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.

Wikimedia Commons
Show Hide image

How to explain Brexit to your kids

It’s not hard. The Brexiteers’ tantrums are a parody of how children behave.

My parents never sat me down for “the politics talk”. I suspect they were too embarrassed. Like many children of my generation, I was left to develop my own ideas about what adults did in private.

We didn’t have the internet and our arms were too short to open most newspapers (scientists were still working on the tabloid-broadsheet hybrid). Hence we picked up news randomly, either by overhearing snippets on the radio while buying sweets in the newsagent’s or by accidentally watching the start of the six o’clock news following the end of Charles In Charge.

By the time I was nine, the same age my eldest child is now, I had unrealistic expectations of politicians and the democratic process. Due to the fact that I had no idea what anyone was talking about, I assumed everyone in the House of Commons was having serious, informed thoughts about the most important issues of the day.

I now know that the real reason I couldn’t understand what anyone was saying was because what had sounded like “roargh roargh [insult] <braying laughter>” really had been “roargh roargh [insult] <braying laughter>” all along. I’d assumed it was a language I had yet to learn, one of the more specialised dialects of Adult-ese. I’d already wasted one vote by the time I realised that Prime Minister’s Questions was basically Jeremy Kyle with posher accents and minus the lie detector tests.

I don’t want my children to make the same mistakes as me. Thankfully, it turns out Brexit Britain is the ideal place to teach your kids how politics really works. Never has there been a time when those stalking the corridors of power were more in tune with the average tantruming toddler. There’s no point in rational argument; you just have to hope that those in power burn themselves out before too much damage is done.

This particular tantrum has of course been building for some time. The dominant rhetoric of the Leave campaign – like that of the Tory party itself – always offered a spoilt child’s view of the world, one in which you are the centre of the universe, depending on no one else for your survival.

When others point out that this isn’t the case – that perhaps you wouldn’t have a home and food on the table if it wasn’t for Mummy or Daddy, or perhaps the UK would not have a strong economy were it not a member of the EU – you simply tell them they’re being mean. You’ll show them! They’re not the boss of you! So you pack your bags and leave.

If you are six, you might get to the corner of your road, realise with disappointment that no one is following you and turn back, hoping no one noticed you were gone. If you are the UK, you hang around for a while, maybe hiding in some bushes, thinking “any minute now they’ll come looking for me.”

But they don’t, so eventually you think “sod ‘em, I’ll go to my mates’. Unfortunately, you cannot get there without Mummy to drive you. This is a problem. But at least you can tell yourself that you were doubly right to leave, since everything that is happening now is Mummy’s fault.

Never in British politics has the panicked outrage of those who know they are making a terrible mistake been so palpable. It reminds me of the time when I was teaching my eldest son to drink from a beaker. He kept spilling small amounts, which caused him so much distress he’d end up pouring the rest of the juice onto the carpet to make it look deliberate. Whenever I tried to stop him, I’d only make him more panicked, thus even more likely to get juice everywhere.

I have since asked him if he remembers why he did this. He says he does not, but I have told him this is what the British government is doing with Brexit. The referendum was the initial spillage; we now have to sit and watch, biting our tongues, in the hope that the “well, anyhow, I totally meant to do that!” response can be averted.

There is little chance of that, though. When my middle son told his older brother he could fly, he quickly backed down on being asked to demonstrate this by jumping from an upstairs window. Liam Fox would have thrown himself headlong, then blamed Project Fear for his broken neck. Or rather, he’d have thrown someone else – one of the millions of people whose lives really will be ruined by Brexit – then tried to argue that the exceptionally bendy necks of UK citizens could be used as one of the “main cards” in negotiations.

The behaviour is beyond childlike; it is a parody of how children behave. When I asked one of my sons to clean his teeth this morning, he called me a “poo head” and said his teeth wouldn’t get decay. He still brushed them, though.

He did not conclude I was some sinister sore loser out to trick him because his teeth are young and white and mine are old and stained. He still has some basic sense that people who ask you to do things you don’t want to do might yet have your best interests at heart, regardless of who is right or wrong. He did not call me a sneering member of the elite trying to override the will of all toothpaste-rejecting British children (to be fair, I think “poo head” may have been meant to capture that, but at least he only called me it once).

Then again, the teeth in my son’s head are his alone. The consequences of neglect would be his to endure. Those stage-managing the Brexit tantrum are insulated from its most devastating consequences. Thus they can hurl insults, stick their fingers in their ears and take more than a little pleasure in the sheer recklessness of it all. It is not just an extended childhood; it is childhood without having to come to terms with the consequences of your own behaviour, because others will suffer them for you.

I want my own children to understand that what they see now is not what politics should be. That there is not some deep, meaningful logic underpinning what the adults in charge are doing. What looks like bitterness, point-scoring and sheer lack of self-control is, more often than not, just that. We have indulged these people too long. Let’s raise a generation with higher expectations of those who will claim to speak on their behalf.

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.