The report on women’s political representation isn’t so ‘shocking’ if you understand political recruitment

Image by LSE Library

Image by LSE Library

There’s a new report out on women’s political representation today. According to yesterday’s Observer it is ‘shocking’, and shows women’s presence in a range of professions – especially politics – to be ‘plummeting’.

Based on the report, however, there was very little evidence of much plummeting going on.  Women’s presence in the professions was fairly low across the board, down in some areas, up in others. The numbers in the Welsh Assembly, for example, had fallen but those in the House of Commons were up.  In total, the report examines 25 areas of public life – from Directors of FTSE100 to the police, from the armed forces to politics – and found women’s presence up in 19 of them, when compared to 2003.  We assume that would have made a less impressive headline, though.

It might, we guess, be considered a shock if we had all previously been unaware of the relatively low numbers of elected women in politics or in the professions and this report had now revealed this to us for the very first time.  But we know, for example, that the public – both men and women – have a pretty good idea of the number of women in parliament.  The average estimate (in a study in 2009 when the actual figure was 20%) was 26%.

The media coverage of the report (although not, to be fair, the report itself) made much of the decline in the numbers of women in the Cabinet, where women’s presence has fallen noticeably compared to the late-Blair or Brown years.  Perhaps this is the shocking bit?

But it is only shocking to people who don’t understand political recruitment.  There is a very obvious reason why any comparison between now and the late-Blair/Brown years is facile.

It takes time for newly-elected MPs to reach the Cabinet.  They spend some time on the backbenches, then work their way up the ministerial ranks.  Some do it quicker than others (and some don’t do it at all), but thus far no one – male or female – from the 2010 intake of Conservative MPs has made the Cabinet.

And this matters, because prior to 2010, the number of Conservative women MPs was extremely low, with only 18 of the parliamentary party being women before 2010.  It rose, to a record high of 48 (if still low, in absolute terms) in 2010, but the Cabinet is therefore still drawn from the ranks of those elected prior to 2010.  And of current Conservative MPs, just 12 are women from before 2010; of these, four (that is, a full third) are currently in the Cabinet.   The same is true of the Liberal Democrats, who have an even lower level of female representation.

So rather than compare with 2008, a more sensible comparison is with the Cabinet of 2000, three years after the large influx of Labour women MPs in 1997.  How many women were in the Blair Cabinet in 2000? Answer: five, exactly the same number as are in the Cabinet now.   (In addition to the four MPs, there is also Baroness Warsi).

Of those five Labour Cabinet members, four were MPs, all of whom had been in the Commons since at least 1987, if not longer.  In other words, none were elected for the first time in 1997.

Of the Labour women MPs elected for the first time in 1997, five eventually reached the Cabinet.  But it took them on average eight years to do so.  The fastest was Patricia Hewitt, but even she had not made Cabinet until after the 2001 election.

So even if we see Conservative women from the 2010 intake making Hewitt-speed climbs to the Cabinet, we should not expect to see them reach it until next year at the earliest, and mostly later.

We should therefore see an increase in the number of women in the Cabinet (or, in the event of a Conservative electoral defeat, Shadow Cabinet) in the next few years as the 2010 intake climb the slippery slope of junior ministerial posts. The best way to get more women into the Cabinet is to get more women in Parliament in future, perhaps by looking at why political pipeline institutions like local councils don’t provide women with the springboard that they do for men. Then again, that doesn’t make as good a headline, does it?

Philip Cowley and Peter Allen

The Politics of the Female Face

Islamic women wearing the veil are often assumed to be either down-trodden or illiberal. Such assumptions have become framed in a discourse of ‘othering’ which denies these women’s histories, experiences and agency. This discourse plays an increasingly worrying role in Europe in augmenting divisions between communities, races and women. It becomes urgent therefore to disrupt such infantilizing and disempowering representations.

Building on my work with the piquetero (unemployed) movement in Argentina, particularly the role of masked women piqueteras who play a leading role in piquetes – the blocking of roads to make demands on the state – , I argue that the decision of a woman to cover her face can be a political act that has many meanings.

I explore this in my recent Ceasefire column, suggesting that we can only engage with these meanings by speaking with and listening to the women who take the decision to wear a veil or a mask.

Sara Motta

Paying the price of equality

Have you heard the one about the woman driver forced to pay higher insurance?

It’s not funny; but it is significant.

For while the recent EU ruling that forces car insurers to ignore sex when setting premiums might seem a like a small step in women’s long march towards equality it does challenge an insidious form of stereotyping

Are all women safer drivers than all men? No, of course not. Do more young men than young women have car accidents? Well, according to UK car insurers, they do.  But the real question is why did insurance companies ever think the sex of a driver was directly relevant to their ability to drive a car? As has been pointed out, attempts to price insurance according to race would have rightly been heavily criticized. So why, for so long, has it been acceptable to use the sex of the driver as grounds for separate pricing?

The desire to categorize by sex is probably due to an on-going sexism within our culture. Some people drive well and some drive badly – but why do we look for an explanation for this in sex? Because we are surrounded by gender stereotypes.  The idea that women are ‘safer’ or ‘more considerate’ drivers than men fits the stereotypes we see everywhere.  Women are – of course – ‘more caring’ than men; wouldn’t drive dangerously because they are ‘naturally’ nurturing. That’s why we expect women to be the primary care-givers to children – and need the category of ‘stay at home dad’ when this isn’t the case. That’s why we expect women to make up the majority of those employed in the ‘caring’ professions such as nursing; and need the descriptive ‘male nurse’ for the minority.

As I argue in my new book Autonomy and Identity: The Politics of Who We Are these stereotypes benefit neither men nor women. For, stereotyping restricts our ability to define ourselves. An individual’s identity is important because it should be an expression of who that person is but stereotypes prevent some people being able to do this, gender stereotypes in particular. Stereotyping is a subtle but worryingly effective way of one group expressing power over another. If we cannot define ourselves because we are forced into rigid categories by such stereotypes then we lack a very important part of our autonomy. The effect of this is that we see people not as who they really are but as an inherently unequal society chooses to define them. Surely in the twenty-first century we can start to move away from viewing people through burdensome gender stereotypes?

So, now women will be worse off when it comes to car insurance; but better off when it comes to annuity payments. But perhaps we will all be a little better off, because in one small area of life we can no longer explain people’s actions with reference to their sex.

Ros Hague

Is all politics local?

To varying degrees all mainstream British political parties have signed up to the underlying principle that political institutions should (broadly) reflect the social characteristics of the people they represent.  This is most obvious with sex, where quotas for Westminster parliamentary seats were used by Labour in 1997 and 2005, with other measures used in the devolved institutions in Scotland and Wales.

There are also ongoing debates about ethnic minority representation; witness the 2008 establishment of a Speaker’s Conference, which initially set out to examine the representation of women, ethnic minorities and the disabled, and which was then expanded to include sexuality as well.

Yet in the UK the goal of greater representation of women has often become framed as a zero-sum game against men, especially local men.  This was at its most obvious in the constituency of Blaneau Gwent, a formerly safe seat lost by Labour to a local independent candidate in 2005, after the imposition of an all-women short list. The same tensions are however evident in the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties.

This is, at least in part, because whilst lots of the academic literature focuses on characteristics like sex and ethnicity, the public appear to care much more about localism.

In 2008, as part of some research in which I was involved, the polling company YouGov asked a sample of adults whether they would prefer their MP to be a candidate of the same sex – but who came from outside their area – to a candidate of a different sex – but who was local. Overwhelmingly, they preferred the local over the outsider. Men preferred a local woman (76 per cent) to a man from outside the area (6 per cent), with 18 per cent don’t knows.  Women preferred a local man (75 per cent) over a woman from outside the area (5 per cent), with 20 per cent don’t knows. In other words, women said that they would prefer to be represented by a man as long as he was local rather than a woman if she came from outside the area, by a factor of 15:1.

This article, just published in Political Studies (and for which a subscription may be required), examines whether the claims made for the descriptive representation of women and black candidates can and should apply to local candidates.  Co-written with Sarah Childs from the University of Bristol, it draws a distinction between the representation of a territory (which is common to most representative systems) and the representation of a territory by someone from that territory, a similar distinction to the difference common in the gender and politics literature between the representation of women by an elected representative and the representation of women by women representatives.

We found a hard and a soft form of this second argument.  The latter applies to almost every constituency in the UK, but it is a claim not based on arguments for the presence of the disadvantaged, however much voters may want a ‘local’ candidate. However, the case for a local candidate to represent a more disadvantaged constituency, the harder form of the argument, can be made on almost all of the criteria applied to other excluded groups identified in what is often called the ‘politics of presence’ literature.

Political parties and academics need to take this issue more seriously than they do at present. Despite the fact that the academic literature on the politics of presence pays relatively little attention to the desires of voters, it would be foolish for the political parties to ignore an identity that voters clearly feel matters to them.

Advocates of the descriptive representation of groups, such as women or minority ethnic communities, essentially have two choices. First, they can choose to challenge the concept of the ‘local’ candidate.  Or, alternatively, they could choose to utilise it. If what is stopping the selection of, say, women candidates is that they are (geographic) outsiders, then gender equality activists and party HQs might usefully spend their time mobilising local women and/or trying to bring local women into the party in order to increase their numbers.

Philip Cowley