What’s the problem? Women in Politics

At the moment I’m volunteering with the rather fabulous WAITS (Women Acting In Today’s Society). We’re currently working on a CEDAW (http://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/cedaw/) based campaign to help tackle a Women’s Rights issue that we feel is important. In the last meeting I volunteered to do some research based on Article 38 of CEDAW:

 

and find out whether there is a need for a Birmingham based campaign aimed at getting women more involved in politics and public life. It’s a pretty broad field so I decided to focus my research on female MP’s.

It’s a funny one because, whilst I feel that working towards increasing the number of female MP’s is hugely important, one of the other members of the group brought up an issue I’d not heard of before in relation to another article that, if her research shows it’s as bad as she thinks, would probably be a more appropriate and immediately necessary topic for our campaign (I’ll explain the issue in full in the future if we decide to campaign about it!).

However, partly because I’m a bit of a nerd and mostly because I reckon that, even if we don’t pick this topic for our campaign this time the research will be useful in the future, I’ve been looking into the deficit of female MP’s in Birmingham, what’s putting women off becoming MP’s and what we can do about it, and here’s what I’ve found (unfortunately my lovely colourful graphs refuse to be posted on blogger so sorry for the wordyness):

Today, just 22% of MPs in the House of Commons and 20% of members of the House of Lords are women.

The first female MP took her seat in 1919. It’s taken 93 years for female representation to go from 0% to 22%. Given the well documented disproportionate effect the recent austerity cuts have had on women and women’s services, the fact that domestic violence remains the second most frequently reported crime in the UK and that a wide variety of studies have shown that teams which include women are more successful than exclusively male teams[i], we definitely can’t afford to wait another 93 years to get an equal female presence in Parliament, the most important decision making body in the country.

At the moment there are currently more millionaires in the cabinet than women[ii].

In Birmingham there are also issues.

 Only 10 women have been an MP in Birmingham since 1945.  Here they are[iii]:
Name
Election date
Party
Constituency
From
to
Years
Edith Wills
5 Jul 1945
Labour
Duddeston
1945
1950
  5
Dame Edith Pitt DBE   
2 Jul 1953
Conservative
Edgbaston
1953
1966
13
Dame Jill Knight, DBE   
31 Mar 1966
Conservative
Edgbaston
1966
1997
31
Mrs Doris Fisher
18 Jun 1970
Labour
Ladywood
1970
1974
4
Miss Sheila Wright
3 May 1979
Labour
Handsworth
1979
1983
4
Rt Hon Clare Short
9 Jun 1983
Labour (’06 – Ind Lab)
Ladywood
1983
2010
27
Dr Lynne Jones
9 Apr 1992
Labour
Selly Oak
1992
2010
18
Rt Hon Baroness Estelle Morris
9 Apr 1992
Labour
Yardley
1992
2005
13
Ms Gisela Stewart
1 May 1997
Labour
Edgbaston
1997
date
14+
Shabana Mahmood
6 May 2010
Labour
Ladywood
2010
date
1+
There are currently 10 constituencies in Birmingham:
There have been 18 general elections since 1945[iv].
So, taking into account women who’ve served multiple terms in office and constituency boundary changes between 1945 and 2010 out of a potential 213 MP’s[v] that have represented Birmingham 34 have been women. That means that only 16% of our MP’s over the past 67 years have been female.
At the moment we have two female MP’s, 20%. Unfortunately this is actually the lowest number of female MP’s since the 1987-1992 Parliament. There has actually been a decrease in the number of female MP’s in Birmingham over the past decade.
General Election
Male MP’s in Birmingham
Female MP’s In Birmingham
Thus 5th July 1945
12
1
Thu 23rd Feb 1950
12
1
Thu 25th Oct 1951
12
1
Thu 26th May 1955
12
1
Thu 8th Oct 1959
12
1
Thu 15th Oct 1964
12
1
Thu 31st Mar 1966
12
1
Thu 18th June 1970
11
2
Thu 28th Feb 1974
10
2
Thu 10th Oct 1974
11
1
Thu 3rd May 1979
11
1
Thu 9th June 1983
9
2
Thu 11th June 1987
9
2
Thu 9th April 1992
8
3
Thu 1st May 1997
6
4
Thu 7th June 2001
7
3
Thu 5th May 2005
7
3
Thu 6th May 2010
8
2

My Research:

On the 25th January I created an online survey aimed at gaining a rough idea of what women perceive as the main barriers preventing them from wanting to become MP’s, here are my results:
Are you:
Female
30
Male
0
Other
0

Which Political Party (if any) are you a registered member of?
Labour
1
Conservative
3
Liberal Democrats
1
None
24
Green Party
1

Which Political Party (if any) do you most identify with?
Labour
11
Conservative
6
Liberal Democrats
4
None
7
Green Party
2

Would you ever consider trying to become an MP?
Yes
2
Maybe
8
Not Sure
5
No
15

Which would the main areas of concern that would put you off becoming an MP? (You may select multiple answers)
The high pressure work load
12
40%
The work hours negatively affecting family life
12
40%
The work hours negatively affecting social life
6
20%
The negative portrayal of MP’s in the press
11
36.7%
The male dominated environment of the Houses of Parliament
6
20%
I don’t know how to become an MP
12
40%
I don’t feel strongly about any political party
18
60%
The process of becoming and MP is
too long and complicated
8
26.7%
I don’t know what an MP’s role entails
6
20%
The large amounts of traveling involved
5
16.7%
I’d be interested in becoming an MP but I don’t think I’d ever be selected as a candidate
5
16.7%
There are no concerns putting me off trying to become an MP
0
0%
Other (please specify)*
3
10%

*The MPs in the public eye are all either cowards or self-important to the point that they don’t actually care about what they do as long as they are in power. Who would want to have these people around them every day? You’d go insane.

31/1/2012 18:25View Responses
Doesn’t seem like a democratic process i.e ‘safe seats’; potentially not representing an area you resonate with; also concerned that I am too middle class
26/1/2012 8:42View Responses

The fact no one gives a f**k what you say or appreciates any amount of work you do and at the end of the day, its still your fault

Can you name any groups/organisations that are currently running campaigns aimed at getting women more involved in politics?
Tory Party Initiative to get more women in the Cabinet
1
Women Into Politics
1
UK Feminista
1
No/No Answer Provided
27

What solutions have already occurred?

The lack of female MP’s isn’t a recently recognised phenomenon and various groups have already implemented programmes to try and help tackle this issue, most famously the all female shortlists utilised by the Labour Party in some constituencies during the 1997 General Election. Statistically speaking this approach had a significant impact, greatly contributing to the increase in female MP’s from 60 to 120 during that parliament.

Most recently in 2011 David Cameron pledged to increase the proportion of women in the cabinet to one third by 2015. The Counting Women In pressure group (http://www.countingwomenin.org/) is currently running a campaign aimed at making Mr Cameron keep his word.

In Northern Ireland the Women Into Politics organisation is a CEDAW based campaign group aimed at raising awareness of, and working with grassroots organisations to provide, workshops, information and training for women to help them get ahead in politics.
In the UK various women’s organisations such as UK Feminista, the Women’s Institute and the Fawcett Society campaign to raise awareness of the disproportionately low number of female MP’s and support national campaigns such as Counting Women In and individuals such as the Home Secretary Theresa May  are highly vocal about the need for more women in Parliament.

However, in my research I’ve yet to come across a large scale UK based campaign aimed at encouraging women to get involved in politics at grass roots level, the campaigns are more typically based around quotas within Parliament and the parties themselves.

What do I propose?

From my research (which I freely admit is far from conclusive) I found that the major concerns most commonly shared by the women who filled in this survey were:

I don’t feel strongly about any political party: 60%
I don’t know how to become an MP: 40%
The high pressure work load: 40%
The work hours negatively affecting family life: 40%
The negative portrayal of MP’s in the press: 36.7%

Whilst we can’t really do anything about women feeling unable to identify with political parties or the workload of MPs, we can help educate women in how to become an MP and help tackle the issue of the negative portrayal of MP’s in the press by highlighting positive examples.

From my research I’ve yet to find a step by step guide to becoming an MP that isn’t either overly complicated and confusing or highly reductive and over simplified. One potential campaign could be to create a Birmingham specific online resource aimed at not only providing the general steps interested women would need to take in order to become MP’s but the addresses and contact details of the organisations they’d need to get hold of (such as the details of local political parties) and an honest description of the amount of time each step would take.

As part of the online resource we could also potentially get in contact with female MP’s and former MP’s from across the political spectrum and ask them to give either recorded interviews or written advice to women about how long becoming an MP took, the impact the job had on their family life and advice on how to get ahead in politics.

We could then promote the website to universities and schools and work with other women’s rights groups to help raise awareness of and build up content for the site.

The downsides: This plan isn’t perfect, we would have to raise a bit of money to get a decent website created and initially work quite hard to build up the content and contacts to interview. It would also require regular updating to ensure that the content remains accurate. It would be an on-going campaign as opposed to one with a definitive conclusion.

The upsides: As it would be an online resource the costs would be relatively small, the issue is a longstanding one so there is no great rush to have any project launched before any particular date and, as this is an issue that many women’s rights organisations feel passionate about, we would be quite likely to be able to find partner organisations who would want to get involved.

This is of course just one suggested campaign to help tackle the issue and I’m sure there are plenty of other options too.

I would also like to state that my results are by no means definitive and if we were to continue with this idea a more conclusive and professional survey would probably need to be created, perhaps taking into account which areas of Birmingham individuals are from, age, ethnicity and what level of education they’ve obtained in order to find which groups have the lowest level of MP aspirations, as well as whether women would actually find such a resource useful.


[i] ‘a recent study by psychologists at MIT and Carnegie Mellon, who divided people into teams and asked them to complete intelligence tasks together. The IQ scores of the groups’ members barely affected collective performance. The number of women on a team, however, affected it a lot–the more women, the better.’ http://www.fastcompany.com/magazine/161/branding-for-girls-advertising-for-women
[v] This figure takes into account boundary changes: between 1945 and 1970 there were 13 constituencies in Birmingham, 1974 to 1979 there were 12 constituencies, 1983 to 1992 there were 11 constituencies and from 1997 to present there are 10.
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