All-women shortlists: remaking the case

Florence Woodrow sets out a defence of all-female shortlists.

The UK remains in the midst of Brexit uncertainty. Much to the frustration of all sides of the debate, Parliament has been unable to reach a consensus on the best way forward and it is becoming increasingly apparent that a general election may be the only way to break the deadlock. Brexit has widened divisions in the UK and a more representative system is needed to heal the deep wounds in the British psyche.

At Connect, we are proud to champion women in the workplace as secretariat to the Women and Work All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG), which seeks to encourage changes from both the government and businesses to make the world of work more balanced and inclusive. The APPG has heard repeatedly that making the workplace better for women improves the workplace for others, including under-represented groups. Would the promotion of all-women shortlists for selection of prospective candidates for election as Members of Parliament make it more equal and representative of society?

All-women shortlists are not new. Yet, in spite of their legality, they remain controversial; they have not been adopted by all political parties and not universally accepted even among women MPs. Opponents argue that they lead to mediocre and less-qualified candidates being selected, simply to fill gender quotas. They also argue that all-women shortlists are in fact damaging, and that political parties should instead concentrate their efforts on mentoring and training females to stand for election. Some cite the fact that the Conservatives have had two female prime ministers, whilst Labour has had none, as evidence that strong women can succeed in parliament. However, since 1918, 58% of all women elected to parliament have been from the Labour party, compared to only 29% from the Conservatives. When put in perspective, despite having a female Prime Minister, which no doubt has been powerful in breaking the ‘glass ceiling’ and perceptions, we have not come as far as we think.

There is still a long way to go in achieving gender equality in the make-up of our parliament. There are currently 210 women MPs, making up 32% of all MPs, which is a record high. But, since 1918, only 492 women have been elected. Compared to the 440 male MPs who are currently sitting in parliament, the progress in terms of gender parity is underwhelming. Parliament remains male-dominated and there is significant variation of gender make up across political parties. 41% of Labour candidates in the 2017 general election were women, compared with 33% for the SNP, 30% for the Liberal Democrats and 28% for the Conservatives. Are political parties doing enough to encourage women to pursue careers in politics?

Women have made and continue to make progress in gaining political representation in parliament. 2018 marked 100 years since the enactment of the Qualification of Women Act, which allowed women over 21 the right to stand for election. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the first woman MP – Nancy Astor – taking her seat in the House of Commons. Since then, we have had two women Prime Ministers – Margaret Thatcher and Theresa May – both from the Conservative Party, and there are more women sitting in parliament today than ever before.

But the success of all-female shortlists in addressing gender bias is evident: in the Labour Party, they have brought about a significant increase in the number of women MPs. Their impact is clear as 45% of current Labour MPs are female compared to only 21% of Conservatives. Our Women and Work APPG co-chair, Jess Phillips MP, was elected on an all-female shortlist.

All-female shortlists force parties to look internally, pick strong female candidates, and address their own cultures, rules and norms, especially around recruitment and selection. This process of reflection is essential to make politics more accessible to underrepresented groups, who continue to face barriers. They have been shown to increase the number of women voters and other under-represented groups as well. All-female shortlists coupled with training and mentoring makes a powerful force to encourage more women to stand and brings us closer to achieving a parliament which represents society.

In an ideal world, all-women shortlists would not exist, but to gain a parliament which reflects our society, more needs to be done: this extends beyond gender to disability, race and class. All-women shortlists hold merit in challenging and changing the culture of politics in a way that makes it a more accessible realm for all. In the same way that a more diverse workplace leads to greater productivity and tolerance, the same holds true for parliament and society.

Florence Woodrow by:
Florence Woodrow