Recently there's been lots of discussion concerning Human Rights and who should determine our "Rights". So where do women fit into this debate?
A core founding principle of The United Nations is "the equal rights of men and women".
Then why is Parliament still predominantly male? In the House of Commons men outnumber women by more than 2:1. The resulting Parliamentary deliberations are missing a key component, the equal expression and consideration of the views and experiences of women. This has profound repercussions on our society.
Of the 650 seats in the Commons 459 (71%) are occupied by men and only 191 (29%) by women. In fact, there are more men at Westminster right now than there have ever been women. Since 1918, when the first woman, Constance Markievicz, was elected, there have only been 451 female MPs. In that time women have held fewer than 7% of the seats. There's little doubt that Markievicz would have been disappointed with today's state of affairs and lack of progress. Internationally there are some forty countries with proportionally more women MPs than the UK.
50:50 Parliament is a cross party campaign petitioning for debate and action for better gender balance. It envisions "A Parliament where men and women legislate the laws of our land together in roughly equal numbers". 50:50 has wide support, not only from women, but from all genders. Ben Bradshaw was the first of many MPs to demonstrate support for the campaign by being photographed in the 50:50 t-shirt. It is great that he and many men are showing solidarity with the cause. This is in keeping with the UN HeForShe campaign "A solidarity movement for gender equality that brings together one half of humanity in support of the other half of humanity, for the benefit of all" because "Gender Equality is not only a women's issue it is a Human Rights issue".
The UK's 32 million women are the majority of the population by a small margin, 51%. They have many merits and a wide range of experience, expertise and skills. They also make up over half - 55% - of all University students. They are a diverse pool of talent, from which the future 134 female MPs could emerge. Increasing the number of women will make Parliament more inclusive and go some way to realizing the full potential of our society.
Representation matters because it shapes policy. Some argue that male MPs can represent women but the record does not look good. In the UK sexism still exists:
- women are still paid 17.5% less than men (Office of National Statistics),
- women are bearing the brunt of the "austerity measures" (Women's Budget Group and The Fawcett Society),
- domestic violence affects 1 in 4 women during their lifetime (NHS and Women's Aid ),
- and curiously there is a tax on tampons but not on razors.
As Joni Lovenduski, Professor of Politics, Birkbeck, University of London observed in a paper she presented at the Speakers Conference 2012 "Evidence from more balanced legislatures than ours shows that as membership of women increases so does the sensitivity of male MPs to the range of women's concerns. So men can act for women, but they may be more likely to do so when there are more women around."
So why are there so few women MPs?
- "Parenting, family and caring responsibilities" are often given as a reason. A study by Dr. Rosie Campbell and Professor Sarah Childs revealed that only 55% of women MPs and 72% of male MPs have children, so there are proportionally fewer parents in the Commons. The average age of MPs is around 51, a point in life when family commitments change. The corporate world is addressing this issue with"Returnership" programmes.
- "The Incumbency Effect", with many safe seats being "occupied by men for three, four or more election cycles" is highlighted by the Electoral Reform Society as another key reason. They say that "this is one of the biggest barriers to change", perpetuating a historic gender bias.
- "Media scrutiny of MPs and their families" was the issue that concerned 72% of MPs most when considering standing as a candidate according to research undertaken for the All Party Parliamentary Group, Women in Parliament. It also showed that "female Parliamentarians of all parties face double the amount of intrusive media stories to men." During the recent election Laura Bates, founder of the Everyday Sexism project, noted that female politicians and candidates, were subject to "appalling sexism from the media".
- Perceptions play a part. A recent survey of nearly 1000 UK students by GenerationNexxt shows 71% of respondents viewed "Government and Policy" careers as "gender biased towards men".
- The APPG report also lists funding, working conditions, culture and many other problems for women's participation in Parliament.
Gender equality is a complex issue. 50:50 is asking Parliament to find a solution. Our society is changing, particularly regarding men's and women's roles. It is essential that we have an equal number of women in Parliament participating in crafting policies and legislation concerning these changes. The setting up of a Parliamentary Committee for Women and Equalities by Speaker John Bercow is a welcome move. Let's hope that MPs will lead the way and respond positively when deciding upon action that might be taken to have better balance of women and men at Westminster. It is important that Parliament spearheads the social reforms required to make our society more gender equal and fit for the 21st Century.
50:50 Parliament is following in the footsteps of many great Human Rights campaigners, like the Suffragette movement, which included both women and men. They fought hard for women to have the right to vote. Nearly 100 years on let's aspire to parity in Parliament. The effects would ripple out across society.