Opinion: Where are the girls?

There are more Labour MPs called Ann than women Lib Dem MPs. There are more ‘David’s in the coalition cabinet than women. How can we dare to call ourselves a progressive party whilst continuing to operate tacit acceptance of male domination? And, just as importantly, why are more women not banging on the doors of power, trying to become PPCs and councilors? Why is the organisation I intern for, Women Liberal Democrats, limited to one part-time staffer and a fast-diminishing grant? Virginia Woolf famously wrote that women needed independent means in order to pursue professional careers – “a room of one’s own”. Yet we do not take gender inequality seriously enough to provide one permanent desk.

I doubt mentions of Woolf would shift this position, either. Feminists are not cool. “Mad” and “raving” are common adjectives used to describe the women’s movement. Feminism is seen as a movement for old, bitter butch women taking dreary revenge on ‘normal’ society for excluding them from power. Ambition in women is lauded up to a point; achievement at school and university is acceptable, and over the last 30 years girls have come to the fore in academic attainment. So why does it stop there? Why do so many women fail to translate their talents into successful political careers? Certainly the atmosphere of the Commons is not a welcoming one for women. Watching PMQs I am struck by the macho braying and willy-waving that accompanies each exchange. The place resembles a 19th century gentleman’s club much more closely than what it is supposed to be, a distilled cross-section of modern British society; government for the people, by the people.

The question, then, is how to change this fairly. Labour tackled the issue with all-women short-lists. I am not sure if that is the correct way forward. They may have an admirably high number of women MPs, but much anecdotal evidence suggests that those elected from all-women shortlists feel second rate, and are treated as such by their colleagues. ‘Blair’s babes’ did not have to fight as hard as their male counterparts for their candidacy. They were the beneficiaries (or maybe victims) of tokenism by New Labour, thrust into the spotlight as proof that Blair’s new order had swept away the andro-centric past of politics for a fairer, more representative system. However, many of these women proved second-rate.

Persuasive arguments for affirmative action in the US centre round the idea that bright black students from poor backgrounds may not have such good grades as more affluent whites, but once given the right teaching and surroundings they will be able to shine. The situation for female politicians is not the same. Many women are building up impressive academic CVs. They are offered, and are gaining, excellent educations. What politics in general and the Lib Dems in particular have not given them is confidence in themselves and their right to power. Social attitudes still prevail that women do not belong in politics. This must change. The Lib-Dem led coalition proposal allowing couples to share a year’s allocation of maternity/ paternity leave between them is a good start, but although changes in the law are a crucial start, they can only be the beginning. We need to change expectations and perceptions both within our party and in wider society, making political ambition in women a positive thing.

The Campaign for Gender Balance already works hard to recruit and support possible women candidates, but maybe this later recruitment drive should be preceded by a much longer-term program, supporting interested and promising women from school age and nourishing political ambition and confidence. As a politically aware school-girl, I was unsure which party I might support until Sal Brinton, then Lib Dem PPC for Watford, came to speak to us. Her talk was so eloquent, reasonable and intelligent that it both confirmed my general support for the Lib Dems and increased my desire to get personally involved. Though more public figureheads like Lynne Featherstone are also important for inspiration, I believe that small-scale talks in schools, work experience schemes and tours of Parliament would be an excellent way of involving much larger numbers of girls and convincing them that politics is relevant to, and a possible career option for, people like them.

Ruth Irwin is a party activist and intern for Women Liberal Democrats. She is currently on a gap year between school and university.

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  • Malcolm Armsteen 30th Jan '11 - 10:24am

    You can’t call yourselves a progressive party because you aren’t a progressive party…
    It’s just taken the rest of us a while to catch on.
    Oh – and you might get more women involved if you stopped calling them ‘girls’.

  • In my Borough in the May elections we have five women and three men contesting winnable seats.

  • Admire many of the sentiments Ruth, but the Party has never been comfortable with interfering with selection processes to manipulate outcomes. We’ve only agreed to do it once, in 1997, for the Scottish Parliament elections, to implement an electoral contract with the Labour Party. Trouble is, we made its implementation conditional on an exption from the Sex Discrimination Act. It didn’t come, so we backed out, and elected 15 men and 2 women. The exemption came later, but by then there were incumbents, which makes the whole thing much harder. I tried to convince others that we had a moral obligation to look again at selections now the exemption was in place, but got nowhere. The plain truth is that liberty and fairness are seen as trumping equality of outcomes philosophically, and it would take something major to shake us from that view; and often women activists are the fiercest opponents of manipulating selections (I remember Jo Swinson leading a revolt against “clustering” of neighbouring seats in 2001, tastefully decked out in a bright pink t-shirt bearing the slogan “I am not a token woman”, along with others like Lynn-Su Floodgate and Polly Martin). But I suspect that if Labour get back in they’ll view us as unreconstructed chauvinists, and put a 50:50 rule into legislation (if they can), which have numerous effects, most of which would be bad for us.

  • I agree there should be better resources for WLD & CGB but they also need to widen their remit to include include empowering more women to stand for target council seats. I have tried to ask for assistance in this task but both organisations are more concerned fixated with PPCs. This is a category that is harder to get elected than a councillor.

    For example, in 2010 we lost 14 MP seats, this robbed us of winning 7 female MPs (Cambourne & Redruth; Cornwall South East; Harrogate & Knareborough; Hereford; Richmond Park; Romsey; Truro & Falmouth) all lost to the Tories.

    You could argue that the Lib Dems are good at getting women into seats where they might become MPs but it was those pesky Conservatives that stopped us from winning.

  • Dear Malcolm Armsteen
    You clearly have forgotten what “progressive” means, and have no sense of humour. Go back to looking at Labour sites where you belong.
    Girly kisses,

  • @ Ruth Irwin

    “How can we dare to call ourselves a progressive party whilst continuing to operate tacit acceptance of male domination?”

    You’re not a progressive party — you’re a party of capital, just like the Tories — only for years you’ve presented yourselves as the acceptable face of capitalism. Now you’ve been rumbled. Only socialists believe in and practise gender equality — if you feel so strongly, why don’t you come and join us? Or is it that you’re really quite comfortable being in coalition with the party of patriarchy, monogamy, chauvinism and the nuclear family? and are just having a little moan to assert your feminist credentials? By the way it wasn’t Labour Party members who coined the term ‘Blair’s Babes’ but the sexist newspapers that support your Tory dominated coalition.

  • >And, just as importantly, why are more women not banging on the doors of power, trying to become PPCs and councilors?

    Too busy jugging full-time jobs, kids, and household chores, probably.
    And by the time the kids have grown, you’re glad of a little ‘me’ time, not rushing to give those precious hours up for someone or something else. (Assuming you’re not then running round after elderly parents).

    They told us we could have it all. They didn’t tell us we’d be permanently kn***ered as a consequence 😉

  • Joe Donnelly 30th Jan '11 - 11:55am

    @ MacK

    OMG YOUR RIGHT, there are only two types of political ideologies!!! Socialism and Capitalism, why havent i seen it before now. There I was thinking I was a liberal, understanding how the conception of liberty I hold is completely distinct from a socialist conception and BAM finally, an epiphany brought to me by you, that I am actually a conservative. Never mind that conservatives don’t believe in abstract ideals, never mind that I disagree with conservatives on half of issues, the very fact that I think competition works best except where it fails means that I am a capitalist and therefore evil. Wow, thank you for simplifying political theory for me down into two extreme polarised positions.

    end sarcasm.

  • >Only socialists believe in and practise gender equality


    Of course, women-only shortlists worked so well for Labour, they lost Blaenau Gwent (one of their safest seats in the UK) some years back to a Labour bloke who stood as an independent in protest.
    It wasn’t an anti-women thing. It was resentment at local wishes being trampled on and candidates being imposed on the constituency and tokenism… Try to force equality and you’ll get a backlash.

    >you’re a party of capital, just like the Tories — only for years you’ve presented yourselves as the acceptable face of capitalism.

    So we are a party that presents itself as what it is? How terrible!

    I’m not sure what New Labour is, let alone presents itself as. Not socialist, for sure. PFI, part-privatising the Tube and air traffic control, light regulation of banks – Blair and Brown seemed to like capitalism plenty.

  • Ruth, I am utterly passionate about sorting this problem out. I will mention this article to the Girls school I am talking to next week…

    But I think it is unfair to suggest there is a tacit acceptance of this. a) Half our top target seats had women candidates, and we were just genuinely unlucky this time [smaller sample size makes for greater variation and comparing our raw numbers with Labour isn’t quite fair] and b) I know very few Lib Dems who tacitly accept this.

    Incidentally, ignore the trolls saying ‘you’re not a progressive party’. We are, obviously, but it is such a meaningless term at the moment and I’d need to see their definition. As for Malcolm accusing you of using the term ‘girls’ wrongly – maybe if he’d read you article to the end he would have got the point about starting early 🙂

    Whoever tried to claim that ‘only socialists believe in gender equality’ is entertaining absurdity. Especially given Labour’s genuine failures on this outside the artificial environment of political selection.

    And finally – I thought it was a good provoking article to keep those of use concerned about this champing at the bit.

  • One of the issues is that we do not support mothers with young families.

    I have a son and a daughter and I think seeing both of their attitudes at 5 gives the answer. My son would continue to attempt the impossible without realising it to be so. My daughter would rationalise the problem, realise it could not be done and attempt a different solution.

    I would suggest that women need to be shown the system can support them before enough want to join it. My wife is an excellent nurse who has a full career despite being a mother. The male dominated parliament with it’s daft sittings and stupid rules would make it hard to be both good mother and good MP. The first goal should be for a more family friendly parliament, with shorter London weeks and the use of electronic voting etc. Once that is in place and is seen to work it will be more attractive to those whose voices we need to hear for a balanced viewpoint at Westminster.

    I run a company and I rightly have to make my workplace support equality and diversity Parliament sets a bad example.

  • “Progressive” is a much over-used and frankly assinine term.

    The reason that there are fewer women seeking to get into politics as that fewer of them are prepared to be as obsessive about it as men are. They (rightly) want a more “balanced portfolio” in their life.

    Until and unless politics does not require 24/7 dedication that will always be the case.

  • Thomas – the key word their is “youth”. Once children come along, everything changes.

  • I think one has to look at local power structures and the selection process.

    How does one become a candidate? Local power structures, at least as I am observing them, seem to be very male-dominated. Perhaps that’s not entirely surprising, given the style of local campaign that one sees in so many places. But most crucially, to be a candidate for almost anything in the LibDems you have to find time – possibly even take out time from a job for more than just the main campaign period. This certainly accounts for selection in favour of wealthier individuals, but my hunch is that it might also have an impact on gender balance. Any woman with a family will find it difficult to put in the long campaigning hours…. more difficult than most men with families. Not that it should be like that, but let’s be realistic!

    Parties which actually control safe seats (i.e. Labour and the Conservatives) can find safe seats for people who might deserve a seat but can’t spend lots of money or just quit their job for a year. The LibDems have no safe seats. I really think that this explains a lot about the kind of people who manage to become PPCs in winnable seats…..

    And yes, although the lack of women in the LibDems is troubling, I am still more concerned about selection by wealth than I am about selection by gender.

  • paul barker 30th Jan '11 - 4:36pm

    I t comes down to what we really want & how much we want it. If we were really determined to get Gender Equality we would do whatever it takes, the problem is that for most of us it remains a vague aspiration & not something we will sacrifice other things for.

  • Why should I care more about the sex of an MP than her background?

    Perhaps there should be all-poor-people shortlists.

  • @Geoffrey
    “The party invariably wants more women to stand for public office for the Lib Dems but hasn’t got the resources to deliver. It was tragic at the last general election, where for example in Cornwall we started off with 3 male and 3 female candidates, yet only the male candidates won.”

    DO you have any evidence that the female candidates were less well resourced than the male ones? Stephen Gilbert an Terrye Teverson had virtually identical swings in neighbouring seats, one narrowly one, the other narrowly lost.

  • Maria says:

    “Any woman with a family will find it difficult to put in the long campaigning hours…. more difficult than most men with families.”

    which is obviously true. The FPTP voting system means that, all other things being equal, 50 or so seats in every parliament will be won because a particular candidate exploited him/herself or his/her family and friends to an extreme level to gain those couple of hundred votes which clinch their constituency. Given our weaker resources in most constituencies, Lib Dem candidates, other than inheritors of ‘safe’ seats, have to exploit themselves and/or their families even more . I have a suspicion that generally, besides having the extra demands of disproportionate childcare responsibility, women are less willing to put themselves and their families through the hell of a target seat campaign. Party executives are not very forgiving. If you are a target seat candidate do NOT develop a major illness, have a car crash or a hip replacement operation. If you are a woman with major childcare responsibilities (or even, heaven help you, a single father with the same responsibilities), your performance will always be compared to that of a young single childless fanatical male candidate.

    On a different topic entirely, I am intrigued at the choice of certain women for ‘high office’ when there are clearly more able women and men excluded in their favour. It is almost as if government wishes to perpetuate the culture of ‘tokenism’.

  • @Joe Donnelly
    Posted 30th January 2011 at 11:55 am | Permalink
    @ MacK

    “OMG YOUR RIGHT, there are only two types of political ideologies!!! Socialism and Capitalism, why havent i seen it before now.”

    Excellent. I’m always delighted to liberate someone from their false consciousness.

    “the very fact that I think competition works best except where it fails means that I am a capitalist.”

    Er yes. The type of capitalist who wants to privatise profit and nationalise loss. Very convenient.

  • Alice Field 1st Feb '11 - 10:28am

    Oh dear… Again, I feel a /duty/ to stand for office because I am female… *not* an ideal reason to stand, unfortunately!

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