More female candidates today, but parliaments remain grossly unequal

Reasons to be cheerful on gender representation, but here is some context


Women are on the ballot today in higher numbers than recent years – though on a longer time-span, female representation has fluctuated, and we remain far from gender parity.

Research by Democratic Dashboard shows how there are more women running in today’s elections for the Welsh, Scottish, Northern Irish and London Assemblies than in 2011.

The biggest changes are found in Scotland and Northern Ireland, where the number of female candidates is up by 10.1 per cent and 10.5 per cent respectively.

That’s amid improvements across the board, with a rise of 4.1 per cent in Wales and 6.4 per cent in London on the ballot paper since the last elections.

Gender 2011 2016

However, a bit of context changes the picture considerably.

Northern Ireland has suffered from very few women running or elected to public office, and (not incidentally) still has the most conservative laws on women’s rights issues, such as abortion, than elsewhere in the UK.

Of the 108 seats in the Northern Irish Assembly, following the last elections in 2013, only 20 seats (19 per cent) are held by women, against 88 seats for men.

Looked at this way, the 2016 increase of 10.5 per cent female candidates is really just making up from an abnormally poor record on gender parity. The same would apply to a lesser extent for the increase in all four of the regions voting today.

On top of that, the numbers look different in historical context. As Democratic Dashboard notes, the first London Assembly in 2000 saw 48 per cent of seats filled by women. Today, following the 2012 elections, there are only eight female members (32 per cent) on the 25-seat London Assembly.

Wales has had a strong record on gender representation since devolution, with 24 women and 36 men elected to the 60-seat Welsh Assembly in its first elections in 1999, and then becoming the first UK parliament to achieve a 50/50 split (30 seats each) in 2003.

Gender elections

However, this was followed by a drop in female members, first to 28 seats for women in 2007 and than back to the 1999 levels of 24 to 36 in 2011.

Similarly, Scotland saw 40 per cent of seats filled by female MSPs in 2003, before experiencing its worst year for gender representation since the parliament’s founding in 1999, with a drop to 35 per cent, in 2007. Numbers were only slightly higher in 2011.

Meanwhile, the UK parliament in Westminster has a pathetic 191 women (29 per cent) in its 650-seat House of Commons, as of last year’s general election.

On the plus side, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland can boast a number of female party leaders, from Arlene Foster in Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), to Leanne Wood in Wales’s Plaid Cymru, to Nicola Sturgeon (SNP), Kezia Dugdale (Labour) and Ruth Davidson (Conservatives) in Scotland.

And Labour has more female candidates than men running in Scotland for the first time.

Whether the higher number of female candidates this election will translate into greater female representation on these assemblies is, of course, in the hands of the voters.

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