International Women’s Day – why gender equality in politics matters
Despite women making up more than half the population, the current political system fails to ensure their equal representation in our political institutions. Even the youthful Scottish Parliament has seen gender representation drop rather than increase. It is a shocking fact that if we allow progress to continue unassisted, a child born today will be drawing her pension by the time she stands any chance of being equally represented across the UK parliaments. Indeed, the recent ‘Sex and Power’ audit of women’s participation in public life found that in other senior roles outside of politics the situation is the same – women are routinely excluded from decision-making roles in our society. And, an article in the Independent on Thursday 7th March reveals that female graduates can expect to earn thousands of pounds less than their male counterparts, even when they have graduated with the same degree.
Research shows that under-represented groups are more likely to participate when they see members of their group succeeding. US academics, Burns, Schlozman and Verba found that women seeking or holding elected office in American politics have an impact upon the political participation of women at the mass level – boosting women’s political interest, knowledge of candidates and sense of political efficacy. They reason that visible women in politics act as role models sending signals to women citizens that politics is an arena open to them. Additionally, the presence of women in public office might suggest to women that their interests will be reflected in the policy-making process. And Electoral Commission research has shown that in the UK, in seats where a woman MP was elected to Parliament, female turnout was 4% higher than male turnout – a modest but statistically significantly difference. By contrast, in seats where a male MP was elected to Parliament there was no gender gap in turnout.
So how do we persuade women that they can make a difference? That their voice will be listened to? That their opinion is important?
The Sex and Power report makes six extremely reasonable recommendations which seek to improve women’s representation in public life. Perhaps the most straight-forward of these is for organisations to take steps to ensure that at meetings and events, in broadcast and print contributions, in comment opportunities and on panels, women are present. Individuals should be encouraged to object to men only panels.
Certainly, this attempt to provide women with examples of women participating is a vital step towards encouraging women to participate in political life. And it is shocking how often women fail to feature in influential public arenas – meetings, debate panels, current affairs shows, radio reports, newspaper bylines.
But it isn’t just a question of being seen. Women have to be heard. As women. We have to stop assuming that gravitas is a requirement of success; that qualities associated with being male are necessary factors for people to make a valid contribution to public life. We have to refuse to engage with discussions about women’s hair and outfits when we rarely discuss men’s clothing and grooming. We have to accept that with progress being so slow, maybe positive measures are necessary to encourage women, and to break the stranglehold men, and white men at that, have on our systems of power and decision making. It doesn’t make women’s success less merit based, it makes men’s success less based on historical gender stereotypes and would finally allow women to start being seen and heard in the corridors of power.
Political parties must do more, much more, to ensure women succeed in being elected. Quotas have been routinely derided as discriminatory and preventing the ‘best person’ from being selected, but that would suggest our current crop of politicians are the best we can have.
In Catalonia, political parties adopted quotas for female representation, and within a relatively short time period, quotas requiring no more than 60% of men and no less than 40% of women in parliament have become statutory.
I’m not suggesting decisions would be made differently if our political institutions were genuinely equal, or that society would change overnight and violence against women would cease. I am suggesting that the bodies that seek to represent us, who spend public money, and who make decisions on our behalf would be made up of a better representative sample of the population. And all evidence suggests that once women are seen to be listened to and involved, more women will have the confidence to take part. Women from all socio-economic backgrounds.
And who knows, once women are better represented, maybe we’ll accept that we should be making a similar effort towards the better representation of other under-represented groups who struggle as much, if not more, to be seen and heard.