The majority of voters are female, so does it matter that the majority of MPs are men?

Women now have the vote on the same terms as men. With the majority of the electorate female – and indeed the majority of actual voters at the last general election female too – what’s there left to worry about, one might ask?

Well – with only around one in five MPs female, there’s a big difference between what goes in to the electoral system (majority: female) and what comes out (overwhelming majority: male).

So what I want to address in this piece head on why I believe this matters. It is in everyone’s interests to have a Parliament that is made up of the best people for the job, and that includes a range of people who can best represent the diversity that exists in our communities. If we don’t have the best, and if we don’t have a Parliament that fully understands how issues look to people from all those diverse viewpoints, then we get worse decision-making – and we all suffer from that in the end. To take a very simple example – if you have a Parliament passing laws on fighting crime which doesn’t understand the perspectives of people under 25, then those laws will not be as effective – and we all suffer as a result.

Now you don’t necessarily have to be of a particular group or community or whatever to be able to understand and represent its views. But in general it certainly helps.

Would a Parliament full of people over 70 have some MPs who were good at understanding the viewpoints of those under 30? Of course it would – but it would be even better at doing that if not all the MPs were over 70. The same applies to gender. Yes, some men are good at understanding and representing the views of women, and vice-versa. But when you have a Parliament that is four-fifths men, we are far too close to that everyone over 70 situation.

Now people sometimes say – ah, but if you can’t point to an example of an act of explicit discrimination, then the system is fair and doing anything to fix the results means we won’t be getting the best person for the job. So I’m going to try to tackle that head on.

First, when you have the number of female MPs at record levels – but still a Parliament that is 80% male – I think it fair to ask, “Are you really, really sure there’s no discrimination going on anywhere?” As prima facia evidence goes, that’s pretty strong stuff. Of course, it doesn’t make the case in itself, but I think too many people are too complacent in the face of what should be a shocking figure.

And, I would ask – do you really think that if you picked the 646 best people for the job of MP (using whatever definition of “best” you think suits), you would end up with four out of every five of them being male? Do you really think the distribution of talent, ability, experience, knowledge – whatever goes in to your definition of “best” – is so lopsided amongst the population that the result is that four-fifths of those people are male?

I am happy to acknowledge that there are – on average, in general, with individual exceptions – differences between the sexes. Yes, if I needed someone to run with an urgent message as fast as possible then, other things being equal, I’d ask a man as on average men are faster – or even, dare I say it, better – at running than women. Just as it would be wrong to assume that all men are faster than all women, it would be foolish to close our eyes to the differences on average.

But what such difference could there be that would justify four-fifths of MPs being male? Certainly there are aspects of the way our political system works which typically appeal more to men or are more off-putting to women, but those are not aspects that are engraved in stone and always have to be that way. Take the bear-pit performances (and I use that word kindly – embarrassing shambles might often be more appropriate) of the PM / Leader of the Opposition exchanges at Prime Minister’s Questions, with massed ranks of people sat behind each and shouting at each other.

That sort of behaviour would be completely unacceptable in a work place – imagine running a meeting at work where people behaved like that. And there’s no essential need for PMQs to be like that – look around at how other walks of life and other countries manage to have question times that are meaningful and dignified.

And in this example is where, I think, some good news can be found. For the matters I’d identify would not only tackle the male/female imbalance, they would benefit politics overall.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Lynn, you really can’t believe how boring this is starting to get.

    We agree with you.

    Now can you and Jo and the rest of GBTF go and preach to the unconverted and stop preaching at us.

  • I think this blog is aimed at anyone that’s listening!

  • I would hope that everyone agrees that gender imbalance is a problem. Where we all diverge is on the issue of what should be done about it.

    For instance on AWS is reducing the choice of the electorate (a wrong) less important than gender imbalance (also a wrong).

    The arguments come from the fact that some Lib Dems think AWS is the greater wrong and some think that an unbalanced Parliamentary Party is the greater wrong. Most people would agree that in an ideal world you would have neither!

  • @ Anders

    I agree with you. Possible that I failed to make my point accurately!

    If we can find a way that is an inherent “right” that fixes the problem then great and away we go but if we need to do something that involves balancing various degrees of wrongness there is inevitably going to be disagreement.

  • Can i suggest people look again at the LDV poll on this ? 15% were in favor of taking action & 85% either couldnt see a problem or werent willing to pay even a small price to sort it. Would a similar poll for the whole membership have produced a better result ?
    My own constituency selected from an all male shorlist just 3 weeks ago, not at all unusual. What exactly is Liberal or Democratic about that ?

  • I shall repeat my suggestion of encouraging local party chairs and execs to go through basic diversity training to help them understand the benefit of diversity to their local parties, and some of the problems in achieving it.

  • Simon Titley 17th Nov '09 - 6:46pm

    @Dave Page – So you think the answer is Maoist re-education classes for constituency officers?

    All the evidence suggests that the basic problem is not discrimination in the selection process – women candidates are selected in rough proportion to their numbers on the approved list.

    Anders Hanson is right. It’s a supply problem. Not enough women are putting themselves forward for approval. That is where the focus of action should be.

  • Martin Land 17th Nov '09 - 7:20pm

    Anders & Simon. Which are exactly the points that were being made following Jo’s posting and the one before that and the one before that…

    So do what I am doing – working hard with local members to increase the number of female and ethnic minority councillors at Parish, District and County level. That way we will have an increasing pool of people from these key categories with knowledge of the party, the confidence that comes from campaigning successfully and the experience of casework that will make them good PPC’s and good MP’s.

    This is a campaigning party; a grassroots party. If we want to achieve a better balance we need to build from the bottom.

    I’m no engineer, but I understand that buildings stand up better that way.

  • Simon, I think the word “Maoist” is trollbait hyperbole, particularly since I suggested encouraging rather than requiring local party chairs to receive diversity training.

    I agree with you that the problem is in supply. I know a lot of local parties (mine included) which are not aware of diversity, which are very male-dominated, macho-cultured organisations. We don’t have a lot of female activists or executive members, most of our conference reps are similarly male. Our local party isn’t helping supply good quality female candidates to the wider party.

    The diversity training I attended last conference, led by Issan Ghazni, was fantastic. It really helped me understand in a new way the benefits of diversity to my local party and useful tips to identify barriers to diversity and overcome them. It’s encouraged me to redouble my efforts to achieve diversity as a matter of practicality as well as principle.

    That’s why I’m in favour of helping the people involved in the “supply” of candidates to learn more about the benefits of diversity. I think it will help solve the supply problem we all agree on, and hence I think it’s a good focus of action.

  • The number of women selected is actually proportionately higher than the number of them on the approved list. If anything, members are biased in favour of selecting women. Federal committee elections I think tend to show that too.

    The challenge, as has been said, really is to persuade more women to get approved and out themselves forward.

    I do, however, find the suggestion “men can’t effectively represent women’s interests” slightly offensive.

  • Matthew Huntbach 20th Nov '09 - 9:56am

    Elizabeth Truss seems to be to sum up so well why simplistic mechanisms to tackle this, such as all-woman shortlists, are wrong.

    Truss was promoted because, being a woman, this was put forward as making the Conservative Party more representative of the population. But apart from being a woman everything about her was the conventional stereotypical politician of the sort that made most people despise politicians. London metropolitan type, wealthy business background, time spent in a well-funded think-tank which pumps out stuff supporting the current political orthodoxy, was a councillor as part of the political career but did nothing worthwhile while she was (I live in the borough where she’s a councillor in the ward next to hers and had never heard of her before all this stuff about being PPC in Norfolk came up – good campaigner? Rubbish – zero-impact). Why on earth should putting her there make politics more representational than some plain-speaking real Norfolk chap? Sure, a plain-speaking real Norfolk gel would be even better – so why weren’t there any of those available?

  • John Roffey 23rd Nov '09 - 4:56pm

    This would never have become a problem if women had not been given the vote – we could have an all male Parliament. The countries fortunes have been going further downhill as the number of women MPs have increased.

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