29th Jan 2015
So, we want to achieve gender parity in local and national elections, and public life more widely, by 2020. It’s 6 years away, should be easy, yes? Hmm, maybe not. In 1997 the Westminster General election saw more women elected than in all the previous parliaments combined. The ratio has got worse since. In Wales the new assembly achieved almost 50% women back when it began 15 years ago, again the ratio has slipped since then. There are all kinds of things that can be done to improve participation, and it should start now (yesterday really, but hey let’s not be Dr Who about it).
To ensure you get women into parliament or an assembly or a local council they have to be elected, so you have to ensure that at least some of the women you select are in winnable seats, and/or you do a twinning or list system so that you guarantee some women will be elected.
To get elected you have to have been selected so you have to make sure that women are encouraged to go for short listing for a party and/or seat. You have to make sure the selecting panel understand why the party wants to select (and elect) women. They need to understand their likely own unconscious biases towards the default white male able bodied MP with photogenic wife and children. So, if necessary you do all women short lists. I know lots of women want to get there on their own merits, of course they do, but that assumes that selection processes are a meritocracy. But they’re not meritocracies, otherwise nearly a 100 years after the first female MP was elected (Constance Markieviez in 1918) we wouldn’t be in this pickle here in the second decade of the 21st century.
Individual selection panels need to understand how they fit with the wider party’s commitments and aspirations and see selecting a woman as a good thing even if they have been compelled to do it that way. And panels can helpfully remember that even if they know they have had a good record on gender in the past, adopting an all women short list process can be a powerful message about why and how they want to lead from the front in supporting women or indeed any underrepresented groups into government.
But to get women to the short list stage they have to have been encouraged to apply to their party’s ‘panel’ in the first place. This usually requires some encouragement, maybe some training, some support such as child care, some specific invitations, some mentoring, and even a hand up, such as a suit to wear to the interview, or some practice questions in advance at a trial run. It requires the women who have bucked the trend, who are already elected or appointed being willing to encourage those who are coming after them, give them tips, model the behaviour, and inspire them. If need be it might mean sitting down with someone to go through the forms that need to be submitted.
To get someone to the stage of applying to the panel means they have to be a part of a party in some way or another (different parties have different rules on their eligibility criteria). To do this the parties have to not just seem inclusive and supportive they actually have to be both inclusive and supportive. Maybe they provide child care at events, maybe they ensure people are subsidised to go to training, maybe they ensure that appropriate role models go to the kind of events and activities where women will be in order to recruit them. Parties can make it clear that they take women seriously, that they want women involved, that women’s concerns are their concerns. The language and imagery that parties use can actively help with this. If we know that people like us are in the party (are even quite prominent) we can more easily see ourselves there too.
To get to the stage of joining a political party of any kind you have to believe that politics makes a difference and that democratic participation by women is both essential and exciting. This can sometimes be at odds with media coverage of parliament or government or elected officials and politicians. So, even thinking about joining a party might require vision, hope, optimism and a tough skin. It probably means you’ve got some experience of doing something in your local community which has built your confidence and shown that you can achieve or support change in an effective way.