are represented in large numbers might make them more supportive of increasing women’s presence, it would presumably have the opposite effect amongst those who currently significantly under-estimate the level of women’s political presence.

We can therefore safely reject the idea that opposition to, or ambivalence about, the scale of women’s representation is due to ignorance about their existing presence. As for the other seven explanations, well, they’re for another day…

Philip Cowley

4 thoughts on “On women, political knowledge and Space Invaders

  1. I identify with [4] and [5] and if Ms Lovenduski really thinks that it doesn’t matter whether the next woman to enter the House is a clone of Nadine Dorries or, rather, of Selma Yaqoob then all I can say is – she’s showing her age. Sorry, but if you dish it out you need to be prepared to take it.

  2. There is a seeming obsession among the metropolitan liberal establishment for making parliament reflect the appearance of the broader population in terms of sexuality, gender and race etc. but a distinctly lesser enthusiasm for making it represent the broader population in terms of its views which is after all its principle purpose.

    • Liking the use of ‘presumably’ in penultimate paragraph.
      The two aims mentioned in response (reflecting the electorate, and representing their views) are not mutually exclusive. And for feminists (liberal or otherwise), the fact that elected representatives continue to not look like the women of this country is central to the fact that our experiences, priorities, interests and views (with all their variation) are not being represented. If they were, do you really think we’d still be campaigning about this? it’s not as if we haven’t already got plenty to do …
      and – I thought the Lovenduski article was about presenting research findings and analysis – when did that become ‘dishing it out’ ?

      • Do you have a problem with the assumption underpinning the use of ‘presumably’? Why would we think the effect would only work in one direction?

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