The number of women MPs in the British parliament is the highest it’s ever been. There are 191 women among the 650 MPs, up a third from the 2010 election. This has to be good news, especially for the many critics of national politics who complain that too many politicians are white male graduates of one or two English universities.
And, of course, the UK has a second woman living in 10 Downing Street as prime minister. So things are changing for the better, aren’t they? Politics is becoming a more progressive profession, isn’t it? And the British electorate is more accepting of women making laws and developing policy, no?
Possibly. It’s easy to overlook the startling fact there are more men currently sitting as MPs in this parliament than the total number of women elected to serve since 1918. This shows that there is a long history to consider when we think about equality and discrimination in professions and organisations – a legacy that will take a long time to fade. Change is happening. But it is slow, and it is tempting to assume that all is well because there is some progress made on the numbers. Politics has a few lessons to learn from business on this front.
A long legacy
Beyond the numbers, the culture of work environments is incredibly important for addressing gender inequalities. Academics working in Sweden, often put forward in media and popular culture as the place where gender equality is most advanced, tell us that simply “body counting” the number of women doesn’t mean that equality has been achieved. Cultural change takes a lot longer, if it can be achieved at all. It’s easy to underestimate how resilient organisational cultures are in the face of attempts to manage or change them, especially in the longest lived such as universities or parliaments.
The progressive change we see in the number of women working as MPs is largely due to the implementation of quotas. Danish academic Drude Dahlerup has been tracking the introduction of quotas in parliaments around the world for many years. Her research is as clear as can be in its conclusions – significant change doesn’t happen without quotas and, even then, progress in increasing women’s representation can be rolled back quickly.
The same is seen in conventional workplaces. British business leaders have long resisted the imposition of quotas for executive boards, despite overseeing one of the world’s most dismal records in promoting the many competent women working at lower levels. Recent government threats to introduce quotas provoked some change, but in a limited way – women tend to be appointed to relatively low status, less powerful non-executive positions. This gives the semblance of gender parity, but business continues as usual in the background.
There are strong signs that the same dynamics apply in politics. Although it is the Conservatives that have elected two women leaders, the Labour Party has made a greater effort at boosting its number of women MPs, using all-women shortlists since 1995. Initiatives that rely on voluntary action to improve gender equality have a limited effect. The Conservatives, for example, count just 68 women MPs out of the current cohort’s 329. Only enforced quotas achieve the kind of rapid numerical change we need in the 21st century.
But still, all the organisational research tells us very clearly that deep-rooted patterns of “how things are done around here” are key to whether a workplace is hostile or welcoming to people who don’t fit the white male norm. And underlying an organisation’s culture is its sense of identity. In political parties, identity is important in terms of ethical priorities and what kind of person is envisaged as a valid leader. Early analysis of a data we’ve collected using interviews on Labour’s use of all-women shortlists points towards some optimistic but also some depressing conclusions.
The positive: gender equality advocates have won a series of pitched battles to get all-women selections for the safest parliamentary seats. These have sometimes been bitter, with an early setback in the Welsh seat of Blaenau Gwent which Labour lost following the decision to run an all-women list. But party staff are becoming far more skilled at managing the selection and implementation of all-women shortlists. Proponents of all-women shortlists have also succeeded at convincing party members that the commitment to “equality” and “democracy” should extend to gender equality and opening access to the democratic process for all.
In a more negative sense, our interviews suggest that the culture of the profession has not progressed as much as it could. While we heard that parties in more affluent, metropolitan constituencies were now more likely to select a woman candidate or accept an all-women shortlist without too many grumbles, the picture remains quite bleak in other areas, including Westminster.
We heard tales of highly competent and successful MPs, women who had held their seats for more than a decade, still facing down misogynist attitudes and comments from local members and parliamentary colleagues. We also heard concerns from party staff that all-women shortlists might, in the short-term, have re-enforced patriarchy by creating a segregated system where men nearly always win open selections. The embedded picture of an MP as a white middle-aged man is a difficult professional identity to disrupt.
Politics as a profession is notorious for permitting and even celebrating macho behaviour. This excludes not just women but also anyone who isn’t willing to conform. Reproducing a destructive and exclusive culture is something that the Labour Party, despite its great success in rebalancing the numbers in terms of women MPs, has been criticised for this year. And a number of women Labour MPs have complained of bullying and harassment, particularly online.
Cultural change is slow, difficult, and dependent on everyone’s commitment in practice, not just rhetoric. Actually seeing successful women in the UK’s elected parliaments and assemblies is important, but embedding gender equality as something normal will involve a much longer and deeper process of engagement with identity and ethical practice in organisation and individual behaviour.
This blog post is part of Society Matters. The blog seeks to inform, stimulate and challenge our understanding of this changing world and of our humbling role within it. Find out more about the blog and the team.
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