On Friday 15 May, the PSA Women and Politics Specialist Group and the Political Leadership Specialist Group – supported by Birkbeck and Canterbury Christ Church University – co-hosted a workshop on ‘Women, Gender and Political Leadership’. The increasing prominence of female leadership and recruitment, ranging from the UK General Election debates to the US Presidential race, has given the study of gender and political leadership a new urgency and importance. This one-day event – organised by Dr. Mark Bennister (Canterbury Christ Church), Dr. Meryl Kenny (Leicester), and Dr. Ben Worthy (Birkbeck) – brought together 40 participants to explore this under-researched area, examining in detail the challenges for women in office and the means by which they can attain it.
Academic research exploring gender and political leadership both within and beyond the UK was presented at the workshop, beginning with an opening panel focused on comparative selection and leadership performance. Papers in this session explored the relationship between political leadership and performance feedback; differing logics of access to legislative and executive office; and the question of whether women leaders were more like to promote women ministers. The second panel of the day focused on the UK context, with papers on women and political leadership in Scotland; gender and PMQs; the impact of Margaret Thatcher; and gendered conceptions of the ‘good’ prime minister. The final session of the day moved beyond Europe to look at the gendered tensions of ‘First Ladyship’; women’s political leadership in Zambia; and the political oratory of Hillary Clinton.
The event also featured a plenary roundtable with Professor Tim Bale (QMUL), Dr. Rainbow Murray (QMUL) and Dr. Rosie Campbell (Birkbeck), reflecting on the 2015 General Election (pictured above). This roundtable is available as a podcast: http://backdoorbroadcasting.net/2015/05/women-gender-and-political-leadership/ Plans are underway to follow up the workshop with further events and panels, as well as academic outputs, and PSA members interested in this research agenda are recommended to contact either of the Specialist Groups to get involved.
The run-up to the 2015 General Election was dominated by coverage of ‘dangerous women’ shaking up the status quo in British politics – ranging from the ‘scarlet sisterhood’ of female party leaders to the now infamous photo-shopped ‘wrecking ball’ image of Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. In the end, a record high of 191 women MPs (29%) were elected to the House of Commons on 7 May, an increase of 48 women from the immediate post-2010 election results. With the resignations of Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband, five of Britain’s main political parties are now led by women – including interim party leaders Harriet Harman (Labour), Sal Brinton (Lib Dem)…and (briefly) Suzanne Evans (UKIP) until Nigel Farage’s recent ‘un-resignation’.
Yet, while these gains are to be welcomed, women’s presence at Westminster remains a long way from parity. The 2015 election results…
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Ahead of the 2015 election, broadcaster Jeremy Paxman argued that voters were being given a choice “between one man who was at primary school with Boris Johnson and one man who was at secondary school with him – both of whom did PPE at Oxford”.
Throughout the campaign, we’ve been gathering data on the parliamentary candidates to see if this lack of choice plays out across the board. Do the people elected to represent the UK, bear any resemblance to the public they represent?
Women on the rise
This year saw 48 more women elected that in 2010 – bringing the total number of women MPs to a record 191. Women make up 29% of newly elected MPs, up from 22% in 2010.
The Green party had the highest percentage of women candidates selected at 38%, but with chances in only a handful of seats, they had little chance of affecting parliamentary gender balance.
Labour has the highest proportion of women in its parliamentary party. Its record number of 99 women MPs is the result of using all-women shortlists and the decision to put a majority of women candidates (53%) in winnable seats. So Labour’s conversion rate was higher, despite its poor performance in the polls.
Party breakdown (percentages are rounded). Parliamentary Candidates UK, Author provided
With 26% of women candidates selected, the Tories have 68 women MPs, up from 47 in the last parliament. Although there was no equivalent of the A-List David Cameron used in 2010 to increase the number of women put forward for winnable seats, the Tories did place women in 38% of their retirement seats.
One of the key reasons for the increase in the number of women MPs is the performance of the SNP. The Scottish party came second and tied with Labour in terms of the percentage of women candidates selected (34%) and added 20 women MPs to the overall total – as well as the youngest in Mhairi Black.
Perhaps surprisingly, given accusations of racism within the party, 6% of UKIP candidates were black or from an ethnic minority group. That’s more than the SNP, the Greens and Plaid.
The vote on May 7 saw 41 BME MPs elected to parliament, and increase on 2010 where 27 MPs were elected. MPs from non-white backgrounds make up just 6% of Parliament.
BME MPs. Percentages are rounded. Parliamentary Candidates UK, Author provided
Prior to the election, it was suggested that the Conservatives had closed the gap with Labour when it came to the proportion of black and ethnic minority candidates in the running. Our data show that the Tories led the way with 10% of BME candidates selected to stand in 2010, compared to 8% for Labour and LibDems.
But this is not the success it seems when you look at winnable seats. While 13% of Labour’s black and ethnic minority candidates were placed in winnable or marginal seats, just 5% of those standing for the Conservatives found themselves in similar positions. Labour had 16 black and ethnic minority MPs in 2010 so the increase to 23 in 2015, despite poor polling, shows the importance of where candidates are placed.
The Tories were able to boost BME representation by selecting candidates in very safe retirement seats, including Rishi Sunak in Richmond, Yorkshire – a 44% Tory majority seat – and Suella Fernandes in Fareham, a seat with a 31% majority. The Tories now have 17 black and minority MPs – an increase of six from 2010.
The increased diversity in Westminster after the 2015 election is a success worth celebrating, but we should be careful not to lose sight of the big picture. Paxman’s general premise – that there isn’t a great deal of diversity amongst the candidates of the different parties – still holds.
Women MPs make up just 29% of the new parliament, that’s less than a third for a country where women make up 51% of the population. It also puts Britain behind many of its European counterparts (Germany, France, Sweden), and well behind countries like Rwanda, Cuba and Kazakhstan. And black and ethnic minority MPs make up just 6% of parliament, despite representing 13% of the population.
To put the progress made in perspective, the UK would need to elect 130 more women and double the current number of black and ethnic minority MPs to make its parliament descriptively representative of the population it serves – and the political parties are still not offering enough candidates from these groups in the right places to make that happen.
Chrysa Lamprinakou, Marco Morucci, Sally Symington, Sam Sharp and David Ireland also contributed to this article.
After all the speculation, we now know how all the parties fared in the general election. But what about women? Was this a good outcome for them? The answer is a qualified yes.
Women comprised a record number of candidates in the election, with 1,033 standing for election. Now no one can credibly argue that women don’t come forward or don’t want to stand for office. The candidates are there. And a record number of them won in 2015, taking the total number of women MPs from 147 (22.6%) to 191 (29.4%). While this means women have yet to breach the 30% (never mind 50%) threshold, it is at least a step in the right direction.
This average conceals stark disparities between the parties. Labour improved on 2010 levels (33.7%) to reach 42.7% women. As in 2010, Labour is a minority party within parliament but have an absolute majority of women MPs (99 out of 191). The SNP has 35.7% women, also a significant improvement from 2010 (fuelled in part by their spectacular success under their dynamic female leader). The Conservatives come in rather lower, at 20.5% women, but this is also a rise from the 2010 level (15.9%).
In fact, the only party to go backwards is the Liberal Democrats, which now has exactly zero women MPs. While some of the explanation for this disaster lies in their overall catastrophic election result, the party was only set to have one woman MP even when it looked like it was going to get 20-odd seats. The women who wore “I am not a token woman” t-shirts when the party rejected quotas may now be regretting the fact that the parliamentary party has no women, token or otherwise, among its ranks.
Given the large differences in women elected by party, we can infer that the proportion of women elected was influenced by the balance of power between the parties. The seats lost by the Lib Dems to the Conservatives helped to boost the overall proportion of women, while the seats lost by Labour to the SNP and especially to the Conservatives had the opposite effect. These effects largely cancelled each other out, meaning that the final total of women was only one shorter than the number predicted by the Electoral Reform Society, who forecast 192 women MPs.
Women in cabinet
One consequence of having more women on the government backbenches is that David Cameron had a better choice of female candidates for his new government. (He was also no longer constrained by an all-male Lib Dem front bench, which always brought down the total percentage of women in government.) The new cabinet is 31% women; seven women cabinet ministers out of 22, plus two out of seven ministers who also attend cabinet. That’s the good news, and it’s not to be sniffed at.
The cream of the 2010 crop had started to rise by 2014, and they are now continuing to work their way up the ranks. While 31% is still a far cry from gender equality, it should be noted that this compares favourably to the proportion of women in the parliamentary party (20%), indicating that Cameron is striving to present a more representative image for his party. This is also indicated by the strategic placement of women in the photo of the 2015 cohort of Tory MPs.
The women promoted to the government in 2014 and 2015 now form a pipeline ready to rise to the top jobs in the future. This is as well, because the bad news is that there are still very few women in those top jobs. The BBC’s list of new cabinet members, which is near enough in order of seniority, has nine men in the top ten positions – only Theresa May, who retains her position as home secretary, holds a senior post. The other women are concentrated in the lower ranks of the cabinet. But at least they are there, ready to continue rising in the future.
Will the increased presence of women in cabinet help to resolve Cameron’s so-called “women problem”? Symbolically, it sends out a good message to women voters. Substantively, it remains to be seen.
The previous government was criticised for making decisions that negatively affected women, in part due to women’s absence from the decision-making process. The Tory party manifesto promises more cuts to benefits which are likely to have a particularly negative effect on women. The key question is whether having more women at the table will stop the government from making decisions that could damage their reputation – and destroy women’s lives.
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After the 2015 election, 29% of MPs are women, compared to 23% in 2010. 191 women were elected at the 2015 General election, 44 more than in 2010. 191 is the highest ever number of women in the House of Commons.
Women MPs by party include: 99 Labour, 68 Conservative, 20 SNP and no Liberal Democrats.
Labour MPs are just over half (52%) of all women MPs and Conservative 36%. The Labour proportion is higher relative to their 35% share of total MPs and the Conservative proportion is lower than their 51% of all MPs of both sexes.