Last week, I attended an event held by an MP to bring younger members of our constituency together to discuss politics in an informal setting – a curry house.
Just before we were set to leave, the heavily publicised issue of Maria Miller’s expenses abuses, and consequent resignation from the Conservative Party was raised. I commented that I hoped the position of Minister for Women and Equalities would be filled quickly and that it would continue to be a member of the Cabinet.
After several moments’ silence, another member of the group responded with ‘Why?’ As an ardent feminist, and a feminist with aspirations to pursue a career in the world of politics, I replied that I thought the ministerial position sends a clear message regarding gender equality and progress towards 50-50 representation in Parliament. The MP then asked why I thought equal representation in Parliament was important. Before I had a chance to launch into my answer about how politics hasn’t caught up with progressive institutions that are gender equal, his personal assistant cut across me:
‘Think of all those women in Afghanistan, how bad things are for them. It makes you realise that we don’t really have it that bad, do we?’
‘There are less female MP’s because women are built to protect their nests and men aren’t. It puts too much pressure on female MP’s to tear them away from their families.’
What the woman stopped short of saying was that being an MP is a man’s job. I was so appalled by her input that I failed at the time to come up with an adequate response and left the curry house feeling shocked that not one person around that table agreed with me. It got me thinking. Why does equal representation matter? Why isn’t the fact that only 4 members of the Coalition cabinet are women, viewed as a failing? Why should we care how many women there are in relation to men?
Theoretically, Jane Mansbridge (1999) argues that allowing representatives from politically marginalised groups to in some sense share qualities of their constituents has notable advantages. There are two reasons for this; first, that descriptive representation reduces distrust through enhanced communication and thus increases democratic legitimacy. Secondly, that descriptive representation ‘furthers the substantive representation of interests by improving the deliberation’1
Practically, the equal representation of women and men is a matter of both social justice and democratic legitimacy. By omitting women from decisions of national importance, that fundamentally affect us all, different experiences and perspectives of one half of the country are ignored.
One only need look at the current Conservative-Liberal Democratic Coalition. The administration inherited an economy in recession, punctured by the global financial crisis and one heavily laden with public debt. The Coalition’s first term will predominantly be remembered by their stringent austerity measure strategy; to cut deep and fast with large scale cuts to social security, tax credits and public sector provisions.
The austerity measures were originally underpinned by David Cameron’s slogan stating ‘We are all in this together’2. However, it quickly became apparent that the austerity measures were disproportionately detrimental to women. Fundamentally, this is because women are more reliant than men on the government for three reasons. Typically, women are significantly more dependent on benefits and tax credits as a means of social insurance than men. Secondly, they rely on public services more heavily so dramatically lost out to the £34million cuts to services announced in 20103. Finally, women were hit by cuts to pay and jobs within the public sector with 40% of women in the UK work in public sector jobs and women making up 64% of the public sector workforce overall4.
The sheer disregard for these facts led to extensive research by The Fawcett Society into the cuts5, which enabled the pressure group to make a court case against the government based on the Gender Equality Duty law. This places an obligation on public authorities, by law, to have ‘due regard to the need to eliminate unlawful gender discrimination and harassment’ and to ‘promote equality of opportunity between women and men’ when carrying out their functions6. The society believed that the Coalition administration had overlooked the impact on women, in a way, which fundamentally undermined gender equality, and therefore the budget needed reviewing.
It seems logical to draw a parallel between the failure to recognise the disproportionate impact of the cuts on women and the poor levels of women in the Coalition administration. Of course there are other contributing factors at play here. However, I believe that having more female voices contributing ideas from a woman’s perspective in that Cabinet meeting could have dramatically changed the agenda. Similarly, my experience in the male dominated curry house demonstrates the kind of sexist attitude towards women that can develop in male dominated institutions. Had there been more women present, perhaps the view that being a politician was not a job for a woman would have been more aggressively challenged.
It is both backward and out-dated to think that women are underrepresented in Parliament because men are ‘more qualified’ at politics or ‘better suited’ to being politicians. Women are underrepresented because the Westminster institution has not adapted to allow women in. New Labour’s All Women’s Short Lists and the consequent influx of female MP’s in 1997 was a step in the right direction. However further progress can only be made if there is cross-party acknowledgment that this is in fact a problem, and a problem that merits attention. The MP’s personal assistant would never have said ‘We aren’t as racist as other countries, so we don’t need to challenge racism anymore!’ Why is it any different for women?
1 Jane Mansbridge (1999) ‘Should Blacks Represent Blacks and Women Represent Women? A Contingent “Yes” in The Journal of Politics, Vol. 61, No.3 (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge) pg. 628