Only a fifth of MPs over 50 are female. Are they being airbrushed out of Parliament?

It's not an age issue; it's a gender one.

Inspired by Harriet Harman's warning that older women are being "airbrushed off our screens", I pulled together a dataset of MPs ages to see if Parliament does much better. Technically speaking, it doesn't; but diving deeper into the figures, we can see that it's not about age at all – it's about gender all the way.

The statistic seized on by Harman is that "less than one fifth of TV presenters over the age of 50 are female". In Parliament, that stat is slightly better – but only just. 22 per cent of MPs over the age of 50 are female.

Pretty bad, right? Well, yes. But when speaking of TV presenters, Harman says:

The figures provided by broadcasters show clearly that once female presenters hit 50, their days on-screen are numbered. There is a combination of ageism and sexism that hits women on TV that doesn’t apply to men in the same way.

And that isn't true in parliament. The reason only 22 per cent of MPs over 50 are female is that only 22 per cent of MPs are female, full stop.Although that's been rising steadily, it leaves us with a long way to go before we reach equality – or even just acceptability.

But while MPs are less likely to be female, of the women who have made it into the House, age is less of an obstacle than you might think. Look at the stats a different way: 58.76 per cent of male MPs are over 50, and 56.55 per cent of female MPs are.

It's relatively easy to reason why this might be. Firstly, we can point to the fact that the average age upon election of MPs elected since 2010 is 43 – and that's true of men and women. (Women are actually, on average, slightly older upon election than men.) The youngest MP in the house, Labour's Pamela Nash, is 28, and was just 25 when she was elected; but the vast majority are significantly older. Of all of the MPs still in the house today, just 19 were under 30 when they were elected – the youngest was Charles Kennedy, only 23 when he won in 1983.

Age, then, isn't really a burden in getting in to parliament. In fact, over 100 MPs were older than 50 when they were elected, and almost 400 of them are older than 50 now.

And if age isn't that much of a burden to getting elected, it doesn't seem to be a burden to getting re-elected, either. That's harder for me to check, because my dataset doesn't include former MPs, but the high incumbency rate and sheer number of really quite old MPs indicates that it's the case.

So there aren't enough older female MPs. But that's got literally nothing to do with age, and everything to do with the fact that there simply aren't enough women in Parliament.

(As a postscript, it would be nice to know for sure that Harman had checked for the same spurious correlation in the TV figures. It certainly seems likely that, in that area, the problem is with older women being "airbrushed off", but there's always the chance that it just reflects a broader sexism)

Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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The economics of outrage: Why you haven't seen the end of Katie Hopkins

Her distasteful tweet may have cost her a job at LBC, but this isn't the last we've seen of Britain's biggest troll. 

Another atrocity, other surge of grief and fear, and there like clockwork was the UK’s biggest troll. Hours after the explosion at the Manchester Arena that killed 22 mostly young and female concert goers, Katie Hopkins weighed in with a very on-brand tweet calling for a “final solution” to the complex issue of terrorism.

She quickly deleted it, replacing the offending phrase with the words “true solution”, but did not tone down the essentially fascist message. Few thought it had been an innocent mistake on the part of someone unaware of the historical connotations of those two words.  And no matter how many urged their fellow web users not to give Hopkins the attention she craved, it still sparked angry tweets, condemnatory news articles and even reports to the police.

Hopkins has lost her presenting job at LBC radio, but she is yet to lose her column at Mail Online, and it’s quite likely she won’t.

Mail Online and its print counterpart The Daily Mail have regularly shown they are prepared to go down the deliberately divisive path Hopkins was signposting. But even if the site's managing editor Martin Clarke was secretly a liberal sandal-wearer, there are also very good economic reasons for Mail Online to stick with her. The extreme and outrageous is great at gaining attention, and attention is what makes money for Mail Online.

It is ironic that Hopkins’s career was initially helped by TV’s attempts to provide balance. Producers could rely on her to provide a counterweight to even the most committed and rational bleeding-heart liberal.

As Patrick Smith, a former media specialist who is currently a senior reporter at BuzzFeed News points out: “It’s very difficult for producers who are legally bound to be balanced, they will sometimes literally have lawyers in the room.”

“That in a way is why some people who are skirting very close or beyond the bounds of taste and decency get on air.”

But while TV may have made Hopkins, it is online where her extreme views perform best.  As digital publishers have learned, the best way to get the shares, clicks and page views that make them money is to provoke an emotional response. And there are few things as good at provoking an emotional response as extreme and outrageous political views.

And in many ways it doesn’t matter whether that response is negative or positive. Those who complain about what Hopkins says are also the ones who draw attention to it – many will read what she writes in order to know exactly why they should hate her.

Of course using outrageous views as a sales tactic is not confined to the web – The Daily Mail prints columns by Sarah Vine for a reason - but the risks of pushing the boundaries of taste and decency are greater in a linear, analogue world. Cancelling a newspaper subscription or changing radio station is a simpler and often longer-lasting act than pledging to never click on a tempting link on Twitter or Facebook. LBC may have had far more to lose from sticking with Hopkins than Mail Online does, and much less to gain. Someone prepared to say what Hopkins says will not be out of work for long. 

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