Opinion: Make politics fit women’s lives, not vice-versa

For today’s women “motherhood, not sexism, is the issue”. So says The Economist (“We Did It”, 30 December 2009), noting that “women who prosper in high-pressure companies in their 20s drop out in dramatic numbers in their 30s and then find it almost impossible to regain earlier momentum”.

Could the same be true in politics?

Nearly 80% of current male Lib Dem MPs first entered Parliament in their 30s and 40s. Yet our female MPs were overwhelmingly elected in their 20s or 50s, and not one was first elected while raising young children. Achieving the same age spread as the men could potentially quadruple the number of female Lib Dem MPs. Yet too many experienced female candidates self-select out just as their male contemporaries are fighting winnable seats.

Any effective attempt to bring more women into politics needs to start by understanding the underlying causes of female non-participation. The simple fact is that in most families today women are still the primary child-carers – and while a majority of mothers with young children want to work, only 12% want to do so full-time (Centre for Policy Studies, October 2009).

And there’s the rub. The job of MP as currently framed simply doesn’t fit the reality of many women’s lives. The long period as an unpaid candidate is one barrier, but, more fundamentally, many women find the 24/ 7 culture and the need to live in two places impossible to reconcile with the quality of family life they want for their children. All Women Shortlists have treated the symptoms of female under-representation without addressing its underlying causes – viz. Labour’s Ruth Kelly, Kitty Ussher and Julia Drown, all of whom have cited the incompatibility of politics with family life as their reason for standing down.

As The Economist piece suggests, this problem is not unique to politics. But business and the professions are changing, while politics is not. The right to request flexible working has quietly revolutionised many workplaces and enlightened employers have embraced the benefits of retaining talented women who might otherwise have thrown in the towel. Yet while MPs happily mandate flexible working for work/ life balance in other people’s workplaces, they are loath to practice what they preach at Westminster.

The notion of a part-time MP is of course unlikely to be popular with constituents, especially in the current political climate. Job-shares – where two people working part-time share a role in order  to provide full-time cover – provide a neat solution to this conundrum, and have a track record of success at the highest levels in business, the civil service and the professions… Could they work in politics?

With Jo Swinson’s help, I arranged for Azita Qadri, founder of a job share agency for senior professionals (and one of Management Today’s ‘35 Women Entrepreneurs Under 35’), to give evidence a couple of months ago to an all party-group of MPs and peers about how job-shares might work in politics.

Job-share MPs would each work 3 days a week with a half-day overlap. Committee memberships, portfolios and casework would be wholly allocated to one or other job-sharer and voting rights in the chamber would be alternated according to strict criteria determined at the time of setting up the job-share. Salaries and expenses allowances would be halved so the taxpayer wouldn’t pay a penny more. Spending just 1-2 nights a week away from home would mean that a hotel room could replace the second home. Candidates would be selected as a job-share pair and go into the election on a job-share ticket.

If this all sounds far-fetched, consider our MEPs. In most Regions and in Scotland we have only one Lib Dem MEP. But in the South East we have two. Catherine Bearder and Sharon Bowles are – in effect – job-sharing, except that they are each working (very) full time. There is no reason why, in principle, the work of a single MEP could not be sub-divided in the same way that Catherine and Sharon have apportioned the work of two MEPs for their Region. List elections like the London Assembly and European Parliament lend themselves more easily to job-shares, so would be a logical place to run a pilot.

If the pilot worked, the idea could be tested at Westminster . What better way to re-connect politicians to real life than by allowing them to spend half their working week away from the political bubble? Tory MPs who insist on combining politics with more lucrative careers would come under pressure to stop claiming a full-time salary and job-share instead. Constituents served by job-sharers would benefit not only from their MPs’ broader perspective, but also from the fact that job-shares are 30% more productive than an individual doing the same job alone (Flexecutive: Desperately Seeking Flexibility, 2001). Westminster would benefit from an injection of people with experience beyond politics and a more collaborative working style. Best of all, we could increase the number of female MPs without discriminating against men (job-shares would be equally open to them).

In 1911 a Liberal Government took the radical step of introducing parliamentary salaries to enable working class men to become MPs. A century later we need to be equally radical in empowering women to enter Parliament. It’s time to make politics fit women’s lives – not vice-versa.

Dinti Batstone is Vice-Chair of Campaign for Gender Balance.

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  • Great and thoughtful article. One of the central points was rather skipped over though: “The simple fact is that in most families today women are still the primary child-carers”. This is the underlying inequality that needs to be addressed. I don’t doubt that measures to increase flexibility in the workplace and in parliament will help. But as with the 1911 working men’s example I would argue that the real problem was that some people could afford not to work whereas others couldn’t.

    While MPs salaries allowed the working class at least to be represented in parliament and therefore able to challenge entrenched “old money” interests, it only treated the symptom not the cause – the real problem was the yawning chasm of financial inequality. Likewise, making MPs jobs more flexible would allow more women to be represented, it wouldn’t address the underlying problem of parental inequality. Hopefully it would be a step in the right direction though.

    This Salon article is an interesting take on some of the reasons for the gender inequality that persists in parenthood (though I don’t doubt there are as many fathers reluctant to get fully involved as there are mothers reluctant to let them). The plain fact , as Dinti points out, is that our society still carries an implicit – and often explicit – assumption that mothers are the primary parents. And not just primary parents, primary “domestic workers” too – how many ads for detergent have you seen that show a man doing the cleaning? No it’s always two immaculately groomed women discussing how best to get the grass stains out of the kids’ clothes. Some of them feel like something out of Steford Wives… Until that culture changes, there will never be full equality in the workplace, or in parliament either.

    Having said that, this “job-share” idea is an interesting proposal, and not just for the purpose of upping the number of female MPs. I think the public would like the idea of MPs that had “real jobs” or kept some attachment to “real life” while serving in parliament.

    There might be problems in practice though – what if the two job-sharers disagreed about how to vote on an issue? Would they have to abstain, or would it just come down to luck, i.e. whoever was “on call” at the time of the vote in the House?

  • How about having multi-member contituencies? 😉

    You can get an excellent “job share” of elected, coalface MPs in such a way. I am not a particular fan of remaking organisations to fit the choices of thoes who decide to have children, but I can see the appeal of having more than one person to approach. I have three “representatives” on the city council. As it happens I have little regard for them, but multimember system could work.

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