Gender Balance

One of my recent posts – and the response it generated from female candidates in this year’s election – got me wondering about the parties’ gender balance. My analysis revealed that

Labour is the only party that comes anywhere near gender parity. Are the other parties really that bereft of decent female candidates? Or are they somehow alienating 50% or so of the population from their politics? That doesn’t sound like good political strategy to me…

It’s time to look at the stats on this.

Firstly, the only way to get elected is to either stand as an independent candidate or be on a party list. So let’s have a look at the candidates each party put forward. There are a few startling statistics to get us going.

Clearly one of the reasons that Labour returned an even number of male and female councillors was that they put up a roughly equal split of candidates: 52% female and 48% male. Top marks to the Labour party in the Vale.

The Conservatives did very poorly; just 28% of their candidates were women, with 72% men. Of their 11 councillors, 9 are men, which gives a percentage rate of 18% women and 82% men.

Plaid came out even worse. Three-quarters of their candidates were male: 76%, leaving just 24% as female candidates. And the councillors? Just one out of six is female, or 17%.

Of the minor parties we see that all four Llantwit First Independent councillors are men, which is unsurprising given they could muster no women to stand under their banner. The three independent candidates are all men – again, an unavoidable 100% male cohort given that 10 out of 10 independent candidates were men. And the only other party to win a seat – UKIP – also returned one man, although in their case it’s forgiveable because with just one candidate it will either be a man or a woman.

So why should we be bothered about gender balance anyway? Surely the important thing is that we have the best people for the job, and if women aren’t standing for election, then they’ve self-selected themselves out of the contest?

Wrong. Gender balance is extremely important.

Now I think that gender balance is important because it feels intrinsically a good thing. I think that women are less prone to make cack-handed decisions as a body politic. Would UK forces have been sent to Iraq if half of MPs had been women? Maybe not. Would the banking ponzi scheme whose collapse has given us the worst economic depression since time began have happened if half of bankers were women? Perhaps not. And lest anyone believe the myth, it’s not necessarily true that women are more risk-averse than men.

But I’m not the expert in gender balance, so I looked here for inspiration. Drude Dahlerup tells us that the three standard arguments still hold true:

  • That women’s participation in elected office should reflect their presence in the general population (the justice argument)
  • That women’s experiences should be integrated into policy-making (the experience argument)
  • That men cannot adequately represent women because of intrinsic conflicts between specific groups of women and men (the interest argument)

But there are deeper reasons for desiring equal participation in public life: Dahlerup suggests that women’s full participation in politics is a prerequisite for genuine democracy.

Can we in Penarth and the Vale take our lead from Westminster? The UK parliament is currently ranked joint 55th in the world (with Malawi) on women’s representation, with 22.3% of MPs. Pretty poor.

But the National Assembly for Wales – not ranked by the Inter-Parliamentary Union – has 25 women out of 60 representatives, or 41.7%. That means that Wales is an enviable 8th place in the world (although it  has fallen back since becoming the first legislature in the world to achieve parity of gender representation). Perhaps Westminster should take some lessons from Cardiff Bay.

So let’s look at some of the barriers that women face which mean they aren’t putting themselves forward as candidates. There are some particularly gender-specific issues such as child care and work/life balance. Ways to improve the accessibility of council meetings to women facing these obstacles might include having council meetings at family-friendly hours. You never know, this might just help engage a bit more of the population at large in local politics.

But there’s clearly something deeper at play. The fact that one political party has succeeded to attain gender balance while the other two have catastrophically failed is all the evidence we need. So for the Plaid and Conservative parties in the Vale, here’s some advice.

Firstly there may be an issue of role models. This is a frequently cited feature of poor representation, whether it be senior ethnic minority and female police officers or local council elections. So tip number one – request that your few women councillors spend time on outreach throughout the Vale with a specific mandate to encourage more female candidates in 2017.

Secondly there’s the issue of culture and inclusiveness within these two parties. Clearly they’re virtual no-go zones for women given that in both cases the proportion of female candidates was less than 30%. Plaid and the Conservatives need to start asking really hard questions of themselves. On an issue such as this, perhaps the Labour party in the Vale might be willing to offer some advice. And because this is such an important subject that crosses way beyond the boundaries of party politics, I’d like to know if Labour refuses to help you out. And Labour, do let me know if you don’t receive requests for help on this from Plaid and Conservative by the end of this year. We’ve got a problem in Vale politics that needs resolution, and a bit of co-operation could go a long way.

Finally (for Plaid and the Conservatives), here’s a practical way to redress the balance in councillor representation, which will, over time, address the ‘role model’ issue. Each time a sitting male councillor retires, replace him with a female candidate in the following election. Preferably a young woman. Repeat until you reach gender parity. And I don’t want to hear any feeble excuses about worthy male no. 1 who’s been waiting for his seat on council for 12 years.

I’d also like to see a minimum 50 percent quota of women on all selection panels and in the party leadership, both locally and nationally. All political parties and groupings should be putting forward between 45 and 60 per cent female candidates. I err on the side of more female candidates as legitimate compensation for centuries of under-representation. And although it might be nice to see female independent candidates, let’s deal with the party issue first. Who knows, by getting equal representation within parties we might find more women interested in politics per se, with a concomitant increase in independent candidates.

None of this is to decry the talented and committed male politicians that exist. But the chances that the successful male candidates were the best that could possibly be elected are nil.

Through the processes of the parties we support and do not, we participate in excluding – or including – women from social and public life. Isn’t that worth thinking about when you’re next in the polling booth?

9 Sylw

Filed under Conservatives, Democracy, Elections, Equality, Labour, Plaid Cymru

9 responses to “Gender Balance

  1. Another really interesting blog which raises a wide array of questions. I’m not sure it is all to do with work life balance issues but more about being able to make your voice heard and effect change. Non-traditional activists need to be supported from the day they join as many of the processes, rules and activities can appear daunting and often political parties are like secret societies where you have to learn the jargon and handshakes to be able to join in. It’s not perfect in Labour and the Vale is particularly forward thinking however it’s so much better that the alternatives. I admit that the highlight of my election campaign was a text at the end of election day from a 49 year old woman telling me she’d just voted for the first time as a result of a conversation on the doorstep.

    You shouldn’t beat Plaid up too much as Leanne Wood has a strong record of recruiting and supporting women, perhaps the problem is more local. Certainly some of my female colleagues have bristled at comments made by Plaid Councillors who should know better. Conservative issues would appear to be multi-faceted but perhaps the women in their party should be ones to comment.

    Very happy to work to increase political activism across the board and intend to do so but at present while opposition parties continue to spin negative and unfounded stories joint working is unlikely. Never say never though and until then Labour will continue to welcome and support a diverse membership base.
    @lisburnett
    @penarthlabour

  2. Thanks for your comments Lis. My focus here is on the local, where Plaid have been very poor – but you’re right that Plaid having elected Leanne Wood: “socialist feminist republican” is a major step in the right direction.
    I’ll take your closing paragraph as a rebuttal to offering the hand of experience to your Plaid and Conservative adversaries (although I had in mind a few informal discussions rather than joint working). What a shame – particularly since you appear to know of particular instances of bad practice by Plaid (it’s always good to use actual examples when it might be desirable for people to modify their behaviour). Perhaps one of your colleagues might take on this important task for local democracy.

    • lis burnett

      On the contrary, always happy to have a conversation and local parties are already aware of the behaviour and attitudes mentioned. We do actually talk quite frequently and if there was a request to talk we would not ignore it.

  3. Kevin Mahoney

    Whilst not giving any answers and perhaps raising more questions, surely to a certain degree your observation about the Independent candidates might highlight why, rather than lambast any party for having more male candidates than female more investigation is required into why women do not appear to wish to engage in the election process.

    Whilst I personally couldn’t care less what internal selection procedures occour in other parties I am very much against so called ‘positive discrimination’ (two wrongs do not make a right). I don’t care whether all elected officials or politicians are 100% men, 100% women or any percentage mix in between as long as they are the best available to do the job.

    We saw positive discrimination in the form of a women only shortlist in the 2010 General election resulting in a Vale of Glamorgan Labour candidate from outside the area whose performances at the various hustings were described by neutral seasoned observers as what can best be charitably described as ‘below average’

    Was there a male party contender not allowed on the candidates list due to positive discrimination who might have performed better? We’ll never know.

    I think that the most important issue is to remove all barriers that may exist in order that anyone and everyone is able to put forward their credentials to stand as a candidate and then may the best man or woman win rather than to create an artificial % gender balance which will inevitably lead to substandard representation in some cases.

    Which brings me back to the relevance of the independent candidates…..there clearly were no biased or discriminatory gender party candidate selection issues here yet all independent candidates were male.

    There were absolutely no barriers whatsoever to determined Female candidates putting themselves forward for election under an Independent ticket as did the male hopefuls, yet to the best of my knowledge none did.

    So are you creating a mountain out of a molehill in even questioning the gender imbalance? Questioning selection procedure deficiencies that do not exist?

    I would think that a better way of addresing the issue is to find out from the public at large as to why it appears that women are maybe not putting themselves forward in such great numbers and then acting on those findings.

    Whether there is discrimination in other parties selection procedures I do not know (or care) I would suspect that there is to a certain degree but until the wider issue of female participation and engagement is addressed then maybe very little will change.

    • Thanks for that Kevin. You’re unusual in politics – someone who’s quite open in saying “I don’t care whether all elected officials or politicians are 100% men… as long as they are the best available to do the job”. Of course you’ll see what I did there, but that’s the truth of the matter.
      While I don’t agree with you, it’s refreshing to have a politician happy to state their opinion, however controversial.
      Understandably you don’t know whether other parties discriminate in selecting candidates, but it would be good to hear your opinion on UKIP’s procedures.
      One of your points I do agree with is that candidates should ideally be local, and that from a strategic point of view it doesn’t do political parties any favours to be parachuting candidates in. Imagine what sort of Wales we’d have if Peter Hain had been elected in his preferred constituency of Putney in 1983 or 1987, for example!

  4. Kevin Mahoney

    Well only as controversial as me also saying that I don’t care if all elected politicians are female…as long as they are the best available to do the job.

    I’m not aware of any discrimination in UKIPs procedures regarding male or female candidacy and wouldn’t stand for it if there were. there are two UKIP candidates standing in Anglesey next week, one male, one female this is just coincidence it could have been 2 male or two female there is no discrimination existing in selection procedure.

    I still think that it’s a little simplistic to demand or expect 50/50% male/female representation. I repeat that I feel that positive discrimination of any kind is immoral, patronising and wrong.

    Restrictive all women lists or all men lists can only lead to scenarios where inferior candidates are chosen along with huge hypocrisy from those parties which operate them.

    I’m sure that most of us will remember the Labour Party trampling through their own all womens list in Birmingham Erdington to allow Union Paymaster Jack Dromey’s candidacy, there was of course not a peep out of Labour’s arch feminist and always vocal advocate of women only lists Harriet Harperson over this digression as of course Dromey is her husband.

    I really do think that you have ignored my main point though that the main reason that there is less female representation is becase of the lack of numbers of women putting themselves forward in the first place in all parties.

    There is very little point highlighting the relevent % differences in candidacy until the reason for this is investigated.

    And I repeat that you yourself have already pinpointed that of 10 Independent candidates during the Vale elections all were men, there clearly was no bar whatsoever to as many women standing as wanted too.

    No selection hurdles to clear and no financial barriers as deposits are not required, leaflet printing at between say £60 and £120 isn’t the end of the world to commit to and not even this is obligatory.

    So there is no reason whatsoever why women who feel strongly enough to make their mark cannot stand in local elections, and to make an issue out of perhaps non existent selection discrimination might well be leading your readers down the garden path in the wrong direction.

    Surely you should be enquiring how many women actually put themselves forward for selection in the first place rather than how many actually stood or were subsequently elected?

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