Why more women aren’t in politics


by Rumbold
16th May, 2010 at 8:51 pm    

Lynne Featherstone, the new equalities minister, has criticised the ‘macho culture’ of parliament, while labelling the coalition negotiating teams as ‘pale and male’:

“We are a long way from equality and we need to find out why that is,” she told the Guardian.

“Looking at parliament and the way it behaves, any sane woman would look at that and say do I want to be part of this bullying, finger-pointing mob who don’t talk like human beings and are disengaged from real life? To try and manage a young family makes it very difficult.”

The impressive Ms. Featherstone has asked the question that a lot of people can answer, but which no one can answer precisely. We can say for certain that there are issues holding women back from politics, otherwise there would be more of them in the field. But which factors? There are various factors affecting the number of women in politics, which fall broadly into two categories: attitudinal and structural.

Attitudinal factors relate to a person’s views (whether male or female). In this context they matter when the person believes that women are not suitable for the political arena, because they are ‘naturally more domestic’, or not intelligent enough, or various other sexist views. These are fairly straightforward, and may be views held by either sex, or indeed a potential female candidate themselves. Attitudes like this can lead to rejection at the selection stage, hence the calls for all-women shortlists and similar devices.

Structural issues are those which affect the nature of the role, such as the need for non-London MPs to spend extended periods of time in the capital. Structural issues can be more complex, as they overlap and sometimes contradict attitudinal ones. Take Ms. Featherstone’s remarks quoted above. She points to a structural issue, which is one of managing a young family while being a female MP. Yet this is also an attitudinal one, as it is based on society’s general view that women should (and will) do more to look after children then men. And her critique of the “bullying, finger-pointing mob who don’t talk like human beings and are disengaged from real life” is true enough, but then it again highlights the view that women are not supposed to be as confrontational as men. So making parliament more family friendly and less confrontational will help attract more women to politics, but it might not do anything to change attitudes (at least not initially).

So which is the most important issue to work on in order to increase the number of female candidates/MPs? Is it attitudinal factors, or structural ones? The former matter more, but the latter are easier and quicker to fix. Dealing with structural problems is likely to increase the number of female MPs, but it isn’t until we see a greater shift in attitudes that the problem will really be solved.


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  1. Tina Louise — on 16th May, 2010 at 9:24 pm  

    For me, it is the vile atmosphere and sheer ugliness of the business of politics that stops me.

    I attended a warm and encouraging meeting for Prospective Parliamentary Candidates, but reconsidered when I looked more deeply into what the role would involve.

    This article well highlighted the other stumbling blocks. Perhaps more reasonable working practices, more respect, more civility and more modernity would help.

  2. DocMartyn — on 16th May, 2010 at 9:46 pm  

    The media treat all women in politics with contempt; believe it or not the British media is much better than the US.
    Still, the bastards give women a much harder time then they do men.

  3. KJB — on 16th May, 2010 at 11:47 pm  

    Rumbold, thank you so much for this excellent and concise summary.

    I think that women inadvertently (and in some cases deliberately) encourage certain female stereotypes such as being peaceable and less aggressive, because they want anything for a quiet life. As you say, it is still expected that women will do most of the child-rearing and domestic work. However, it is now very common for women to work and thus women are focussed not necessarily on trying to ‘have it all’ but on ‘making it all work’ to some extent. Ironically, their dynamic attitude (which I would say results from the feminist/suffragist activity of the past) leads to them wanting to ‘get on with it’ and shoulder a great deal of the burden rather than fight for greater visibility. A perverse manifestation of this is in how many women feel absolutely no responsibility to be politically aware – I am trying to change this in my own family.

    It has to be said though that fighting for greater visibility requires superhuman reserves of confidence, composure and self-belief (as indicated by Tina Louise). A woman going into politics (and ‘making it’) must be like a female Gandhi, with an exceptional bravery that would leave men as well as other women far behind.

    I can be quite radical a feminist at times, but I am not anywhere near brave enough, nor do I have the financial stability. Yet it is totally unfair that women are STILL expected to face double the struggle; race is not anywhere near as much of a problem as it was, yet gender continues to be a problem. We have long accepted as a culture that fathers need to be away for processes of work or whatever, whereas it is usually treated as a highly intimate and insufferable betrayal when women do the same.

    I have also read (though others may want to look into it) that parties frequently do not put female candidates forward for winnable seats, and they have to slog it out, but I’m not certain of that.

    I wish that men who fail to adhere to narrow gender stereotypes would be more vocal. The rigidity of attitudinal factors that you bemoan can be combated by them more effectively than by anyone else. Our current attitudes are bad for them as well as they are for women.

  4. earwicga — on 17th May, 2010 at 12:15 am  

    When I first read Lynne Featherstone’s comments I thought here we go again – a women who is making her name about going on about how she has succeeded against the odds. Also, she uses accepted sexism in saying “To try and manage a young family makes it very difficult”. Nothing radical about stating a sexist view is there? Makes me sick actually.

    As for your question Rumbold, how about an age restriction on MPs?

    1) Children need parents not institutional care so there could be a restriction on their parents until they have reached a certain age. Then parents can bring up their own children up themselves as they should be doing. (In fact in any paid work capacity, parents should only be able to work part-time to fit round child care).

    2) There could be an age restriction on MP’s dependent on the age when we think the ‘me me me’ syndrome, which is prevelant in one’s twenties, is over. Perhaps mid thirties as a commencement age (dependent on the age of one’s children) with a required period of apprenticeship so to speak before any job with more authority is allowed.

    3) An age of MP’s that reflects the age of those who bother to go out and vote at elections. Younger voters don’t bother to vote so why should their age group be reflected in parliament? Older MP’s won’t have young children so childcare isn’t an issue.

  5. KJB — on 17th May, 2010 at 2:34 am  

    earwicga – What exactly is sexist about LF’s comments?

    Just wanted to link to this excellent piece by Carole Cadwalladr, which is perfectly relevant to the thread:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/may/16/carole-cadwalladr-women-politics-power

  6. halima — on 17th May, 2010 at 6:41 am  

    This article reminded me of a comment I’ve heard repeated over the years – women are more trusted and careful with money and therefore are less likely to be corrupt … Instinctively it sounds like a nice comment, but misses the fact that women, if given more power and resources, would equally be likely to waste, be inefficient and be corrupt.

    When we talk about attitudes towards women’s role and whether politics is likely to be perceived as a man’s domain, we miss the point that all attitudes rest on economics and institutional structures. It’s not a given that women are any less aggressive, in fact if you look at the images of successful women in public life, they are far from domestic and quiet, rather they’ve had to fit the Thatcher mould and be tougher than men. I suspect there is an age correlation to this statement.

    Is it tougher for women in politics? Yes, of course, as it is in every sphere of life. It’s probably true that a working Mum has to come to work at 9.00 am after doing a suite of domestic tasks compared to a working Dad. It’s so rare that we speak of working Dads , we have ingrained common sense terms that assume Dads work by default and Mums do not.

    I suspect politics is only tougher because of the behind the scenes in-fighting, power building and jockeying to keep in power – and women also have to save energy to look after the kids who wear you down in any job.

  7. Sarah AB — on 17th May, 2010 at 6:59 am  

    Very interesting post and comments – I think the attitude/structure point is a very useful one. I reacted the same way as Earwicga to this: “To try and manage a young family makes it very difficult.” Men as well as women have young families! I remember a male colleague – not a current one – expressing admiration at the fact I worked f/t with a small child. When I pointed out that he also had a small child he replied ‘but you’re a woman’.

    I remember wondering, before the very sad death of David Cameron’s son,how the Daily Mail would respond if the then PM, Brown, one of whose sons has CF, and the leader of the opposition had been *women* with children who had health problems.

    The present fetishisation of the young – or youngish – does seem to make it trickier for women who might otherwise have been able to have a family and *then* go into politics. I’m not saying they should have to wait in this way – but I’m guessing prospective women MPs are probably more likely to have a partner with a high powered job who won’t be able to spend more time with the children than their male counterparts.

    Rumbold’s point about women not being supposed to be confrontational is also really important – when I was watching the election coverage I found myself listening to very assertive male pundits and wondering whether, if a woman said precisely those words in precisely that manner, we’d respond to her in the same way – I felt the arrogance, aggression etc would seem more obvious and less acceptable in a woman.

    I’ve had similar thoughts wrt the various bosses I’ve had in the past. I’ve noticed that women seem to adopt a much narrower range of management styles, usually going for a very businesslike mode, whereas men seem to veer around much more – some being very informal and relaxed, some very aggressive. My guess is that the women worked out they wouldn’t be taken seriously if they went too informal and they wouldn’t be tolerated if they were too aggressive.

  8. Sarah AB — on 17th May, 2010 at 7:05 am  

    One more thing! Just to clarify – I’m *not* saying this is all men’s fault or that women don’t also hold women to different standards.

  9. Rumbold — on 17th May, 2010 at 8:39 am  

    Thanks everyone. Really good comments too.

    Earwiga:

    I have not sure how much of an impact an age limit would have- there are hardly any MPs in their 20s. I agree though that MPs should have more life experience, and experience outside politics. Many women in their thirties are still looking after pre-secondary school age children, which I regard as the measure.

  10. MaidMarian — on 17th May, 2010 at 12:04 pm  

    Rumbold – Can I just throw something out? In this you (I realised inadvertently) conflate ‘politics’ with ‘Westminster.’ Councils are often women light.

    Is there not a possibility that the things that put men off from being actively involved in politics are the main reason why women are put off? Take a look at how people in politics are treated on just about any talkboard. Why would anyone in their right mind subject themselves to that? Sky News’ coverage of election night was a disgrace and it is sad to say that in terms of journalistis bravado, the others were not that far behind. Soak some of the ‘nastiness’ out of politics and people of all kinds will follow.

    How we do that is quite another matter given that taking vitriol is now a part of the job description.

    Earwicga – Firstly, why should parents be prioritised over everyone else in this? Do the childless not get any say? Poor people tend to vote in lower numbers – is there anyone else you want to exclude from representation? Minorities?

    This me me me syndrome to my mind is far more prevalent amongst the BTL generation currently indulging in generational theft. To a great many of us our twenties are a time when we are saving like mad to buy a place at a later age than our parents did. If anyone has taken a view of politics as self-indulgence and legislation for prejudice it is the baby boom generation who have soaked wealth from the next generations.

    I would add that I do wonder if your comment is meant to be provocative, but you are way out of line with that.

    Rumbold – Apologies if this is a bit away from your (excellent) article, but stuff like that comment can not go unchallenged.

  11. Philip Hunt — on 17th May, 2010 at 3:16 pm  

    @4 earwicga: When I first read Lynne Featherstone’s comments I thought here we go again – a women who is making her name about going on about how she has succeeded against the odds.

    There are 45,000,000 adults in this country and 650 MPs. Therefore anyone who is an MP has succeeded against the odds. (Even if you factor in that most people don’t want to be MPs, this is still true, since the number of people who do want to be MPs is greater than 2*650).

  12. Philip Hunt — on 17th May, 2010 at 3:19 pm  

    Does anyone have actual numbers for male/female breakdown in party membership, people applying for their party’s nomination to stand as their candidate, and whether male/female candidates are more likely to get nominated? Preferably broken down by party.

  13. earwicga — on 17th May, 2010 at 4:03 pm  

    Philip Hunt – I am painfully aware of the facts. Do I want to be reminded of this every time a woman does well ad nauseum? Not really. I’d rather Lynn Featherstone had said something of actual worth.

    Rumbold – yes many PARENTS are looking after primary aged children in their thirties so I set the bar too low.

    MaidMarian –
    I can’t see where I prioritised parents. Perhaps you would like to point this part out?
    How many ‘poor people’ are in Parliament? How many were elected this month?
    ‘Minorities’ are already practically excluded so the question is pointless.
    What is the point in blaming the baby boomer generation for you not being able to afford a home? They lived the way they were supposed to and acheive the aspirations they were told to. It is disgusting however, that a generation of MP’s who were educated for free at university, with grants as required, have legislated to ensure higher education is only available to the wealthy or those willing to start adult life with massive debt.

    Apologies if this is a bit away from your (excellent) article, but stuff like that comment can not go unchallenged.

    Perhaps it’s just me, but I can’t see your ‘challenge’ to my comment which was completely on-topic.

  14. earwicga — on 17th May, 2010 at 4:39 pm  

    Cath Elliott has written about options here: http://toomuchtosayformyself.com/2010/05/17/deeds-not-words/

  15. Don — on 17th May, 2010 at 5:46 pm  

    earwicga,

    Your arguments for age restrictions on MP’s is not persuasive.

    Point one asserts Children need parents not institutional care and in general terms there is an argument to made for that, although it is far from a universal truth. Depends on the parents. But you disregard child care from a supportive extended family and friends. Besides which, nannies and boarding school from an early age has been shown to produce…well, quite a lot of MP’s anyway.

    You go on to say parents can bring up their own children up themselves as they should be doing. and again there is an argument to be made for that, you just haven’t bothered to make it. Prescribing a one-size fits all model of child rearing with a rather self-righteous ‘as they should be doing’ is a slippery slope to deciding which model of family you will allow.

    The second point is even less persuasive. You say we should limit MP’s to an age the age when we think the ‘me me me’ syndrome, which is prevelant in one’s twenties, is over. Who is ‘we’ in this instance? and how do you know that ‘we’ think that a ‘Me, me, me’ attitude is a characteristic of the young? The young have many faults, but they also often have an idealism which may be sometimes naive but which should not be lightly dismissed. Our current crop of MP’s (to say nothing of those who have recently sought another line of work) scarcely lends credence to the idea that greed and self-interest wane as one ages. As we used to say back in the day, never trust anyone over thirty. OK, it was just a shallow slogan, but you seem to be saying ‘never trust anyone under thirty’, which is equally vacuous.

    The third point is silly and counter-factual. Younger voters don’t bother to vote so why should their age group be reflected in parliament? To the extent that they don’t vote, their age group won’t be. But we don’t vote for MP’s to represent an age group (I hope) and besides ‘Voting is lower among younger age groups =/= Younger voters don’t bother to vote.’

    An individual has multiple identities and for you to define people by their age demographic and then decide that they have no right to representation because the particular identity you have consigned them to tends to be less likely to vote is absurd. To take one example, my daughter was an active member of AI in sixth form, was active in anti-racist and anti-homophobia campaigns and now at university remains politically active. She has never missed a vote, local or national, since she turned 18 and has even been out stuffing leaflets through doors. But because she is in her early twenties she has no right to representation?

    Older MP’s won’t have young children

    Really? How old is Gordon Brown? Blunkett? Cameron? OK, Cameron is quite young at 43, but at this rate you will exclude everyone without a bus pass.

    Personally I would like to see every MP have a track record of doing an honest job well outside of politics. But whether they have or have not the electorate will be aware and will decide for themselves how important that is to them.

  16. MaidMarian — on 17th May, 2010 at 5:49 pm  

    earwicga – Your earlier comment set arbitrary age limits entirely around what you presume is parenthood – regardless of childless people, no?

    Your comments about poor/minorities etc is fatuous. Your earlier comment clearly set an age limit relating to your prejudices. Would you similarly set limits on representation according to income?

    And as for the baby boomer generation – I think they are feckless, ‘me, me, me-ers,’ far more than the youth of your fetid imagination. Given your, ‘not me guv, I’m alright Jack,’ attitude to generational theft I take it that you are a boomer?

  17. halima — on 18th May, 2010 at 5:58 am  

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/may/17/women-feeling-diminished-time-for-action

    Here’s another piece in the Guardian on the invisibility of women in our elections…

  18. Rumbold — on 18th May, 2010 at 8:42 am  

    MaidMarian:

    Is there not a possibility that the things that put men off from being actively involved in politics are the main reason why women are put off?

    Probably, but that wouldn’t explain the gender divide.

  19. Wilfie — on 20th May, 2010 at 11:27 pm  

    Looking at parliament and the way it behaves, any sane woman would look at that and say do I want to be part of this bullying, finger-pointing mob who don’t talk like human beings and are disengaged from real life?

    I don’t see how Lynne sees such an atmosphere as being a male thing, rather than a morally reprehensible political elite that’s utterly devoid of principle, culture, style, substance and honesty, and has been for at least 30 years.

    Then again, she’s part of that culture, ultimately.

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