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Poor Women's Representation - 'Shocking But Not Surprising' - Don't Blame the Women

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CAMERON
AP

Women's under representation in Parliament has well and truly hit the headlines: Samantha Cameron isn't happy about it; job-shares are suggested as the new solution; the Lib Dems face allegations of sexual harassment; and the 2013 Sex and Power Report confirms the 'shocking' but not surprising absence of women from public life.

Enough is enough, the recommendations of the 2008-10 Speaker's Conference should be implemented immediately: it's time for legislative sex quotas.

Party leaders have said it before, and no doubt they'll say it again:

"... political parties... need to actively go out and encourage women to join in, to sign up, to take the course, to become part of the endeavour" - David Cameron

The problem is that exhorting women to participate in politics will not address the 'scandalous', as Cameron also put it, under-representation of women at Westminster. Men are nearly 80% of MPs; women are not even half-way to equal presence. Labour does the best with a third of its MPs female. The Tories at 16% come second, more than doubling their number in 2010. The Lib Dems trail in last, at just 12%, with fewer women candidates and MPs in 2010 than in 2005. The situation is depressingly familiar at other levels of government. Despite Nordic levels of women's representation when first created, overall trends in Scotland and Wales are of stalling or falling numbers with campaigners there calling for legislative quotas too.

The reasons why fewer women seek parliamentary selection need addressing and greater diversity is required overall, but the most pressing problem is not that women aren't putting themselves forward but that the parties fail to select and support qualified women to stand in winnable seats

Cameron again: "Just opening up and saying 'you're welcome to try if you want to' doesn't get over the fact that there have been all sorts of barriers in the way".

These barriers were examined extensively in evidence given to the Speakers Conference. Yet only some of its recommendations have since been introduced. The coalition opted for a voluntary approach to one key recommendation - publication of candidate diversity data. Without this the public can't see what is going on.

The barrier of party demand on the ground was widely cited. Equality and Human Rights Commission research shows local parties frequently pick candidates who fit an archetypal stereo-type of a white, male professional. The parties have addressed this barrier in different ways - with only Labour using a party quota, All Women Shortlists. The Speaker's Conference recommended that Parliament should consider legislative quotas in the absence of significant improvements in the numbers of women in 2010 - there was none. Indeed, there is talk of declining numbers of Conservative and Lib Dem women in 2015.

The global evidence is clear: well-designed and properly implemented quotas are the most effective way to address the under-representation of women. The coalition could act. Legislative quotas - ensuring all parties use quotas - provide 'political cover'. And both leaders' positions on quotas are on the record. Clegg isn't "theologically opposed"; Cameron said he would use some AWS in 2010, although he didn't. We are pretty confident that Labour would be supportive, given its record.

We acknowledge that most people are hostile to quotas, but if we want real change they are the only mechanism proven to deliver. Quotas are not the electoral risk that some activists suggest. Studies show that being an AWS candidates does not cause electoral defeat; current selection processes are not meritocratic - Cameron said so himself. Nor do quotas produce unqualified or poor quality MPs - Labour's 97 AWS women were equally as successful in being promoted. For some, the bottom line is what local parties regard as top-down measures. But if the truck is with 'outsider' women 'being imposed' then local parties should recruit local women to stand for selection.

Candidates are being selected as we write - the time to act is now. So, Messrs Clegg and Cameron, please be constitutionally radical and leave a legacy of gender equality from this Coalition Government. Let's have a Parliament that closer approximates the sex balance of the UK in 2015. At a minimum, set up a second Speaker's Conference to implement the recommendations of its predecessor, and to work with other institutions across the four nations. Or be even more radical: to expedite women's representation introduce a bill establishing legislative sex quotas. The alternative is for us to wake up the day after the 2015 election and find the party leaders once again bemoaning the under-representation of women at Westminster.

Claire Annesley, Rosie Campbell, Sarah Childs, Catherine Durose, Elizabeth Evans, Francesca Gains, Meryl Kenny, Fiona Mackay, Rainbow Murray, Liz Richardson and other members of the UK Political Studies Association (PSA) Women and Politics group.

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