For International Women’s Day: These are not token women

One of the main factors in the defeat of a proposal for all-women shortlists in 2001 was a spirited campaign by the then youth organisation. Jo Swinson led the way wearing a pink t-shirt saying “I am not a token woman.” Jo has now, after many years of putting her heart and soul  into improving the party’s diversity, come to the conclusion that all-women shortlists are a short term necessary part of the mix.

There are many myths about all-women shortlists, but one in particular is the refrain you often hear – that we need to have the best person for the job. People seem to think that positive action of this sort means that you are somehow settling for second best. When you think about it, that’s quite insulting. Do we really think that of the 111  MPs we have elected, that only 19 women were actually good enough to make the grade? Do we think that the one time we managed to send a gender-balanced team of MEPs that the women were not as good as the men? Women like Liz Lynne who had already been an MP and Sarah Ludford, who was a member of the House of Lords and went on to be a massive voice for human rights and civil liberties?

I thought it might be good to celebrate some women from around the world who have had the chance to excel nationally and internationally because of specific measures to improve gender balance. I’ve had a lot of help from Flo Clucas who is the President of ALDE’s Gender Equality Network in preparing this, so thanks to her.

Let’s start at home with Labour.They are doing best on gender balance with 43% women on their Westminster benches and have commonly used all-women shortlists since 1997.

Stella Creasy

Elected as MP for Walthamstow in 2010, Stella Creasy has shown herself to be a powerful parliamentary performer and scourge of payday lenders. She stood for Deputy Leader last year.

Violeta Bulc

Violeta Bulc

Violeta Bulc is the EU’s Commissioner with responsibility for transport. She spent some time as an MP in her native Slovenia where gender targets rocketed the country from 80th to 18th in the world for gender balance.

Cecilia Malmstrom

Just a few days ago, Cecilia Malmstrom, EU Trade Commissioner, was credited with rescuing a trade deal with Canada. 

The EU’s trade commissioner, Cecilia Malmström, last week secured a breakthrough that saved a major trade deal with Canada. Now she’s looking to pull this diplomatic coup off again on bigger stages.

The Swedish commissioner managed to breathe life back into stalled trade talks with Canada by forging a personal relationship with a key partner in its new government. Together, they came up with a palatable alternative to a controversial clause that’s designed to protect foreign investors — which critics, particularly on the European left, see as an unacceptable sop to big business.

Before getting the EU job, she was in the Swedish Parliament. Sweden has affirmative action and commitment in many of its parties. Some use quotas, some don’t, but generally affirmative action is mainstreamed.

Hanna Birna Kristjansdottir

Hanna Birna Kristjansdottir is the Icelandic minister of the interior.

She has an impressive record as a former Mayor of Reykjavik. Here she is talking about gender equality a couple of years ago when Iceland won an award for its impressive record, using quota systems to elect 40% female MPs.

Lilly Gabriela Montaño ViañaLilly Gabriela Montaño Viaña

Lilly Gabriela Montano Visna served as a Senator and President if the Senate up until 2015 in Bolivia which has quota systems in place.




Rubina Irfan

Rubina IrfanRubina Irfan is a Senator in Pakistan where seats are reserved for women. She serves on 4 committees and is known for her role in developing a women’s national football team for Pakistan, having founded one for her 3 daughters.

So, there are our Super Six. They have all achieved so much and given a great deal both in their own countries and internationally. There are plenty more examples where they came from.

None of them are token women.

You might like to read this article which outlines the research of two academics, Mary Nugent and Mona Lena Krook and concludes:

Quotas thus do not pose a threat to “merit” at any stage of the political process. Instead, fostering diversity has contributed to a host of positive democratic outcomes. The Liberal Democrats should be enthusiastically embracing the move towards all-women shortlists, and the Labour Party should not be apologising for its transformative and effective policy solution.


* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 8th Mar '16 - 10:52pm

    I really don’t get the fuss over TTIP. 28 countries are not going to fatally compromise their public services in the way the scaremongers suggest.

  • Paul Murray 8th Mar '16 - 11:34pm

    The Lib Dem list for the GLA has 3 women in the top three slots. We currently hold 2 seats. However the most recent opinion poll that I have seen for London (yougov/LBC in January) puts the Lib Dems on 4% – below the 5% threshold that is required to gain any seats at all.

    So we have 3 women in the top 3 spaces and the polls are saying that not a single one of them will get elected.

    In a poll by Opinium that was published today, our Mayoral candidate Caroline Pidgeon – yes, another woman – recorded 2% support for the Mayoral election.

    I don’t see any evidence that women are not being selected as candidates – quite the opposite. What I see is a party that is on the verge of obliteration, appears to be utterly bereft of ideas of how to remedy that situation and is choosing to retreat to its comfort zone.

  • Cecilia Malmstrom. I think she’s been very good on TTIP
    I doubt many would agree with you:
    “I do not take my mandate from the European people.”

    So where does she take her mandate from…
    “Malmström receives her orders directly from the corporate lobbyists that swarm around Brussels. The European Commission makes no secret of the fact that it takes its steer from industry lobbies such as BusinessEurope and the European Services Forum, much as a secretary takes down dictation.”
    [ ]

    Unfortunately, there is no democratic way of caller her to account, hence why she can get away with being so arrogant…

    So, in the spirit of Caron’s article I nominate Katja Kipping:

  • Wot – No Nicola, Kezia or Ruth ?

  • Simon mcgrath 9th Mar '16 - 5:52am
  • When was LY formally policy changed, Caron?

    Or this another example, on the back of Willie Rennie’s contempt for conference last week, of the policy making process in the party only mattering if you agree with the outcome?

  • David Cooper 9th Mar '16 - 8:58am

    Shortlists, including AWS, are a means for the entitled to get a fast track to the top. The young ladies from Roedean see that their boyfriends from Eton are outcompeting them, and need these lists to sharpen their elbows and edge other candidates out of the way. Your example of Rubina Irfan illustrates this perfectly. Daughter of Prince Agha Irfan Karim Ahmedzai, it is her high social position in Pakistan’s feudal society to which she owes her position as senator. Any talent she may have is a bonus.

  • John Barrett 9th Mar '16 - 9:19am

    Now that the AWS has passed in Scotland for the next Westminster elections, it may be worth those going to York to give some thought as to three things those who supported the diversity motion have delivered.

    1 – No change at all for the Scottish Parliamentary elections this May. The one set of elections where the proposals would have made a real impact, as those elected on the list are relatively easy to order, to deliver more female MSPs. The result – no female MSP at all.

    2 – A woman at the top of the European election list. As we have no Lib-Dem MEP in Scotland, unless our vote increases dramatically the result will be – no female MEP at all.

    3 – The top five most winnable seats to have AWS, with the exception of the one Westminster seat we hold, (which can select a man, even if the male incumbent steps down) so unless we make gains at the next Westminster elections, the result – no female MPs in Scotland at all.

    I do hope we make gains in all elections especially the seat I used to represent at Westminster, where there will now be an AWS but we have a long way to go before we can even be sure of holding on to what we have at present.

    I do look forward to seeing a female Lib-Dem MP elected in Edinburgh West. However, I cannot believe that it will help her campaign in any way, or to get elected, if her selection is based on telling every male committed campaigner in the seat and beyond that they cannot even apply for selection. It will make it more difficult to win the seat back.

    When Margaret Smith won the Edinburgh West seat at Holyrood, to get selected she defeated her male councillor colleagues who stood against her. Now those same colleagues and many able and talented male campaigners cannot apply.

    This will not unite the local party or help our next Westminster PPC become an MP.

  • Barry Snelson 9th Mar '16 - 9:20am

    It’s quite curious that the party spends so many hours debating AWS, BAME and LGBT candidates and devotes hardly any time about how to get them actually elected as MPs.

  • simon mcgrath 9th Mar '16 - 9:27am

    @Ryan – LY policy hasn’t been changed- it was and still is against AWS.

    Though you can be sure if it had changed Caron would got someone to write a piece for LDV about it !

  • Thank you Caron, for showing up the ‘token woman’ smear for what it is – rubbish.
    We want MPs, Councillors and MEPs elected, but I want women elected too. Our party is male dominated and, because people like to vote for those like themselves, selection for a woman is difficult and sometimes impossible. This isn’t because women are not good enough, but because women are not the status quo. We have tried every other mechanism and still we have no female MP, only about one third of our councillors are women. So let’s recognise our problem and fix it. That might also make the difference as far as the electorate, and increasing our vote, is concerned too. Opcit’s research says it does.

  • Paul Murray 9th Mar '16 - 10:06am

    @Flo Clucas – As has now been pointed out many times on the many different threads of this forum being given over to this matter :

    At the last general election all of our incumbent female MPs were thrown out along with the majority of their male colleagues.
    A disproportionate number of women were selected as new candidates for our “most winnable” seats, but none won – exactly the same result as for new male candidates in “most winnable” seats.
    We are at least one sixth of the way through this government and the party has made absolutely no progress in the polls since the debacle last May.

    I do not see how this becomes “still we have no female MP”.

    We have no female MP because the people of Britain decided that they no longer wished to be represented by Liberal Democrats. I refer you to the well-known wisdom of would-be California state senator Dick Tuck.

  • Catherine Jane Crosland 9th Mar '16 - 10:10am

    Although I’m not really in favour of AWS, I find David Cooper’s suggestion that AWS would be a means for “young ladies from Roedean” to “get a fast track to the top” highly unpleasant and offensive. David Cooper’s remarks are actually a reminder that there are many forms of prejudice and discrimination. My reaction is to feel sorry for a candidate who happened to have attended Roedean (or Eton) – which would have been their parents’ choice not their own – and finds that David Cooper is one of the local party making the selection. ALL forms of prejudice are unacceptable.

  • David Cooper 9th Mar '16 - 11:17am

    Dear Paul,
    With the exception of Nick Clegg (Westminster School), the current group of MPs in the House of Commons is remarkably meritocratic and socially diverse, albeit exclusively male. If we want posh, it is better to look at the House of Lords (e.g. previous leader Shirley Williams , St Paul’s Girls’ School, current leader Sal Brinton, Benenden Girls’ Boarding School).

    Notwithstanding Ms Crosland’s comment above, the most alarming lack of diversity in leadership positions in the UK is due to economic inequality, not gender. But posh girls shout louder.

  • Catherine Jane Crosland 9th Mar '16 - 11:44am

    David Paul, the fact that Shirley Williams was from what you consider a “posh” background does not mean that she did not have to struggle to achieve what she did as a woman in politics, although I admit that it would have been even harder for a woman from a less privileged background. I find your obvious dislike of “posh” women offensive – no-one can be blamed for their family background, or the sort of school they happened to attend – these factors should be irrelevant.

  • Catherine Jane Crosland 9th Mar '16 - 11:53am

    Sorry, I meant David Cooper above, obviously. David Cooper, I suspect that your offensive remarks about “posh girls” shouting loudest, is cover for a dislike of all women who assert themselves and express strong views. My suspicion is strengthened by the fact that you apparently consider the eight MPs we currently have to be “diverse”, not apparently seeing it as much of a problem that they are all male

  • David Cooper 9th Mar '16 - 12:53pm

    Dear Paul,
    Your argument that AWS have in practice increased socioeconomic diversity is not one I have heard. I’ve looked at the list you mention, but it does not give socioeconomic background, even schooling. There are several lists in the report you reference, am I missing something?

  • Catherine Jane Crosland 9th Mar '16 - 12:59pm

    Paul Walker, I’m afraid I think it’s a bit illogical to suggest that it was AWS that led to the increase in MPs who were educated at Comprehensives, if you do mean specifically educated at Comprehensives rather than just state educated. Comprehensive schools only really became the norm in about the mid 1970s. Not many people become MPs before they are at least in their late twenties, and most are at least in their thirties when elected. So there couldn’t really have been many MPs who attended Comprehensives until at least the late 1990s. The fact that Labour also began to use AWS in the late 1990s too, probably is a coincidence. There must have been a rapid increase in male as well as female MPs who had been to Comprehensives shortly after this time. It is surely what would have happened anyway

  • Tony Dawson 9th Mar '16 - 1:34pm

    @Flo Clucas:

    “Our party is male dominated and, because people like to vote for those like themselves”

    Flo, why are you repeating something which is obviously not at all true? Our Party is male-dominated at parliamentary level because we had a disastrous six years which all but destroyed us electorally and left only the strongest standing. None of the strongest handful (and they were ‘strong’ for a number of different reasons and combinations of reasons) were female. Had we not been so-destroyed, we would have had a huge tranche of new women MPs, some of which would have been very good and others of which would have been not-so-good, ie just like the males, and you would not have been able to say these unfounded things at all.

    At non-parliamentary level, we have a female President and female leader of Welsh Lib Dems.

  • David Cooper 9th Mar '16 - 2:10pm

    Hi Paul,
    In order to show that AWS reduces inequality (a premise I believe is the reverse of the truth), one would need to study the social composition of Labour MPs over several parliaments- a very tall order indeed, and not just a Wikipedia lookup. My guess is that the older, more male, cohort had a large number who had a working class trade union background. The current crop of younger Labour MPs such as Tristram Hunt and the gaggle of Blair’s Babes seem far more manicured.

  • David Evans 9th Mar '16 - 2:45pm

    Simon Shaw, I’m astonished. Liverpool now has only two Lib Dem councillors. Once upon a time (e.g. 2004) there were 60 Lib Dems controlling Liverpool, including Flo who was actually deputy leader of the council until 2010. However there were only 21 women against 39 men. To those who regard a battle of the sexes within the party to be of greater importance than the battle with Labour and the Conservatives on the streets of Liverpool, this sexual balance (Mr and Mrs Kemp in Church ward) may be very important. But I know which I prefer.

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 9th Mar '16 - 3:56pm

    @Tony, so it’s all about the last 6 years then. Really? When have we ever had decent gender balance in any election? Ah yes, that one time we used zipping and we sent 5 men and 5 women to Brussels.

    The figures show that we have never been any good at this 111 men, 19 women MPs in our entire history.

    We know what works – we just need to do it and vote for this motion on Sunday.

  • David Cooper 9th Mar '16 - 4:07pm

    Great piece of research. So a randomly chosen Blair’s Babe is twice as likely to come from Cheltenham Ladies’ College than any other school in the country. Eat your heart out, Roedean.

  • Tony Dawson 9th Mar '16 - 4:42pm

    @Caron Lindsay

    “We know what works – we just need to do it and vote for this motion on Sunday.”

    Caron, i seriously doubt whether there are more than six dozen people in the party at the moment who know ‘what works’. There is a blanket of denial pervading the institution which appears to be unshiftable.

    I accept that prior to 2005 there was probably a considerable amount of sexism in the party which regularly spilled into selections. But what has that got to do with the present situation? After that, the rate of selection of women for good seats appeared to have roughly matched the gender balance of the candidate base. It is an undeniable fact that women were picked for a large number of successor seats. So, it is an undeniable fact that if our Party’s leadership had been in possession of the odd clue about political leadership then we would have a major tranche of female MPs in the Party right now. I am not going to name names here, either, but I will say that there were two or three of these female candidates in target seats who were, in my opinion, frankly, pretty ropey – EXACTLY like their male equivalents.

  • Martin Land 9th Mar '16 - 6:33pm

    @Tony. I know what works. 10-15 years of hard work at a local level. Regardless of gender, ethnic status or sexual preference. Designing parachutes in York will not.

  • Not the first time this topic has featured in recent weeks, nor, I would imagine, is it the last. I was tempted to write something flippant about the deckchairs we desperately need to rearrange and….oh look, is that an iceberg ?
    But this is clearly a pretty fundamental issue which, for me at least, strikes at the very heart of what it means to be liberal. The debate seems to be drifting into interesting but tangential issues, such as the educational background of various cohorts of female MPs and lists of female politicians who turned out to be pretty good ( why should that be a surprise to anyone ?).
    I doubt if anyone is going to change their mind at this stage, but let’s try to apply a little logic. Nobody is suggesting that women Lib Dem candidates/MPs are is any way inferior to their male colleagues, but then we don’t have AWS, do we ? Lets imagine that we have, say, 300 approved male candidates but only 100 female. From this number we select 100 candidates, 50 of each gender. If we assume that both groups contain a mix of abilities, from outstanding to just about competent, then isn’t it fair to assume that the overall quality of the men selected will be higher, because we are taking the best 1/6th,rather than the best 1/2. If we want the best 100 then, all other things being equal (normal distribution curves and all that stuff) we would have 66 men and 34 women. Professional statisticians, feel free to comment !
    Stats produced a number of times during this debate suggest that the reason we have fewer female candidates is because we have fewer women putting their name forward. So the problem is not, “why so few women Lib Dem MPs ?”, but “why are there not more women involved in politics at all levels ?”. There is something dysfunctional about our political institutions and culture which is either a turn off or an actual barrier for women and fiddling the selection process so that we can say, “look, half of our pathetically small number of MPs are women” is going to do absolutely nothing to address that fundamental issue. I think the LY are absolutely on the money when they say that AWS’ fail to address deeper issues.

  • Tony, male dominated in terms of membership. As for Liverpool, I haven’t lived there since 2012. I have my own ideas about what happened, but it wouldn’t be appropriate for me to comment.
    Successor seats and female candidates, are being thrown at the argument. The NS in 2011 predicted exactly what would happen to seats we held. The opinion polls never recovered from the position they occupied then. Anyone who thinks that our female candidates could have held on to those seats, given the polls, Tory cash and push into our SW base and the fear of SNP/Labour, really needs to think again. Colleagues, the move to real equality and diversity that the motion on Sunday will begin and I hope implement is the historic and truly Liberal idea that those who are disadvantaged are helped and supported to become equal.

  • Please could all those interested in the AWS debate look at today’s email from Dr Mark Pack which deals with the subject of unconscious bias. I believe it shows clearly that everyone who makes decisions on recruitment does so using unconscious bias and also this bias affects everyday relationships too. I believe that the party will be truly Liberal if we all make a conscious decision to be aware of the very human bias which prevents us as a party from achieving our goal of equality of opportunity for all.

  • Re: unconscious bias training

    Relevant article here:

    Fast forward to a year later, the needle has largely remained nearly locked in the same position. Women accounted for 30% of Alphabet’s workforce, while men stood at 70% — unchanged from the previous year.

    Basically, it is neither a magic bullet or a quick fix…

  • Elsewhere I have put some statistics in for Lib Dem candidates in 2015. The data is derived from the BES election data.

    27% of the approved candidates list are women (if that is wrong please correct me).

    Last year 19% of candidates in our 57 held seats were women. For a small sample that’s not too far off. If you add in the 30 most winnable 2nd places from 2010 then we get to 26% women candidates: essentially identical to the percentage of women on the list.

    This does not suggest that “we” need “unconscious bias training”.

    The data suggests that the only way in which there can be “unconscious bias” against women is if women candidates are on average better than men and therefore should be selected in disproportionate numbers.

    Is that

  • The Liberal attitude to AWS pretty much sums up why the Labour Party exists. Liberals always argue for progress towards equality but object on grounds of speciously convoluted principle (demonstrated fulsomely by David Cooper), to any method of achieving it.
    In the case of AWS the argument seems to be that; ‘positive discrimination must be wrong because as a phrase it contains the word discrimination and discrimination is always wrong’, an argument that ignores the fact that the only way to defeat discrimination is to discriminate against it.

  • Richard Underhill 10th Mar '16 - 5:34pm

    President Erdogan and his wife have commented on International womens’ day (Guardian 10/3/2016 page 18) but there are shorter words to describe harems, try slavery.

  • David Cooper 11th Mar '16 - 3:41pm

    @Richard Underhill
    The best comment on AWS so far! Although actually I don’t think Blair’s Babes were actually a harem.

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