The new Parliament: Gender balance

Written by Total Politics has a free weekly Friday email bulletin. Follow this link to register. on 10 May 2010 in News
The government may not have taken shape but the new Parliament has been decided (minus one seat).

The government may not have taken shape but the new Parliament has been decided (minus one seat). This week Total Politics takes a look at what Westminster’s class of 2010 looks like, starting with gender.

The new Parliament will have 139 female MPs. This means that despite a record number of female candidates, there has only been an increase of 1.9 per cent on the 126 female MPs elected in 2005. That 2 per cent increase has taken the percentage of women MPs from 19.5 per cent to 21.4 per cent. Yet, one in five is hardly reflective of the UK population.

These figures came as a disappointment to campaigners. Speaking to Total Politics, Ceri Goddard, CEO of the Fawcett Society, said that while "any increase in the number of women MPs is better than none... it’s clear that to get ahead in politics in this country still often means being white, male and well off."

Goddard says that cultural barriers prevent many women from running for Parliament, citing the "adversarial style of politics", the "old boys’ club approach" and "anti-social working hours". Perhaps more worryingly she argues: "We still have a lot of straight-forward discrimination at the initial selection stage."

Research by the Centre for Women and Democracy could support Goddard’s claim, showing only 15 per cent of candidates selected through open primaries for the seats where an MP is retiring are women. Open primaries are regarded by their supporters as a more inclusive method of choosing candidates.

The Electoral Reform Society suggests that introducing proportional representation may increase female representation. According to the United Nations Development Fund for Women, countries with PR electoral systems can expect to increase representation to 40 per cent by 2026. Goddard welcomes PR as a "step in the right direction," but calls for other positive action such as quotas and all-female shortlists. She points out that Labour is the only party to have used all female lists and has the largest number of women MPs, 78, suggesting that "practical, concrete steps" can work to address the imbalance.

Westminster certainly needs to catch up on its gender gap as we compare badly with many other nations. With just 21 per cent of our Parliament female, we don’t look good next to the German Bundestag (33%), the Dutch parliament (42%) and the world’s most equal parliaments, Rwanda (56%) and Sweden (46%).

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