There are three reasons why women should feel a renewed sense of pride, empowerment and determination today. Firstly, the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements have inspired a new generation of activists through accentuating ongoing instances of sexual harassment, workplace inequality and the contours of systemic sexism more broadly that pervade the corridors of power. Secondly, 2018 marks 100 years since the Representation of the People Act 1918 whereby (some) women were granted (partial) suffrage, owed chiefly to the efforts of the Women’s Suffrage Movement. Thirdly, today marks International Women’s Day, bringing together women’s organisations, corporations and charities through talks, rallies, networking events, conferences and marches and is a day to celebrate the extraordinary accomplishments of extraordinary women.
However, we should be wary of optimistic narratives of ‘progress’ and ‘liberation’ which serve only to obscure entrenched disparities between men and women. Today I will focus on one pertinent issue: the continuing ‘democratic deficit’ of women’s representation in British politics. From the local to the national government levels, women’s political participation has been, and remains, heavily circumscribed with stark differences in the proportion of male and female representatives. Since 1918, there have been 489 female MPs whilst the total number of male MPs currently sitting in the House of Commons is 442. Remarkable progress has been made in recent years, exemplified by the 1997 general election whereby the number of female MPs doubled, the continuing success of the devolved assemblies and the accession of Britain’s second female Prime Minister. However, women remain numerically underrepresented, whilst efforts to increase the political representation of women in the United Kingdom have stalled – there are currently 208 female MPs (32% of Commons), a substantive increase from 2010 (23%), but modest in comparison to the gains of 1997.
The culture of Parliament remains both anachronistic and masculinist, perhaps best illustrated, albeit anecdotally, by the infamous provision of coat hangers and sword hangers in the House of Commons chambers. The inflexibility of Parliament’s working practices including inflexible working hours, as the Speaker’s Conference on Parliamentary Representation report states ‘create[s] a lifestyle which is detrimental to Members with caring responsibilities, both of children and other dependants’. Further, there remain several explicit examples of institutional sexism: in January, Andrea Leadsom released a report showing one in five people working in Parliament were sexually harassed or witnessed inappropriate behaviour in 2017, with women reporting twice as many incidents as men. The implications of this are stark – an inhospitable environment leaves the perception that politics remains a ‘male’ arena and ‘male’ pursuit. A report for the House of Commons Administration Committee on the findings of the interview study with Members on women’s experience in Parliament provides ample evidence that perceptions of the culture in Parliament deter women from standing as parliamentary candidates.
Furthermore, structural obstacles to women’s political participation remain pertinent. Socio-economic inequality between the sexes is as close to an established fact as possible, reinforcing political disadvantage by denying women capital vital for participation. The gender pay gap, driven largely by the horizontal and vertical segregation of occupations by gender, sees women working full-time earning around 9.5% less than men. Further, the division of domestic labour sees family responsibilities and domestic tasks mostly undertaken by women, which many women balance alongside their careers – the Oxford University’s Centre for Time Use Research shows that women in the UK spend an average of 2 hours and 12 minutes daily doing household chores, compared to men’s contribution of 1 hour and 9 minutes. This implicates both the recruitment and the success of women in politics. One may emphasise the high proportion of successful but childless female politicians (Nicola Sturgeon, Liz Kendall and Angela Eagle included) with research showing 45% of female MPs are childless compared to 28% of men.
This brief discussion emphasises the significant distance still left to travel before we reach gender parity in Britain, including at all levels of British politics – cross-party support is required and strong equality measures implemented. The continued use of all-women shortlists and calls to stamp out sexual harassment through a concord regarding unacceptable and unprofessional behaviour in Parliament and attempts to actively encourage women to participate in democracy through outreach initiatives are welcome developments. However, the need for an inclusive, intersectional and politically charged feminist movement allowing women to successfully navigate and utilise their political agency remains as salient today as ever. Happy International Women’s Day.