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.

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