Report highlights barriers to women’s participation in politics at every level

This week, a report by the Fawcett Society highlighted barriers impeding women’s progress at every stage of the political proces.

Strategies for Success, Women’s experiences of selection and election in UK Parliament has details of things that work – most notably initiatives like the Ask her to stand campaign – and depressing experiences of discrimination at every level. The report concludes:

Significant challenges to increasing women’s representation remain at every stage of the process to becoming an MP. While a common argument is that political progression is based on merit, in practice, getting selected depends on a number of other factors which may inhibit diversity amongst political candidates and discourage women from standing for election. However, we have found indicators of possible strategies for success. In some cases, the simple act of a political leader making a call for more women to participate played an important part in individuals embarking on the process of selection. There is support too for party programmes intended to support women in this process. Importantly asking women to stand, encouraging them to see themselves as “MP material” and demonstrating that they are seen this way by their party makes a real difference. These interventions are likely to increase the number of women candidates and help equip them for the process. But a change in representation is likely to require tackling the underlying resistance to women in power, the processes that disadvantage them and other underrepresented groups, and our political culture more widely.

It contains experiences of council candidates being deselected while pregnant.

The first steps of getting involved in a political party can be difficult for women if there is no-one like them in their local party as one woman explained:

I do think it’s intimidating if you are a BME woman who isn’t very used to kind of establishment places to come into a room where there’s a lot of old white middle-class men, it can be quite intimidating.

That is why it is important for local parties to have a diverse executive – we need to walk the walk on diversity at every single level of the organisation.

This experience will be familiar to many women:

Female party members and activists spoke about, the various ways that women were “made invisible” within party structures. Participants described being spoken over, ignored, shouted at and patronised. There was a perception among many participants, across parties, that women’s voices are quietened with men dominating group conversations and meetings.

Some of the men won’t even be aware they are doing it. Back in the day, one particular man used to interrupt me every single time I opened my mouth. So I eventually took him aside and asked him why he did that. He had no idea he was doing it. He never did it again and we worked together successfully from that point. The moral of that story is to tackle that sort of behaviour when you see it – whether it is being done to you or someone else. If you do, you can take down barriers.

The sections on the selection process are quite depressing, with women recounting being asked questions that a man would never have to face. And even now the qualities people look for in a candidate favour white men.

There’s much food for thought in the report. I’m hoping that the Diversity Sub Committee of the Federal People Development Committee will look at what action this party can take to remove some of the barriers to women at every stage.

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

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • David Warren 4th Nov '18 - 7:55pm

    Sadly I am not surprised by any of this.

    The problems are deep seated.

    Women, BME LGBT and people from what I call a working class background face real barriers.

    On top of that you have a hierarchy in some local parties where new people are seen as a potential threat.

    It ok if you are happy to deliver leaflets and stand in a hopeless council seat but if you want to progress beyond that you might find you have a problem.

    On top of all that FPTP is yet another barrier.

    Countries that have PR elect more diverse legislatures.

    There is no easy answer.

    However the only way that Labour and for that matter the Tories improved the diversity of their parliamentary parties was by the centre taking steps to do it.

  • Ruth Bright 4th Nov '18 - 9:11pm

    Having been involved in this report I feel that its main weakness is the failure to pinpoint the separate cultures within the parties. For example, my understanding is that the Labour women were much more likely to mention internal party strife and intimidation but also were more likely to mention getting support and resources from their own “faction” be it Momentum, a union etc.

    I was shocked by the experiences of the Lib Dem group of women (obviously I am not going into specifics because those were shared in confidence). As a former LD member who spent 32 years in the party, half of those trying unsuccessfully to get maternity leave for our candidates I would set little store by yet another sub-committee.

  • i would imagine that most people are broadly on-side with this one, but I do sometimes wish that the issue be seen in the broader context of the distribution of power and influence at all levels in our nation and in our communities.
    In reality most people, regardless of gender, ethnicity, sexuality, are effectively excluded from any significant input into societies decision making processes, at a national level and at a community level. And in political parties as well. The occurs at the highest level where ex MPs can use their contacts to secure comfy non exec directorships. We also see it at a local level where Dave is a county counsellor, he is also a town councillor along with Phil who is also Chair of Governors at the local school, with fellow governor Sarah who heads up the trustees of a couple of local charities, which is how she knows Dave. I think the political scientists call it “interlocking constellations of interest”. Carve up, local mafia are also terms used !
    Rather that pitting people against each other why don’t we focus on the basic structures of our institutions and in particular the issues of recruitment, participation and communication ? One day we may have 300 women in Parliament and 50 female FTSE 100 CEOs. . The likely hood is that these high profile roles will be taken by women from elite backgrounds, which will further concentrate wealth and power in particular families. For the other 99% of the population, nothing will change.

  • Sue Sutherland 5th Nov '18 - 11:17am

    Back in the 80s I read a report compiled by women graduates of Oxford Univerity which covered a lot of research about the difficulties women faced. Some of the research covered the way men treated women in conversations and group discussions in exactly the way you describe. This is not limited to political debate but, obviously, it’s very important in an area which relies so much on persuasion and discussion. I found it liberating when I realised that it wasn’t just me who was treated like this but that it is something that men do to women all the time.
    I think it’s important for a woman to know this and believe in herself and her ideas, so she can overcome this hidden bias. It’s also important that men recognise this too so that they can correct their own behaviour and that of other men.

  • Ruth Bright 5th Nov '18 - 2:06pm

    Chris – how is it pitting people against each other to call out the disgrace of sacking a council candidate because she is pregnant?

  • Lorenzo Cherin 5th Nov '18 - 3:18pm

    The very presence of gender as a barrier to participation is anathema to me.

    I never consider it when I think of a candidate. Women seem to be as prevalent or more today, whatever the statistics.

    Theresa May, Nicola Sturgeon, Arlene Foster, Ruth Davidson, Diane Abbot, Emily Thornberry, Jo Swinson, Jane Dodds, Kirsty Williams, these and more, much much more.

    The heads of the met, the CBI, even Channel 4, which is the least progressive for class, according to surveys.

    When we read what Ruth says, we can but despair that some put out feelers of a hostility to women, and barriers, for those like her, with children, or before that when expecting a child.

    Even when I advocate a more traditional or some might say conservative stance on abortion, I am for women, and my greatest argument is against the abortion of potential women, and the horror of gender as a cause of abortion, and the radical feminist ideas developing in the US against abortion , not to ban it but limit it, discourage it, are in tune with the cry of Ruth, to value mothers and motherhood, and work and ambition, and a holistic way.

  • Ruth Bright 6th Nov '18 - 6:49am

    Simon, a woman (I understand from another party) says in the report she was sacked as a council candidate because she was pregnant. I have taken it on trust that that was a truthful account. Lorenzo is most kind but I was not referring to my own experience (documented elsewhere in the report) which was more a matter of my candidacy becoming untenable because of a lack of maternity leave and an intolerance of breastfeeding.

    There have also been newspaper reports of a woman at LDHQ being sacked because she was pregnant and placed under a non-disclosure agreement. I do not know whether or not this report is true.

  • Simon Banks 23rd Jan '19 - 5:28pm

    On the other hand, there are many local parties – in our party – where anyone keen and capable is welcomed. The danger can be welcoming too much and giving them too many key roles too quickly.

    The experience of many organisations aware of their own unrepresentedness is that initiatives may not work quickly. You need to keep plugging on. Then, for example, the sixth keen Black female activist you’ve tried to interest gets involved and is widely seen to be involved and others follow.

    I used to work in equalities and any strategy for overcoming inequality should start with an analysis. Where is the problem? In employment, for example, you may have plenty of women applying and getting shortlisted, but few appointed. Then the main problem is with the appointments process. In our party, it seems to me we have to address the underrepresentation of women and BAME people in membership. A supporter scheme may help overcome that, but it depends how it’s pitched and whether positive encouragement is given to supporters to take the next step to actual membership.

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