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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Four times Owen Smith has made sexist comments

The Labour MP for Pontypridd and Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour leadership rival has been accused of misogynist remarks. Again.

2016

Wanting to “smash” Theresa May “back on her heels”

During a speech at a campaign event, Owen Smith blithely deployed some aggressive imagery about attacking the new Prime Minister. In doing so, he included the tired sexist trope beloved of the right wing press about Theresa May’s shoes – her “kitten heels” have long been a fascination of certain tabloids:

“I’ll be honest with you, it pained me that we didn’t have the strength and the power and the vitality to smash her back on her heels and argue that these our values, these are our people, this is our language that they are seeking to steal.”

When called out on his comments by Sky’s Sophy Ridge, Smith doubled down:

“They love a bit of rhetoric, don’t they? We need a bit more robust rhetoric in our politics, I’m very much in favour of that. You’ll be getting that from me, and I absolutely stand by those comments. It’s rhetoric, of course. I don’t literally want to smash Theresa May back, just to be clear. I’m not advocating violence in any way, shape or form.”

Your mole dug around to see whether this is a common phrase, but all it could find was “set back on one’s heels”, which simply means to be shocked by something. Nothing to do with “smashing”, and anyway, Smith, or somebody on his team, should be aware that invoking May’s “heels” is lazy sexism at best, and calling on your party to “smash” a woman (particularly when you’ve been in trouble for comments about violence against women before – see below) is more than casual misogyny.

Arguing that misogyny in Labour didn’t exist before Jeremy Corbyn

Smith recently told BBC News that the party’s nastier side only appeared nine months ago:

“I think Jeremy should take a little more responsibility for what’s going on in the Labour party. After all, we didn’t have this sort of abuse and intolerance, misogyny, antisemitism in the Labour party before Jeremy Corbyn became the leader.”

Luckily for Smith, he had never experienced misogyny in his party until the moment it became politically useful to him… Or perhaps, not being the prime target, he simply wasn’t paying enough attention before then?

2015

Telling Leanne Wood she was only invited on TV because of her “gender”

Before a general election TV debate for ITV Wales last year, Smith was caught on camera telling the Plaid Cymru leader that she only appeared on Question Time because she is a woman:

Wood: “Have you ever done Question Time, Owen?”

Smith: “Nope, they keep putting you on instead.”

Wood: “I think with party balance there’d be other people they’d be putting on instead of you, wouldn’t they, rather than me?”

Smith: “I think it helps. I think your gender helps as well.”

Wood: “Yeah.”

2010

Comparing the Lib Dems’ experience of coalition to domestic violence

In a tasteless analogy, Smith wrote this for WalesHome in the first year of the Tory/Lib Dem coalition:

“The Lib Dem dowry of a maybe-referendum on AV [the alternative vote system] will seem neither adequate reward nor sufficient defence when the Tories confess their taste for domestic violence on our schools, hospitals and welfare provision.

“Surely, the Liberals will file for divorce as soon as the bruises start to show through the make-up?”

But never fear! He did eventually issue a non-apology for his offensive comments, with the classic use of “if”:

“I apologise if anyone has been offended by the metaphorical reference in this article, which I will now be editing. The reference was in a phrase describing today's Tory and Liberal cuts to domestic spending on schools and welfare as metaphorical ‘domestic violence’.”

***

A one-off sexist gaffe is bad enough in a wannabe future Labour leader. But your mole sniffs a worrying pattern in this list that suggests Smith doesn’t have a huge amount of respect for women, when it comes to political rhetoric at least. And it won’t do him any electoral favours either – it makes his condemnation of Corbynite nastiness ring rather hollow.

I'm a mole, innit.