Women and Parliament

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the death of Emily Wilding Davison, who was fatally injured by King George V’s horse at the Epsom Derby on 4th June 1913 while campaigning for women’s suffrage. Great strides have been made since then: in 1928, the Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act extended the vote to all women over the age of 21; in August 1958, women entered the House of Lords for the first time, thanks to the Life Peerages Act; and in 1963, with the passage of the Peerage Act, hereditary peeresses were also permitted entry to the Lords.

Unfortunately, however, many of the issues championed by Emily Davison and other equalitarian campaigners are still relevant today. For example, pay differentials between men and women persist; horrific injustices are committed against women around the world and in this country, including forced marriages, honour killings and female genital mutilation; and representation of women in public and private sector organisations is still nowhere near 50%.

Where I work, in Parliament, men outnumber women 4 to 1. Women are similarly ‘missing’ in other spheres of public life: just 36% of public appointments are women; 13% of the senior judiciary; and 5% of editors of national daily newspapers. The absence is particularly marked in finance and big business: there are no women at all on the Bank of England Monetary Policy Committee, just 11% in UK bank chief executive positions and 17% in FTSE 100 director positions.

We are seeing progress: 143 of the 650 MPs elected in the 2010 General Election were women, the highest number and proportion ever; at the National Assembly for Wales, women comprise 40%. Several women have also broken into hitherto male-dominated environments: earlier this year Fiona Woolf was elected Lord Mayor of London, only the second woman in the institution’s 800-year history, and Dame Heather Carol Hallett has this month been appointed Vice-President of the Criminal Division of the Court of Appeals. But we are not there yet.

There has been much debate, in the UK and at a European level, over the idea of gender quotas in the workplace. Personally, I don’t believe this is the way to go – I think there is a real danger that quotas undermine women who then achieve positions of responsibility, whether as politicians or on company boards, suggesting they are only there as a token gesture rather than on merit. Campaigners like Emily Davison were proponents of the equal-rights tradition of feminism, asking for no favours, only for a level playing field. It seems to me that quotas can create a different kind of imbalance, rather than smoothing the ground.

There is also a danger that a focus on quotas builds a misapprehension that getting women elected is an end in itself – 50% women on boards, tick, that’s that problem solved. The whole reason we need more women represented in senior positions is because I believe this results in better decision-making, not just for women but for companies themselves and society as a whole. There has been extensive research around the world showing a direct correlation between representation of women board directors and higher financial performance. When women are under-represented on corporate boards, companies are missing out, as they are unable to draw from the widest possible range of talent. The same applies in Parliament, the judiciary, or any other area of public life. The people involved in selecting board members or other senior figures need to be appointing women because they understand they have something of value to contribute, not because they feel they have to, or women will simply be nominated to positions in title only, without their voices actually being listened to.

Much of the problem is also an issue of perception amongst women themselves, which prevents them from putting themselves forward for senior roles. As we see more women taking up leadership roles in different areas I hope it will encourage other women to believe not only that they can achieve those positions, but also that they want to do so. Certainly, when it comes to politics, I meet many women who would make excellent parliamentary candidates but who would never stand because they believe that the life of an MP is incompatible with their family commitments. As more female (and, for that matter, male) MPs show that you can have a young family and still be a good MP, I hope that perceptions will start to change.

Of course, more women at the top can also help shape workplaces to better fit the needs of female employees, which would then in turn make it easier for women to stay in the workplace and make their way to the top. In Parliament, part of the reason we need more female MPs is to make sure that issues that women care about are high up on the Government’s agenda. But there is a danger that we create false divisions between ‘men’s issues’ and ‘women’s issues’, based on outdated stereotypes. In reality childcare today is of great concern to many young fathers as well as young mothers; we have our first female Defence Minister, Anna Soubry MP, demonstrating that not only men are interested in our armed forces and how we protect our country. Likewise, we must avoid talking about women as if we are a homogenous block who think one way, whilst men are another group with a completely different mindset.

In wider UK society, I think we are moving towards a less clearly delineated view of what is ostensibly ‘male’ and what is ‘female’. There are still undeniably professions which are dominated by one sex or the other, such as primary school teaching or engineering, but barriers are gradually being broken down. On a superficial note, some men now get their eyebrows waxed or have a fake tan (though this is arguably an unfortunate equalisation of social pressures to conform to an image of what is attractive).

Instead of pitting one sex against the other in a zero-sum game, we need to value diversity and view our differences as complimentary, not contradictory. Having people with a variety of experiences results in more informed and rounded debate, which I believe leads to better choices, whether business decisions or government policy. That’s why I want to see people in Parliament from a variety of backgrounds, whether in terms of education, previous career, race, disability or gender. All these elements shape us, and given MPs are meant to represent the people of this country, it is important we are as disparate as the UK population.

What, then, can we expect in the future? As the centenary of Emily Davison’s death focuses attention on women’s suffrage and gender equality, the picture is mixed. There are still plenty of examples of inequality and discrimination, but there are also plenty of reasons to be hopeful.

The sitting hours of the House of Commons recently changed to become more family-friendly, backed by both male and female MPs. This is one small example of how both sexes are increasingly looking for the same changes to the status quo, which benefit both men and women. I don’t think gender equality is off the agenda, but perhaps future gender equality campaigns will not be so overwhelmingly composed of women seeking equal rights to men, but will include more men seeking changes, not least because they are as disadvantaged as women by issues like working practices which fail to fit with a family life.

Illustration by Dean Lewis