Where are all the women?

Are women being under-represented in politics and what can help redress the in balance - Ronit Wolfson investigates.

By Ronit Wolfson

Looking around the audience at the Progress annual conference this weekend I was struck, as I often am at these type of events, at how few female faces I saw. From what I can gather, the Fabian Society conference the week before wasn’t much better. The question we need to ask ourselves is not can Progress (or the Fabians) do more – events like Progress’ recent women’s only selection training are just one example of the support women on the left can expect from the organisation.


The real question is at a conference which is self-selecting, why were less than a third of attendees women? Stephen Twigg MP commented that at the foreign policy break out session, at which he was speaking, there was a distinct lack of women both on the panel and in the audience (six women compared with 33 men). I don’t think that these numbers would have changed much had the panel included Harriet Harman or Jen Gerber.

The Tory-led government is not standing up for women, is not speaking for women and is not representing women. While Ken Clarke’s comments could be read as a bit of an own goal from an experienced politician, regressive views about women still appear to be prevalent among Tories – recent comments by Nadine Dorries and Roger Helmer MEP are but two examples.

Sexist dinosaurs aside, women are being disproportionately affected by the cuts. I do not believe that only women can speak for women, but any party that claims to do so must be representative.

There are not enough women in politics – at all levels. The fact that are only three women in the Scottish shadow cabinet is an embarrassment and undermines our feminist credentials. Yes, we need more support and more visible role models but to some extent, sisters need to do it for themselves.

Liv Bailey stood up this weekend and asked Ed Miliband if Labour was a feminist party. I believe we are, and that the values of feminism are, for most of us, at the heart of what we stand for. So as we rebuild and regroup in opposition we must seek to rectify the massive under representation of women in our movement. But it starts with us.

They say that decisions are made by those who turn up, and I hope that at the next Progress annual conference more of us decide to do so.

26 Responses to “Where are all the women?”

  1. Hazel June Nolan

    Where are all the women? //bit.ly/l19WU1 by @RonitWolfson #PAC11

  2. Clive Morgan

    Where are all the women? //bit.ly/l19WU1 by @RonitWolfson #PAC11

  3. Dawn Lewis

    Where are all the women? //bit.ly/l19WU1 by @RonitWolfson #PAC11

  4. EVAWhd

    Where are all the women? //bit.ly/l19WU1 by @RonitWolfson #PAC11

  5. Isabel

    I should have been there…. RT @leftfootfwd: Where are all the women? //t.co/36QiFgN.

  6. Riven

    Where are all the women? //bit.ly/l19WU1 by @RonitWolfson #PAC11

  7. Sue Curry

    RT @leftfootfwd: Where are all the women? //t.co/l6Ajsy4

  8. Dave Citizen

    One way to increase the proportion of women involved in decision making in our democracy is to do what has been shown to work elsewhere – Nordic countries such as Sweden have successfully used quota systems to transform levels of women in parliament and wider politics.

    In Britain there are probably other barriers that need to be tackled at the same time – like our FPTP voting system (oops) and the informal quota systems that fast tracks old Etonians and the like into safe seats.

    Women may also be put off by the rather out-dated, aggressive-defensive style of politics still taking place in Parliament and beyond. This method of debating is particularly hard to penetrate with anything other than more of the same.

  9. Adele Reynolds

    RT @leftfootfwd Where are all the women? //t.co/zSkvVZA by @RonitWolfson #PAC11 > as stated by @livbailey lab must be feminist party

  10. Olivia Bailey

    RT @leftfootfwd Where are all the women? //t.co/zSkvVZA by @RonitWolfson #PAC11 > as stated by @livbailey lab must be feminist party

  11. Ronit Wolfson

    RT @leftfootfwd Where are all the women? //t.co/zSkvVZA by @RonitWolfson #PAC11 > as stated by @livbailey lab must be feminist party

  12. Mr. Sensible

    Dave Citizen, I support the use of positive descrimination to a point. There is no doubt that the use of All-women Shortlists has lead to a significant increase in female MPs, particularly on the Labour benches; I think Labour still have more women MPs than the Coalition parties despite having fewer seats overall.

    The problem is, however, that I think overuse of such a method could in fact prove counterproductive. You refer to what’s going on in parts os Scandinavia, but as I pointed out in response to a similar discussion on here in February, a Guardian Editorial at the time suggested that the number of women directors in Norway has actually fallen by around 10% because “quotas have led to personally damaging appointments. Some women Labour MPs might sympathise with the nightmarish consequences of being propelled into high-visibility, high-risk roles with inadequate preparation and a noisy mob willing you to fail.”
    //www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/feb/21/women-management-report?CMP=EMCGT_210211&

    Like I say, such measures have their uses, but overuse of them could prove counterproductive.

  13. Red Bek

    I agree, this is a huge issue. However, I think women are masters at putting obstacles in their own way, let alone having to get round those put there by society. You can’t generalise or stereotype women, but I do think that many of us lack the assertiveness and confidence to make inroads into what is seen as a male domain (and yes, that is how politics is perceived by many – look at the government front bench. No, don’t, it’s a horrible sight!). When someone suggested to me that I stood as a candidate in the local elections, I immediately thought of all the reasons why I couldn’t, and just didn’t understand why anyone had even bothered asking me. And yet I’m well educated, have a responsible professional job, run a household, care strongly about politics, God, I even attend Fabian conferences! Somewhere there is a missing link and I don’t know what it is other than a lack of self belief that holds a lot of us back. I wonder whether there would be more of a female uptake for Fabian/Progress etc events if they were regularly held around the country rather than London – at a time when incomes are squeezed, the train fare from the north for example is an obstacle to some women who might attend a more local event.
    And of course, there is the need for politicians to make politics relevant to people’s lives (men and women), and I don’t think they do that very well. They need to move beyond the broadsheets and late night or early Sunday political programmes and get their messages across via a wider range of means, but I think many of them see that as inappropriate. Therefore they remain pretty anonymous and don’t hook women in. Many of my friends couldn’t give a toss about politics unless there is a general election looming, they think I am a bit odd for having an interest in it. I’m not odd, I just see the things I care about being threatened and I want to help stop it happening where I can. I guess more of us need to take a deep breath and go for it, then encourage more of our sisters to join us.

  14. Rob Stickler

    RT @leftfootfwd: Where are all the women? //bit.ly/l19WU1 by @RonitWolfson #PAC11

  15. Mr. Sensible

    Red Bek I guess it would help if Theresa May started asserting herself more within the Coalition as Minister for Women and Equalities; she’s obviously not having much effect within her own cabinet, is she.

  16. Chris

    I think the weak showing of women inside parliament is also to blame. People like Theresa May (she’s Minister for Women and Equality don’t you know?) and Harriet Harman have had more of a detrimental effect on the proportion of women coming into frontline politics than cuts could have managed to achieve.

  17. Emma Donaldson

    RT @leftfootfwd: Where are all the women? //t.co/AkvR62m

  18. Robert

    Male human

    Female human.

    Disabled sub human

    How many disabled people either female or male did you see.

  19. oldpolitics

    “The real question is at a conference which is self-selecting, why were less than a third of attendees women?”

    I guess because the target audience was mostly Labour Party members, and the available data suggests that the party membership is two-thirds male as well; the issue runs much deeper than people realise, it’s not (any longer) mainly women not being selected for positions and candidacy. It’s that they aren’t there at all.

  20. Mr. Sensible

    Chris, May I could understand, but Harman? How?

  21. Ed's Talking Balls

    Labour will have to do something about this.

    It’s shameful that the party has never had a female leader, allowed Jack Dromey to win on an all-female shortlist and stood by while Gordon Brown treated Caroline Flint as window dressing.

    Not good enough. Labour has to look at itself in the mirror.

  22. Yvonne

    I’ve been a Labour Party member off and on (on just now) since 1989 – based in Scotland. Branch and Constituency culture at that time was resolutely male – women made the tea and washed the dishes; organised fund-raising and only held officer positions in accordance with what was left over after carve-up by the men. Since that time minor successes have been secured – many of the women who were active in the Labour Women’s Caucus have become elected reps at either council, devolved parliament or Westminster levels. But I’ve watched as all-women short-lists are vilified by Constituencies here – particularly when the women candidates appear from nowhere and seem to be foisted upon local areas by the centre. In other areas all-women short-lists have been quietly set aside and male candidates pushed to the front – the rules are forgotten about when favours are owed. Politics has tended to be the preserve of the male. In Labour this has been the trade union male (I’ve worked for a trade union and they are great on pro-female rhetoric but not so good at promoting female candidates to senior positions – the TU culture remains resolutely ‘male’). Yes, politics is a dirty business. The hours are anti-family (maybe not very pro-human in fact). It takes a particular assertive (aggressive), confident (egotistical), resilient (brass-necked) type of person to consider they’ve ‘got what it takes’. Unfortunately women (in my humble experience) tend not to value those particular qualities as highly as a great many male colleagues do… Add to this the marginalising of women that goes on in general society – mirrored by the social micro-cosm of political parties – the representation of the female politician as eye-candy or window-dressing and as qualified only to comment on ‘women’s issues’… Is it any wonder that women – busy working and holding families together – simply turn their backs on formal political structures.

  23. oldpolitics

    “It’s shameful that the party has never had a female leader” – technically it has, but I suppose only because there’s no such position as acting leader in the constitution

  24. Catherine

    Chris’s comment about Harriet Harman is extremely telling. While I’ve not always been in agreement with her as with any prominent politician she has done some absolutely stirling work. Her leadership in the interim before Ed Miliband was first class and I was extremely disappointed not to have the opportunity to put a mark against her in the leadership election. Yet she is unpopular, more so than others of similarly strong Blairite convictions. It is clear that this unpopularity is led to a great extent by the pure vitriol that has been directed at her, largely by the right but unfortunately I’ve also seen it picked up by Labour members, for daring to express feminist sentiments (anti-man, “harperson”) and for the old chestnut of being an outspoken woman (“shrill”) – this is her caricature.

    I’m enjoying reading and nodding along with these comments (Yvonne especially) – there are many reasons why women do not feel encouraged to participate at senior levels in public life and I certainly do not mean to suggest that blatant discrimination is entirely or even mostly to blame. But Chris does hit this particular nail on the head. Why as an ambitious and outspoken woman would I want to expose myself to pure hate from the unreasonable and unpopularity amongst the reasonable simply for speaking my mind and voicing what I would consider to be pretty uncontroversial opinions – being a woman putting herself forward, basically. I wouldn’t be prepared to either act like a man or to take a secondary role to keep my head down. The bottom line is that Harman is judged for who she is as much as what she says or does.

    Now would I wish as an MP to either be told to “Calm down dear”, or to be yelled at by some pompous Tory bully in a lift!

    Political life is tough on both men and women, but these particular challenges would cut right through my armour.

  25. Jane

    I’m with Yvonne on this – looking at national politicians is just seeing the top of the pyramid; what lies beneath, the unions and local branches have to evolve too for there to be a chance of women, and in turn a feminine political style, ever being a majority in the national arena. It’s still a heavily macho, aggressive and masculine structure in which a successful woman needs to play on the men’s terms. Politically correct rhetoric and ‘initiatives’ to include more women don’t address the reality that the culture is dominated by masculine styles of working. To me that’s why individual women in positions of leadership aren’t inspiring – there will always be many who break convention, but by succeeding in a male culture they become part of that themselves, and don’t, indeed should not, be held accountable for the broader inaccessibility of politics.

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