THE BLOG

Women's Political Participation

07/01/2015 17:44 GMT | Updated 09/03/2015 09:59 GMT

Improving gender equality is crucial, not just in the political world, but across society. Unless we achieve change in the workplace and the education system transforming political representation will not be assured.

Why is women's representation important?

There is a moral argument. A healthy society, and therefore a healthy democracy, is one where everyone can fulfill their potential, where we value the human rights of every person equally; a society where no one is held back by outdated views on what a woman's role is, and what a man's role is. We must recognise that communities, local, national and international, are stronger if everyone can play a part and feel valued.

We need more women in key decision-making positions and for them to be visible whilst undertaking them. Increasing the numbers of women at all levels of political representation will lead to a more cohesive and inclusive society.

Women often play a vital and important role in the neighbourhood, which is perhaps why it's easier to take on roles locally. But all too often women can be seen solely in 'supportive' roles when it comes to leadership or national positions.

But for those not convinced by the fairness argument there is also a strong economic argument.

Underused talent

Toward the end of last year the World Economic Forum published its annual 'Global Gender Gap Report' in which it outlined economic, educational, health and political gaps. It begins:

"People and their talents are two of the core drivers of sustainable long-term economic growth. If half of these talents are underdeveloped or underutilised, the economy will never grow as it could."

It goes on to say:

"Research also shows the benefits of gender equality in politics: when women are more involved in decision making, they make different decisions - not necessarily better or worse - but decisions that reflect the needs of more members of society."

Businesses need educated, entrepreneurial and skilled people. Research suggests that organisations that respect and value diversity are better able to attract and retain high performing men and women, improve performance, reduce turnover and enhance reputation.

However a temptation, particularly in financially straightened times, is to only consider men for skills training. While it is clearly essential to give men the opportunity to acquire new skills, this cannot be at the expense of women. By investing time, money and energy into enhancing the skills of women we will all gain.

Why have we failed?

The temptation is to go for a quick solution and legislate, but in reality it is only the beginning of a long journey. It is a journey that requires strong and consistent pressure for change, and unity of purpose across the political divide. It's a journey that needs role models to be effective, with both women and men, willing to push against traditional stereotypes.

We have to change the way that society at large views women's roles. By doing so more women start to see, and believe, they can step out and succeed in all walks of life.

Three elements

We should work on legislation, education, and challenging convention.

Legislation is vital. Not simply anti-discrimination laws, but laws that ensure greater gender equality through pay, pensions, paid maternity and paternity provision, paid adoption provision, high quality affordable childcare, part-time and flexible working and access to skills training and career development.

Women aspire to do well, be successful and climb the career ladder. But the problem many women in the labour market face is combining a demanding career with family responsibilities. We need to give all women, and men too, genuine choices about how they balance work - and that includes politics - with family commitments.

Having a good education is vital to success. But a problem in changing society is that children know before starting school what women's work is and what men's work is. Even the toys bought for children reflect that stereotyping.

A child can have in their head just what the range of options they will have as an adult - what jobs or careers will be appropriate for them. This inevitably leads on to which subjects to take, what certificate or degree to aim for. So they are locked in on choices which determine what career path they will pursue. The conventional way of doing things has to be tackled: the culture and attitudes that exist across society.

An important element in all these is to recognise and challenge what I call the 'everyday sexism'. If the assumption is that in a room full of people the women are there to make the tea, or take the notes, then talented women will lose heart. If remarks about appearance are made when a woman steps into a debating chamber - remarks that would never be made about a man - then talented women will lose heart. If every time she steps up to a rostrum to deliver a speech there is a sexist reaction from the men - then talented women will lose heart. Unless we recognise this form of sexism and challenge it in order to change people's behaviour many women will continue to think politics is not for them.

Promoting access to politics

The World Economic Forum's 'Global Gender Gap Report' mentioned earlier noted that no country has yet closed the political empowerment gap between men and women. We need as a first step participation at all levels, which means creating an environment that encourages women to become active, creating structures that support them, being welcoming and free from everyday sexism.

My party, the Labour Party, began with some internal party quotas, initially having reserved seats for women on key decision making bodies. Then about 25 years ago we introduced rules that meant that positions and delegations at all levels of the party had to be filled on a 50% basis. Every other year each local party was required to send a woman to the national conference, ensuring that our discussions at national level comprise both genders.

Some members queried whether this was workable. Some argued that this meant forcing women to do things they didn't want to do and to take on responsibilities they didn't want. But lo and behold - as men couldn't take part in a delegation without the same number of women, the women were found.

Networks and mentoring

Despite being capable many women lack confidence when entering the political world. Networks and mentoring play an important role in changing this. In the UK we have several successful networks which support women while they learn more about political and public life, and help them gain and practice the skills they need. Organised across the country, and on political party lines, they arrange for women to meet, as well as provide ongoing support and encouragement.

I chair the Advisory Board for the Fabian Women's Network Mentoring Scheme, now into our fourth year. We recruit around 25 women each year all chosen on the basis of their application forms. The programme includes activities focused on increasing knowledge and skills, and each woman is matched with a mentor, generally a female politician.

The participants report increased confidence, knowledge and improved skills. We have seen several women elected to their local council, and a number selected to stand as candidates for the forthcoming General Election. Our work has been evaluated by Birkbeck University London and a publication "Cracks in the Glass Ceiling" is available on line and describes it in more detail.

Different systems

Getting selected to stand is not straightforward, still less so the election process itself with each electoral system posing different challenges to women. Some countries having list systems have adopted legal quotas, but in other countries there is strong resistance to them.

My party adopted targets, a more flexible tool for the national electoral system we have. In each election we aim to increase the proportion of women MPs through the use of all-women shortlists in at least 50% of retiring MPs' seats. We have seen the proportion of women increasing steadily over the past twenty years.

I should not give the impression that this process is never contested. Arguments are put that this or that seat is a special case and in politics there will always be exceptions and compromises, but it should not always be women who are left sitting at the back of the bus.

In order to have all-women shortlists the Labour Government had to change the law to allow political parties to introduce measures in favour of women's selection. Other political parties tried different approaches to increase the number of female MPs, but with only temporary success. Now individuals are calling for their own parties to adopt this approach as the only way to address this most entrenched form of discrimination.

Conclusion

Faced with what seems like grindingly slow progress in increasing the number of women active in politics it can be easy for some to accept the explanation that women don't want to take part. I know this is not true.

We should sometimes look back and reflect just how far women have come. In some areas progress has been slow. But positive things are happening. Women are increasingly taking on roles that only a generation ago would have seemed improbable. Continuing that momentum is vital for us all.