The month surrounding International Women's Day is always a genuine delight for women in public life. Not only is it one of the few occasions when women appear in the media for what they think, say and do rather than how they look, but it is an opportunity for women and men to come together to take stock of our progress towards gender equality and to look forward to developments to come. This year represents a particularly significant milestone, with International Women's Day marking twenty years since the Beijing Declaration and themed around 'empowerment.' It is a moment to recognise that women's full participation is vital, not simply because it is their right but because their life experiences are different to men's and must be represented.
Earlier this month, I attended a discussion organised by the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association UK, the British Group of the Inter-Parliamentary Union, Parliagender (Parliament's Gender Workplace Equality Network) and VSO UK in Parliament exploring the successes and failures of the UK Parliament and its counterparts abroad with regard to securing fair representation of women. Speaking on the hugely impressive panel were the veteran politician Baroness (Shirley) Williams; former equalities minister Maria Miller MP; Dr Shirin Sharmin Chaudhury, Speaker of the Parliament of Bangladesh, which for the first time has a female Speaker, Prime Minister and Opposition Leader; Her Excellency Aloun Ndombet-Assamba, High Commissioner for Jamaica; Her Excellency Mona Juul, Ambassador for Norway; and moderator Anushka Asthana, Sky News's Political Correspondent.
Despite the huge diversity in geography and politics of the countries represented on the panel, what was truly remarkable about the discussion was the extent to which the barriers women face to entering politics seem to be similar across the board - and that we can therefore learn from the solutions that others may have found. For instance, Dr Chaudhury highlighted Bangladesh's constitutional provision reserving fifty seats in parliament for women; she felt that legislation balances the tendency of political parties to favour men in selection processes, a trend with which I am afraid we in the UK are very familiar. Baroness Williams concurred, suggesting that it is a mistake to leave the responsibility for selecting women to local parties.
Interestingly, the panel almost universally supported affirmative action as a necessary - and also temporary - step towards a level playing field, although I should emphasise that I believe that groups should be free to choose the approach that best suits them. For example, we in the Conservative Party have had great success with the Women2Win campaign, on which I worked with my colleague Theresa May. The number of seats held by women was increased from 17 to 49 in 2010 and have women candidates fighting one-third of winnable and target seats this year. On the other hand, the Labour Party are committed to women-only shortlists and clearly make great progress with this mechanism.
A number of associated areas of concern were identified. Speaking from the floor, Dame Anne Begg MP highlighted the particularly vitriolic, abusive and often sexually aggressive behaviour encountered by women and especially female politicians on social media. I know so many my female colleagues who have experienced, and it leads one to question whether a thick skin should be a necessary characteristic for an MP. The huge cost of getting elected - candidates give up their jobs months before elections to devote their time to campaigning, and campaign expenses are vast - can also be a significant barrier. Taking account of the gender pay gap - now at a record low in the UK but still very much in evidence - this is likely to affect women candidates more than their male colleagues. Furthermore, as Ambassador Assamba suggested, women find it harder to ask for money and therefore in many cases receive less in campaign donations and funding.
However, all seemed to agree that the real barrier to full participation is political life itself. Shirley Williams described the atmosphere in the House of Commons as similar to that of a football terrace, which as a Member of the other House is very much the impression I have. I wholeheartedly agree that we need to do more to make Parliament attractive to women. This involves both making the case for a parliamentary career and reform of Parliament itself. Jamaica presents an interesting case study here. Despite commendably large numbers of women in managerial positions (69 percent are held by women), the judiciary and even party structures, only 13 percent of elected Members are female. As in the UK, lack of confidence to enter a very male environment is an issue, but so is the default position of mother as primary carer in family structures, and so in turn is the lack of flexibility or indeed regularity to parliamentary work. Maria Miller and her husband have divided responsibilities in their family so that she can come into Parliament whilst he looks after their children; however, this is not an option for all families.
Hearteningly, Norway proves that equality of political participation is achievable, with women making up 40 percent of MPs and 50 percent of Cabinet Ministers, and economic participation of women at 75 percent. Ambassador Mona Juul identified these successes as a result of its progressive policies on flexible working, early-years childcare, after-school programmes for children and shared parental leave. In the words of Anushka Asthana, a true Nirvana for women.
Norway provides the strongest possible evidence that in order to attract women to Parliament - and indeed to restore the standing of Parliament itself - we must bring it out of its time warp, making it a modern and accommodating workplace. A tangible first step currently being discussed is the establishment of an Equalities Select Committee, something I hope to see achieved in the coming months to guarantee that Government and Parliament are held to account on their responsibilities to promote women's political empowerment. Looking to the future, I believe that engaging male parliamentarians is a major part of this process as their support is critical to reform, so a major part of the work ahead is to ensure they realise that a legislature fair to women is one fair to everyone. We desperately need a Parliament that encourages equality of representation and therefore equality in legislation.