50:50 Parliament: What would it look like?

50:50 Parliament: What would it look like?

The following blog is an opinion piece by Anna Sanders. Anna is a postgraduate in politics at Manchester University and an Ambassador for 50:50 Parliament.

Women make up half of the population, and yet in Britain, they constitute fewer than three in ten MPs. With 133 female MPs needed before parity can be achieved, it’s difficult to envision what a 50:50 Parliament would actually look like.

Fortunately, we need look no further than the wealth of political research that exists on women’s impact in politics, in order to gain some idea of the change that could be achieved. I argue that a 50:50 Parliament would be more attentive to society’s needs, would be more co-operative, and would be feminised to the advantage of both women and men.

A lecturer once told me that throughout her journeys on the tube, she had always been deeply engrossed in the book she had in front of her. As the tube stopped, she had never thought to look up from her book to see if there were people less able to stand. It was only after she became pregnant that she realised the severe discomfort in standing, heavily pregnant, on a crowded tube. Since experiencing that discomfort, she has always made a conscious effort to actively look out for pregnant women at each stop, to offer her seat to.

Had she not gone through the experience of being pregnant, would she always remember to look out for pregnant women on the tube? Probably not. Therefore, it could be that, until we undergo a particular experience, we may accidentally overlook it. This is what Anne Phillips calls ‘overlooked interests’, in her book, The Politics of Presence (1995). In essence, a male-dominated legislature does not always fully consider the ramifications of policies on women. For instance, the ‘tampon tax’, a 5% VAT on sanitary products, classified women’s sanitary products as “non-essential, luxury items”. It was female MPs who first acknowledged the inherent unfairness in the ‘tampon tax’, and raised an Early Day Motion against it in 1998. Similarly, Yvette Cooper MP and the Fawcett Society produced figures revealing that the 2010 austerity measures hit women financially twice as hard as men. Of course, it would be fallacious to assume that austerity policies were deliberately targeted at women. But, like those that may forget to look for pregnant women on the tube, without enough women in Parliament, women’s needs are often subconsciously overlooked. A 50:50 Parliament would allow for different yet complementary experiences of men and women to be brought into policy-making. In doing so, this would ensure that the implications of policies are thought out more clearly, by a parliament that is aware of all of society’s needs.

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But is there a difference in women’s style of politics? This can be difficult to prove, as women are not a homogeneous group. Differences exist within sex, such as class and ideology. Notwithstanding, research indicates that women are often attributed with a more consensual, co-operative and less adversarial style of politics. With more women, a 50:50 Parliament could see an increase in these consensual and co-operative styles. Some women within politics have been criticised for their ‘less combative and aggressive style’. As a result, women in male-dominated institutions may sometimes result in mimicking their surrounding adversarial culture, in order to fit in with the status quo. Undoubtedly, women have a mix of masculine and feminine qualities. 50:50 Parliament would welcome this balance, which would ensure that female and male representatives are no longer pressured into acting one way over another.

This leads me to my third point. The current ethos in Parliament is one that fundamentally rests on masculine norms. Switch on Prime Minister’s Questions, and it doesn’t take long to witness the adversarial, aggressive nature of debates and gladiatorial ‘yah-boo’ politics that manifests within Westminster. Not only can this overwhelming essence of masculinity be intimidating to women, but it can also be intimidating to men. What about men’s interests? We tend to assume that because men comprise over 70% of Parliament, their interests are always adequately represented. However, like women, men’s interests are also heterogeneous and diverse. A parliament that perpetuates masculine behaviour can exclude male representatives who may not wish to conform to these patriarchal norms, and thus prevent them from raising sensitive issues in fear of being ostracised or labelled as stereotypically ‘weak’. This can have a pernicious impact on men’s representation, as issues such as childcare and breast cancer affect them, too.

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Women have, at times, taken up the responsibility of raising men’s issues; one of the most active campaigners on testicular cancer is a female MP. We know that with greater gender-balance typically comes a feminised policy agenda – one that is more favourable to women and men. Indeed, we can see this in other parts of the world. Sweden, currently rated 5th in the world for women’s representation, was the first country to introduce paternity leave. Paternity leave is taken by almost 90% of Swedish men today. In Norway, both parents take a mandatory two-week leave, and can then split up the 46-week parental leave, which is paid at a 100% rate. These policies ensure that the division of labour is split more equitably between men and women, by allowing women to re-enter the labour force, whilst men can spend time at home caring for their children. A 50:50 Parliament would be beyond men’s enlightened self-interest. Ideally, it would challenge masculine stereotypes within Parliament, encouraging men to speak about, rather than sideline, sensitive issues that affect them.

In order to achieve a 50:50 Parliament, we need to act on it. We can’t sit back and assume that representation will naturally increase by itself. In 2014, Britain actually saw a decline in the proportion of women in local government. For women’s representation in politics, the UK has slipped down the global league tables, from 33rd in 2001, to 40th in 2015. If there’s anything to learn from this, it is that we must be anything but complacent with the status quo.

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Anna Sanders is a postgraduate at the University of Manchester, specialising in Governance and Public Policy. Her PhD thesis focuses on the link between gendered policies and women’s voting behaviour. She is an active campaigner for gender equality and an Ambassador for 50:50 Parliament.