Why aren’t there more women in politics? There has been a lot of discussion and focus in the media about this recently. Not surprising really, given that 100 years on from women getting the vote, women still make up only 32 % of all MPs and about the same % of local councillors. In the Conservative Party its often thought that the issue with getting greater representation for women is about selection, that women are not being chosen by the Party or the local associations. The reality is however, women are being selected by the Party and when they go forward as candidates they do well, the issue is more about getting enough women to come forward.
So why aren’t more women coming forward? This article seeks to outline some of the main reasons
4,000 years of silence
Politics is all about being willing and able to speak up for the people you represent, to be able to stand up in parliament, a council chamber or a meeting and deliver speeches and articulate a persuasive point of view. However historically women have been expected to be silent. In one of the oldest set of laws ever to be recorded from the Sumerians of Mesopotamia, one of the laws addressed a speech code for women that specified that a woman speaking out of turn to man, should have her teeth smashed by a burnt brick! In Ancient Greece, Homer labelled speech, “the business of men.” Sophocles wrote “silence is a woman’s garment” In the Bible St Paul writes to the Corinthians, “women should remain silent in churches”. They are not allowed to speak but must be in submission … for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in church.” The silencing of women is a 4,000 year old project! To this very day in the UK, some men will leave a church rather than listen to a female vicar. Clearly silence is no longer an expectation of women in western society, but when women do speak up they get interrupted twice as much as men and that in fact men speak 75% of the time in decision making groups. This tells us that, at a mostly unconscious, societal level, both men and women themselves don’t believe women have an equal right to speak. This is the ingrained cultural backdrop that works against women getting into politics.
Femininity (also called girlishness, womanliness or womanhood) is a set of attributes, behaviours, and roles generally associated with girls and women. Femininity is partially socially constructed, being made up of both socially-defined and biologically-created factors. This makes it distinct from the definition of the biological female sex .Traits traditionally cited as feminine include gentleness, empathy, and sensitivity. – The Wikipedia definition
For many women, they worry that if they speak up, they are in danger of being unfeminine, that standing up to speak in front of group and articulate a firm point of view is somehow not in keeping with gentleness, empathy or sensitivity. This cultural construct and judgement on what is feminine and what is not, is perhaps what causes the dual standards of the lexicon that is used when describing the same characteristics in men and women. A man is assertive, a women with the same traits is seen as aggressive, a man is ambitious a woman is pushy, a man is determined, a woman is stubborn (“a bloody difficult woman”!) Much of this happens at a sub-conscious level that is just about historical cultural norms. However even when these judgements (by men and women themselves) are acknowledged as anachronistic, they are so ingrained, they persist. With the weight of 4,000 years of history working against women getting into politics, we start to understand the problem.
Collaboration vs Competition
Another factor at play is how women operate. Men compete and women collaborate. When Women communicate they are much more about listening, collaboration and two-way communication, their interactions tend to be less combative and adversarial than men. Politics, however, is an adversarial game and possibly getting even more so in these divisive times.
Catherine Bennett – The Guardian
The whole nature of western democracy is founded on the ancient Greek concept of thesis, antithesis and synthesis. The underlying premise that you have a idea (thesis), somebody puts the opposite case (antithesis) to that idea and out of the argument eventually comes some useful compromise or output (synthesis.) Parliament institutionalises that. The benches on opposing sides, Her Majesty’s opposition, the shouting and heckling… none of that is they way women would typically choose to go about things. As such politics can be seen as an aggressive, hostile and unpleasant environment that is not in any way natural or attractive to women. More understandable then, if most women conclude that they have better ways to spend their precious time! It is perhaps also true that the 18th century model of government that involves gentlemen standing at swords length apart across a chamber and shouting at each other, is well overdue for a 21st century overhaul for the good of better government. More women involved introducing their more collaborative style would in fact be a more sophisticated and more effective way hand to handle the complexity of contemporary politics.
Criticism & safety
Cultural norms allow women to talk more about emotions and so women are more aware of emotions and more sensitive to them, and often have higher levels of emotional intelligence than men. Recent neurological evidence backs this up and suggests that women process emotional energy differently to men. This has distinct benefits for political skills such as establishing rapport, networking and showing empathy for example, however it also means when women receive negative feedback, it can weigh far more heavily on them – and the impact can be more profound. Being in politics involves constant judgement and criticism, from voters, constituents, media and anyone in social media. The criticism of women in politics seems to be particularly personal and vitriolic. Women in politics can get criticise as much if not more because of the way they look as what they actually stand for. When Nicola Sturgeon and Theresa May, the leaders of 2 countries, met in 2017 to discuss a matter of vital national importance, the leering Daily Mail headline was about their legs. That a national newspaper, (even the Daily Mail!) could get away with running a headline like this is astounding and spoke volumes about the undercurrents of sexism that still run deep. This is what women need to be prepared to deal with if they seek to enter politics and it’s frankly not an enticing prospect!
Social media seems to have encouraged increasingly violent language in the online “trolling” that many women in politics receive. There is a very real fear that this tips over in to actual physical violence. One candidate for office I know in Liverpool had a brick thrown through the window of her baby’s room during the last election.
Amnesty International revealed that female MPs were subjected to 25,000 abusive messages in the last six months of 2017. Almost half of these were targeted at Diane Abbott. The Prime Minister mentioned this in her 2018 conference speech and called for the abuse to end. Amnesty said: “Nearly ninety years after women won the right to vote, there is a real danger that the high levels of online abuse against women MPs will have a chilling effect on women taking part in public life”
Women’s concern for their own physical and mental well being and particularly the safety of their family is definitely one factor putting off women running for office.
Statistics reveal than much of the responsibilities for running a household still fall disproportionately on women. For example, the Office of National Statistics published data in early 2018 that showed women still do 60% more housework than men. Women still either do or manage much of the childcare, and increasingly the care of elderly parents (and often parents-in-law) often falls to daughters. The nature of a role in national politics (and even local politics) is all consuming and although it has improved somewhat, it’s still a long way off anything that could be described as family friendly! Clearly women can handle this, they have been managing this domestic workload alongside their jobs for many decades but when you look at the other factors that makes politics unattractive to women and then stack up their other priorities again a run for office, it’s pretty clear why, for many women, other priorities win hands down and mitigate against women applying for roles in politics.
It’s a pretty bleak picture. Many groups that are working to try and achieve equal representation for women (like Women to Win and 50; 50 parliament) make the excellent point that women need to be encouraged to stand and hence their #askhertostand campaign. In light of the litany of restraining factors, #beghertostand might be a better approach! That campaign is vital but probably not sufficient. Much more needs to be done to change the culture and environment of politics to remove the barriers to equality for women (and minorities). Better laws on online trolling, zero tolerance to sexist remarks, behaviour and headlines, more collaborative formats, more mutual respect and less vitriolic criticism, all these things require quite a culture shift but a very necessary one. You could argue that the disinclination of women to run for office Is a rejection of the way we do politics in the country.
If we want a fairer and more effective society (and we want to win the women’s vote,) however we’re involved, in office, in the media or as individuals, we all have a role to play to improve the way we “do politics.”