Editor’s Note: Sam Smethers is the chief executive of the UK’s Fawcett Society, the UK’s oldest charity campaigning for women’s rights and gender equality. Prior to that she was the chief executive of UK charity Grandparents Plus, worked for the statutory sex equality body, the Equal Opportunities Commission, and also worked in the UK parliament. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.
Since this commentary was first published, two women – Andrea Leadsom and Theresa May – have been selected to contest the leadership of the UK’s ruling Conservative Party, meaning that whoever wins will become the next prime minister.
Women in politics are making up for lost time, writes Sam Smethers
But they make up only 23 percent of national legislators worldwide, she adds
David Cameron will step down as UK prime minister after losing the Brexit referendum; Shinzo Abe’s economic reforms are running out of steam in Japan; and male politicians as varied as Francois Hollande in France, Petro Poroshenko of Ukraine and Mexico’s Enrique Pena Nieto are struggling with their poll ratings. But clearly not so tough that they can’t hog the limelight.
The UK is still reeling from the male-dominated EU Referendum campaign where we saw that just 18 percent of all those quoted in the media in the campaign were women.
Meanwhile, women in politics are making up for lost time.
Angela Merkel has been the most powerful person in Europe for almost a decade now; Home Secretary Theresa May has just made a decisive bid to be the UK’s second female prime minister and has already seen off Boris Johnson; and Hillary Clinton has already made history in becoming the first female presumptive presidential nominee of a major U.S. political party.
They are all part of a growing list of superstar female politicians around the world including Aung San Suu Kyi of Myanmar, Nadiya Savchenko of Ukraine, and Nicola Sturgeon in Scotland. Clearly something really is changing for women in politics.
And yet, things aren’t changing fast enough. The roots of the Fawcett Society are in our founder Millicent Fawcett’s fight to secure for women in the UK the right to vote on equal terms as men which began with a petition to parliament in 1866. Some 150 years later and women’s representation remains dismal in the UK with women making up just 29 percent of MPs. It has been more than 50 years since Sirimavo Bandaranaike became the first modern female head of government in the world. Since then we’ve had a great number of powerful and important female leaders including Margaret Thatcher, Golda Meir, Indira Gandhi, Benazir Bhutto, Yulia Tymoshenko, and Christine Lagarde, currently head of the IMF.
Despite these high profile examples of women achieving the top jobs, they make up only 23 percent of national legislators worldwide.
Some countries are leading the way: Rwanda has the highest representation of women with 64 percent women in parliament and Senegal is sixth with a 43 percent female legislature. Meanwhile, the UK is 48th with 29 percent, and on 19 percent the United States is a very poor 97th, falling behind Afghanistan with 28 percent. Despite some of their recent woes, men are still the majority of top politicians around the world, making decisions for all of us.
Why are we still missing so many women in our politics? There are three key issues the Fawcett Society has identified – identification, selection, and attrition.
Firstly, not enough women identify politics as an area they can or want to take part in – only two percent of girls in a survey conducted in the UK identify being prime minister as their career aspiration. Women may feel that politics does not fit with their caring responsibilities and others may be put off by the macho way politics is often conducted.
Secondly, even if women then get through that pipeline and decide to stand, party elites who select candidates often have a very clear idea of what the ideal candidate looks like – and he’s not often a woman.
Fawcett research in the UK identified a range of sexist incidents against female councillors in Britain, so is it any wonder that representation of women at local government level has stalled for over a decade at 32 percent.
It shouldn’t be surprising that the women who do make it through are exceptional political actors in their own right, and excel when they get the top jobs.
And it is not just politicians, the lack of women’s representation matters for all of us. The evidence is clear – getting more women in politics doesn’t just change politics and the nature of decision making, but the changes accelerate with the more women who take part.
Having more women in politics means more attention is paid to issues which specifically affect women, in areas like childcare, domestic violence, and equalities legislation.
Change too slow
Devolution in Wales and Scotland in the late 1990s saw unprecedented numbers of women elected to the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly, resulting in 50:50 representation in Wales in 2003. Within the first two terms of the Welsh Assembly, female legislators were responsible for raising childcare 62 percent of the times it was debated, for raising domestic violence 74 percent of the time, and equal pay 65 percent of the time. This resulted in tangible changes in policy: from longer maternity leave for teachers to housing priority for women fleeing domestic violence. The Hansard Society has argued that female legislators often became strong advocates for areas of policy of particular (but not exclusive) interest to women.
So how do we get more women at the top? Change has been too slow for too long, so Fawcett are calling for time-limited quotas for women in positions of power which will help to speed up progress wherever they are implemented, such as on corporate boards.
We also think that all political parties should use positive action measures, such as only shortlisting women in certain contests, to improve women’s representation at all levels. Focusing on local government is important as a pipeline for strong candidates, but one often overlooked.
And it seems obvious, but basic diversity data is often still not collected on people standing for and achieving positions of power, so we recommend that the British Electoral Commission collect and publish diversity data on candidates in the UK at local and national elections and for other countries to do the same.
It has never been a more exciting time for women in politics and yet women are still startlingly absent from the decision making table. Equal representation of women is not just fair, it is good politics and good policy for all of us too.