Comment: Why we need all-women shortlists in parliament

The Labour Party has the highest number and proportion of female MPs, having used all-women shortlists since 1997

 

It’s nearly 100 years since women were first permitted to stand for parliament. Yet there are fewer female MPs in history than men sitting in the House of Commons right now. The pace of change is painfully slow, as highlighted by the recent publication of ‘Sex and Power 2015’ by the Counting Women In coalition.

The evidence within ‘Sex and Power’ makes it clear that change is quickest where there is positive action. The number of female MPs shoots up when all women shortlists are used. The Labour Party has the highest number and proportion of female MPs, having used all-women shortlists since 1997.

Labour also ensure that women make up at least 50 per cent of candidates in winnable seats. It’s not enough to just be selected: women have to be selected in seats they can win.

David Cameron committed to a cabinet which is at least a third female – and at 32 per cent he’s come pretty close. He set a target, women were promoted and it was achieved. Yet there is no target for junior ministers, a key pipeline into the big jobs; women make up only 24 per cent of these positions.

It’s time to get serious about quotas and targets for political selection and positions of power. Progress is not inevitable – Cameron’s cabinet being a third female is great, but it only returns us to the level seen under Tony Blair in 1997 – that’s 18 years of standing still in government.

Two objections are typically levelled against all-women shortlists or other forms of positive action. The first is that people should get to the top on their merit, and positive action means the best candidate may be excluded. The problem with this argument is that it assumes we are working within a perfect meritocracy – completely ignoring all the evidence that we aren’t.

Behind selection and promotion processes are power structures that influence who is successful; who gets influential backing or who has the money to run the best campaign. At the moment these structures, on the whole, favour men and that’s why men are more likely to be selected.

The trouble is that we can’t change these structures until we get more women into positions of power – so quotas and all-women shortlists are actually about levelling the playing field, not giving women an unfair advantage.

The second objection is that women who are selected on all-women shortlists or promoted under a system of quotas lose credibility, that they get accused of only being there because they are a woman.

But – as the RSA’s Matthew Taylor pointed out at the Fawcett Society’s AGM a week ago – this becomes transparently untrue as soon as people see that the women who have become MPs or ministers are every bit as good as their male colleagues. Who now can remember which of the 1997 intake won on an all-women shortlist or an open selection?

With the planned reduction in constituencies from 650 to 600 there is a real risk that progress won’t just stall but actually go backwards. As incumbents compete for seats we must ensure that this doesn’t equal a reduction in the proportion of women in parliament. We need positive action, not just to progress but to protect what we’ve got. Simply waiting for change won’t do it – a hundred years is long enough already.

Jemima Olchawski is head of Policy and Insight at the Fawcett Society.

9 Responses to “Comment: Why we need all-women shortlists in parliament”

  1. damon

    How come there are so few women van drivers?
    There are loads of jobs that are mostly done by men.
    Usually the more unpleasant ones.
    Street sweepers for example.

  2. Giles Farthing

    so positive discrimination is ok by you then, so where does it stop, why not all black short lists or all gay shortlists?

  3. Zarniwoop

    Where are the all women sewage workers? Anything dirty is usually done by men and an all woman shortlist does not imply the best person for the job.

  4. Sid

    I think that we would be much better off with the best person, man or woman, for the job.

  5. Puddle

    ” At the moment these structures, on the whole, favour men and that’s why men are more likely to be selected.” – A proper citation here wouldn’t have gone amiss, the fact you didn’t think to include one is rather telling.

    ” all-women shortlists are actually about levelling the playing field, not giving women an unfair advantage.” – All empirical evidence points to the contrary; indeed it is about saying women can’t compete on an even playing field, the unintended consequence of this rhetoric is that women feel inadequate and don’t push themselves to achieve what they’re capable of.

    “Who now can remember which of the 1997 intake won on an all-women shortlist or an open selection?” – Translates into “people have short memories therefore positive discrimination (illegal in all other aspects of life in this country) is suddenly OK”? I would counter this with “who remembers when this country elected a woman as prime minister without throwing away liberal values?”

    “all-women shortlists or promoted under a system of quotas lose credibility, that they get accused of only being there because they are a woman.” – This is precisely whats happening in Germany who recently passed legislation mandating women make up a certain % of all boards of directors. These women are now complaining that no-one takes them seriously, from the higher-ups to the toilet cleaners.

    In summary this article is yet another thinly veiled excuse for increased authoritarianism as the feminist utopia promised to women in the 70s and 80s never emerged and now women are the unhappiest they’ve been since WWII.

  6. jj

    Best person for the job, woman man or giraffe… to be honest, discrimination can never be, ‘positive’.

  7. Mike B

    When my CLP decided to renew AWS we carried out a thoughtful and detailed discussion first. It was the general opinion that there was not a level playing field in the selection process and that a good selection of women candidates was important. Could this have happened without AWS? Quite possibly but the balance of probabilities would mitigate against fine suitable women coming through so we made our decision. This is not set in stone but we do now have an effective active women MP. Just one final point – as a CLP we originated AWS but that was not a deciding factor.

  8. Richard Gadsden

    We do not need all-women shortlists.

    There is not a shortage of women in the House of Commons. There is an excess of men.

    We need no-men shortlists. And their existence should be tied to the excess of men.

    Firstly, no-men shortlists are named honestly. The purpose is to reduce the numbers of men where they are excessive.

    Secondly, they ensure that non-binary people are not excluded. I’ve seen non-binary people put off, and even trans women who were not convinced they would be accepted in an all-women shortlist. A no-men shortlist would make it clear and obvious that they are accepted.

    Thirdly, it is much easier to apply this principle to other equality strands than it is to try to have all-X lists for most of the other Xes.. No white men. No white cis men. No middle-class men. No Oxbridge graduates. No-one that went to a private school – whatever.

    You just say “we have a limit on how many of this over-represented group can be MPs, and once we’ve hit it, that’s it”.

  9. Ethan

    a difficult argument to make it assumes, women are the group most likely to be discriminated against, when there is poor representation from other faith and ethnic groups

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