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Gender Equality: Women Diversity And Politics

19/06/2017 16:58

More than half the population are women. Why is only a third of our parliament female?

It's been almost 100 years since women over the age of 30 (who owned property) were allowed to vote. In 1918, Constance Markievicz was the first woman elected to parliament, although as a member of Sinn Féin, she did not take her seat. In 1919, Nancy Astor was the first female MP to sit in Westminster. In 1928, all women (and men) over 21 could vote, and in 1987, Diane Abbott made history as the first black woman MP ever elected to British Parliament.

These may be great achievements, but in our rapidly moving world, women's political progress has not kept pace. Saudi Arabia only granted women equal voting rights in December 2015, and Vatican City is now the only country still denying women the right to vote.

After the recent UK general election, a record-breaking 208 women MPs are in the House of Commons. It's promising, but ironically, despite so many female party leaders, only 32% of MPs are female - hardly representative of the UK population.

Far more than their male counterparts, women in politics receive unnecessary attention and commentary on their physical appearance, fashion choices and personal relationships - rather than on their political opinions. This often results in bullying and abuse.

Social and cultural barriers to women's political involvement include gender stereotyping ('MPs are men' or 'government is no place for women'); socialisation; lack of preparation for women to participate in political activity, and the difficulty of balancing work with family commitments. Women tend to postpone their political aims until their children are older; or they may feel that pursuing a political career requires them to remain childless. Mobility is also a factor. MPs often have to commute long distances to and from London and their constituencies. Females still tend to be the primary caregivers or home-makers, and long debates or late sittings are not conducive to family life.

Centuries ago, travel to London took days by horse; there was no access to
information or communication for decision-making - so we needed political representation. Today, we have smartphones, and can Skype instantly. Is there still a need for debate and decision-making to occur within Westminster, when business is done remotely? Parliamentary culture needs reviewing.

More must be done to encourage women into parliament.

The main political parties mentor and train talented women members, developing them for parliamentary candidacy. Parties could use all-women shortlists and put up women candidates in winnable seats to help increase the number of female MPs. The Sex Discrimination (Election Candidates) Act 2002 allows political parties to use all-women shortlists to select candidates for most elections, to redress the imbalance.

Sam Smethers, Chief Executive of the Fawcett Society, said: "We are moving forward at a snail's pace... embarrassingly slow. It is time for a radical new approach. We have to legislate to require the parties to select at least 45% women candidates."

Quotas alone won't help, but improving the development of female MPs, addressing the structural barriers of our political institutions and challenging gender stereotypes - in society as well as in politics - will achieve sustainable change.

As a woman in the business of politics, you could serve your community, give a voice for the voiceless, and make a lasting difference.

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