#AskHerToStand Campaign Launches: Parliament needs more female MPs to achieve equality

On the face of it, dividing humankind according to gender is the easiest split of all; it is pretty much 50/50 male/female (50.4/49.6% to be precise according to The World Bank[1]). With the focus on equality and merit, as well as the progress of women (especially here in the west), we might assume that, even allowing for history and the non trivial impact of childbirth and subsequent choices, gender representation would be closer to 50:50 in most realms of society. Only it isn’t. We are far from achieving equality for women on any measure – even in the west – despite the vast and increasing pool of qualified, meritorious talent compared to men.

The word ‘diversity’, be it in a gender context or otherwise, although well-intentioned can be divisive. Even though we know that diversity and the bringing together of differing POETS (my acronym for Perspectives, Outlooks, Experiences, Thinking-styles, Sectors and Social backgrounds) leads to better results, somehow diversity just does not happen naturally. Human nature seems to drive many people to make choices that they are comfortable with and resonate with– preferring ‘people like them’. Worse still, some now hear the word ‘diversity’ and immediately think of the negative connotations: preferential treatment, unmeritorious selection, tokenism and perceived discrimination against the traditional ‘groups who have held the reins of power.

Women are significantly under-represented in the upper echelons of most professions, industries and organisations and the progress of gender equality remains slow, with women still lacking many equal rights and equal pay, even in what we would class as the ‘developed western world’.

Women in politics

The representation of women in politics is mixed across the world; for instance, many are shocked to discover which countries have the highest percentage of women in their national parliament. Of course, this does not mean that those countries with the most female representatives are the most advanced, liberated or gender-equal. However, it is a good reminder for many commentators to look in the mirror first and assess challenges in their own nation first before criticising others.

Of the 1,941 national leaders during the 20th century – only 27 were women (that is only 1.4%)[2]. Of course, we are increasingly seeing women make their way to the highest offices in the land – but, ironically, a disproportionate amount of progress seems to be in the developing world and emerging markets in marked contrast to the developed world and, in particular, the generally accepted ‘social leaders’ such as the USA and EU.

Of course, the UK had a female Prime Minister in the 20th century (and now we have another female Prime Minister). It is also worth noting for diversity beyond gender (and regardless of political preference) that Margaret Thatcher was also the first Prime Minister in the UK to have studied Science at university and come from a less-privileged background compared to many UK political leaders.

Although the UK has a long history of the championing of women’s rights, many people are surprised to learn that it was less than a hundred years ago that women were given the right to vote[3] and the right to be elected to Parliament[4]. However, progress has been strong with women accounting for 29.4% of the UK Parliament now (2016). Or has it?

In the UK, from the 1918 general election to the May 2015 general election, there had been 4,895 people elected as MPs, including 451 women (9.2%)[5] – which after nearly 98 years – is still lower than the current number of male MPs as of November 2016.

The UK in May 2015 was ranked 36th in the world (out of 191 countries) for women in a national parliament’s lower or single representative house; whilst the USA ranks 72nd with 19.4%)[6]. So which countries are above the UK[7] (and the USA) for female representation in parliament? Well, quite a lot including: Bolivia, Cuba, Seychelles, Senegal, Ecuador, Norway, Germany, Argentina, Uganda, Algeria, New Zealand and Nepal. Top of the list is Rwanda with 63.8% representation of women in parliament. I am sure some of these countries above the UK will come as a surprise to many people.

#AskHerToStand Campaign to increase Female MPs

On Wednesday 30th November 2016, I was privileged to be part of the launch of the 50:50 Parliament #AskHerToStand campaign, which seeks to address the overwhelming gender imbalance in UK Parliament. 50:50 want to encourage everyone to ask talented and inspirational women to stand as parliamentary candidates.

The cross-party panel of MPs speaking at the 50:50 Parliament’s launch of #AskHerToStand was hosted and chaired by Jess Phillips MP (Labour) with panel members including: Justine Greening MP, Secretary of State for Education and Minister for Women and Equalities; Caroline Lucas MP, Joint Leader of the Green Party; Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh MP (Scottish National Party); Tom Brake MP (Liberal Democrats); Will Quince MP (Conservative); Chris Elmore MP (Labour); and Stuart Donaldson MP (Scottish National Party). In addition, Sophie Walker (leader of the Women’s Equality Party) and Marylyn Haines Evans (chair of Public Affairs at the Women’s Institute) were also on the panel to show support for the campaign.

It was good to see that each of the major parties (Conservative, Labour, SNP) were represented and attended with one male MP and one female MP. The Greens have only one MP in Parliament – so it was Caroline Lucas MP attending. While, Tom Brake MP (Liberal Democrats) made light of the fact that after the last general election the Liberal Democrat presence in parliament was decimated and left no female Lib Dem MPs; however if the #AskHerToStand campaign launch was delayed by a week – he stated that he may be able to bring a female party colleague pending the Richmond Park by-election. He was certainly right as his Liberal Democrat colleague, Sarah Olney, upset the odds and overturned Zac Goldsmith’s  majority in Richmond Park to be elected only a few days later.

Progress on the representation of women in Westminster is in danger of stalling, Justine Greening MP, Secretary of State for Education and Minister for Women and Equalities said: “I feel really strongly about us having a 50:50 parliament here and I think it’s long overdue… My big concern, to be absolutely frank, is that we’ve got up to about 30% and the danger is that we will plateau at 30% unless we really look at what it is going to take to shift it up further.”

“Given that the decisions made in Parliament will impact on half of the British population, we still need women to be better represented and help shape those discussions…“I would encourage any woman who has considered a role as an MP or who has wanted to make changes to better our society, to stand – we need your energy, leadership and commitment to create a democracy that works for everyone.”

Jess Phillips MP urged women to not think they weren’t up to the job: “To any woman who thinks she is not good enough or suffers from imposter syndrome, I would say if you were to spend five minutes in this place you would realise you are more than good enough. There are people in here who are nowhere near as good as you.”

Caroline Lucas MP stated “If we had more women in here, I strongly believe we would get better policies for society at large. I don’t think it’s an accident that austerity hit women the hardest… Parliament should look like the people is it meant to be representing. This place has to look more relevant or else people will assume that it isn’t.”

Frances Scott, Founder of 50:50 Parliament has led the 50:50 Parliament campaign with immense energy and gusto and built an equally passionate team around her. She states: “Women are brilliant and men are brilliant. We want the best of both running the country and planning the future of society, together, in similar numbers. We want Parliament to draw upon the widest possible pool of talent and experience that is why we are launching #AskHerToStand.”

Whilst, I am fully supportive of the campaign, in jest I did challenge Frances on the premise of 50:50… Surely it should be 60:40 in favour of women – especially if it is about merit as well?

Equality or Merit

Of course, it should only be about merit – except this has not been the case in the past,  think of the many privileged folk who have gained their positions based on preference not merit.

The day immediately prior to the 50:50 campaign launch, Nicky Morgan MP, the former Education Secretary, spoke at the Women’s Equality Party conference and suggested that Prime Minister Theresa May had missed an opportunity by failing to appoint the UK’s first gender-balanced cabinet. This may be true but no rational person wants appointments for appointments sake or preference ruling merit – even if this was the status quo and the case for the privileged ranks of men from middle to upper class backgrounds who are white.

Selection and promotion MUST be based on the principles that the best of the best are drawn from the widest pools of society and merit should always rule preference.

Of course, equality of representation is important given the make-up of our citizens roughly 50% women 50% men; but merit must be involved. There are certainly enough qualified women that can be selected as prospective parliamentary candidates based on merit given the pool of 23 million women over the age of 18. However, if we are really to account for merit in the UK then the facts that women have been outperforming men for two decades at all levels of education and across most professional exams – as well as entering local and national politics with greater public, private and third sector expertise than men means we probably should see 60% women: 40% men. Oh no, merit then doesn’t work for the status quo, gatekeepers and the ranks of highly privileged folk.

Mayor of London's Business Advisory BoardOn the same day as the 50:50 launch Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, announced his Business Advisory Board – a hugely talented, high-calibre group of 16 members, drawn from a diverse range of disciplines and experiences and based on merit. Of the 16, it is worth noting that 10 are women (63%), 5 are non-white/from a different cultural background (31%), 1 is known LGBT (6%) and 5 are from technology/non-traditional sectors (31%). This shows diversity and difference in its broadest sense – something I refer to as diversity of POETS (Perspective, Outlook, Experience, Thought, Sector and Social background). Of course, you are likely to find greater diversity of POETS outside of traditional pools or gatekeepers. So, we should stop making excuses – the talent is out there and can be appointed on merit. The trouble is that for the old-guard or gatekeepers who have become accustomed to privilege and preference, equality and merit can feel like oppression. If the detractors of equality of representation and diverse perspectives truly believed in merit in a democracy, like ours, then I believe that we would see gender representation in most senior walks of life being closer to 60:40 (in favour of women) not 30:70 (as is now), let alone equality at 50:50.

The talent is out there but the opportunity has not been there – so, please do #AskHerToStand and open the floodgates for all the talented women to represent in order to address this inequality and for us all to take advantage of the different sources of talent. It really is better for everyone!

Author: Dowshan Humzah, Steering Board Member

Click here to read more about women in public life from The LSE’s Above the Parapet research project

Click here to read more about women in business

[1] http://wdi.worldbank.org/table/1.5

[2] http://www.lse.ac.uk/alumni/LSEConnect/pdf/winter2013/LSEConnectWinter2013.pdf

[3] http://www.parliament.uk/about/living-heritage/transformingsociety/electionsvoting/womenvote/

[4] http://www.parliament.uk/business/publications/parliamentary-archives/archives-highlights/archives-the-suffragettes/archives-the-first-women-in-parliament-1919-1945/

[5] Source: House of Commons Information Office

[6] http://www.ipu.org/wmn-e/classif.htm

[7] Post the UK general election, on 8 May 2015, 191 women were elected representing 29.2% which moves the UK up to 37th