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

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

Women: resistance starts here

The year is about to turn and with it the tide is also turning. Mothers, often the poorest of the poor, are no longer merely victims of the logic of market competition, division and austerity: they are fighting back. As I argue, with my co-editors in the editorial of the most recent edition of Interface, Feminism, Women’s Movements and Women in Movement, the long-established feminisation of poverty is becoming a feminisation of resistance, particularly in the Global South.

What lessons can those in the UK learn from these struggles?

Mothers who are heads of households are one of the groups (including young people) that are the hardest hit by the Coalition government’s austerity measures and the economic downturn. Cut backs to benefits, tax credits and other subsidies effect women most severely, particularly working mothers. As Emilia Hill recently argued, hard won victories for women’s equality are being eroded. Yet these women still have to ensure that their children eat, have a roof over their heads, proper clothes, schooling, health, love and nurture.

Decades before the UK banking crisis and its consequences, women in the Global South have experienced the dislocations, violences and exclusions of market logics.  They know that the removal of public provision of health, education and housing reinforces the care responsibilities of women and that economic crisis and cut backs increase unemployment, undercutting the survival mechanisms of poor families. Many are all too aware that the cumulative effect of these processes is the breakdown of community solidarities, social bonds and collectivity.

Yet, women of the Global South are not only victims, as women never are. My research demonstrates that as women are at the heart of the community and the family they have also been at the heart of resisting these processes by organising the collective provision of housing, education, health and childcare.

In the process, the meaning and practice of motherhood and womenhood become a place of political struggle.

No longer is motherhood confined to the individual care of partner and children. Instead motherhood becomes a symbol of collective community caring and nurturing. Women’s knowledges are combined and developed as the basis of creating sustainable systems of food production, health care, community education and housing.

No longer is womenhood confined to a role in the private sphere as mother, daughter or wife or to an unregulated market sphere of super-exploitation. Rather women take centre stage in the struggles for recognition of their community and family’s right to a dignified life determined on their own terms. Women become the thinkers, facilitators and organisers in their communities.

Such politics impacts upon how women’s bodies are experienced and lived. The body is not merely a site of pain, pleasure for others and exhaustion but also becomes an embodiment of the ability to create and defend life. Women who stand against the violence of the state in protest, women who sing and use their voices to bear witness to the violences of marketisation turn their bodies into sites of resistance and pride.

These practices re-make and re-invent broken solidarities, social bonds and collectivity. In the logic of their resistances is a reimagining of the political; away from the dominant script of power politics around great leaders, parties, the winning of elections and the occupying of the state towards a politics of everyday life, social relationships and self.

Such resistances compel us to stretch our understanding of what politics is, where it occurs, and what it stands for. It suggests that a reimagining of a liberatory politics and theory for our times must take women’s resistances seriously. Dialogue and solidarity between women in the Global South and Global North is an essential part of this process.

For those interested in developing this dialogue and solidarity, Interface, I hope, will give much food for thought.

Sara Motta

Gender Politics Special Edition

Once disregarded by politicians and students of politics alike, women – and the issue of gender more generally – now occupy a slightly less peripheral position in real-world and academic politics. There are more elected female representatives in the world than ever there were while even the Political Studies Association has a Women and Politics Specialist Group.

However, as feminists pointed out way back in the 1970s, consideration of women and gender raises all kinds of basic questions about the meaning of ‘politics’ itself and what should be considered ‘political’.

Reflecting the different implications of what Life magazine in 1971 termed the ‘Woman Problem’, these recent posts tackle subjects as diverse as trashy novels, changes in the law and resistence in the Third World.

Sara Motta speculates on what it means when a woman covers her face.

Steven Fielding puts Kay Burley’s new novel Ladies First into context.

Sara Motta looks at the role women play within movements resisting the consequences of neo-liberalism in the Third World.

Ros Hague assesses the implications of the recent judgement that women and men should pay the same car insurance premiums.

Ladies first?

Kay Burley is one of the top presenters on Sky News. That means she is a person of influence. If you get Sky News.

Ms Burley has just published a novel about politics called Ladies First. She has her detractors so I doubt the novel will be read in its own terms. Some people think it’s a bit rubbish; Peter Mandelson apparently likes it; others believe that it depicts versions of Tony Blair, Rebekka Wade and even (self-servingly) Burley herself. That’s not for me to say.

As someone who has made it their business to map out how politics has been depicted on the stage, page and screen over the last hundred years or so, I put this new addition to my data set (as we academics say) into historical context for the benefit of the good readers of the Guardian.

If you read the comments provoked by the peice you’ll see how certain Guardian readers despise Sky News (its always been good to me) in general and Burley in particular, so I think my point got a bit lost. However, I did not write it to have a go at Burley but merely to suggest that her novel is, sadly, typical of the decline of a certain kind of novel written about politics.

For those who might like to delve a little deeper into the matter of how men and women have been depicted in novels and fiction about politics more generally this might be of interest.

Be warned, it’s only a conference paper so it’s a bit rough round the edges – my final word will come in a book to be published in 2012 by Bloomsbury.

When I write it.

Steven Fielding