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.

Grant Shapps on the campaign trail. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Grant Shapps resigns over Tory youth wing bullying scandal

The minister, formerly party chairman, has resigned over allegations of bullying and blackmail made against a Tory activist. 

Grant Shapps, who was a key figure in the Tory general election campaign, has resigned following allegations about a bullying scandal among Conservative activists.

Shapps was formerly party chairman, but was demoted to international development minister after May. His formal statement is expected shortly.

The resignation follows lurid claims about bullying and blackmail among Tory activists. One, Mark Clarke, has been accused of putting pressure on a fellow activist who complained about his behaviour to withdraw the allegation. The complainant, Elliot Johnson, later killed himself.

The junior Treasury minister Robert Halfon also revealed that he had an affair with a young activist after being warned that Clarke planned to blackmail him over the relationship. Former Tory chair Sayeedi Warsi says that she was targeted by Clarke on Twitter, where he tried to portray her as an anti-semite. 

Shapps appointed Mark Clarke to run RoadTrip 2015, where young Tory activists toured key marginals on a bus before the general election. 

Today, the Guardian published an emotional interview with the parents of 21-year-old Elliot Johnson, the activist who killed himself, in which they called for Shapps to consider his position. Ray Johnson also spoke to BBC's Newsnight:


The Johnson family claimed that Shapps and co-chair Andrew Feldman had failed to act on complaints made against Clarke. Feldman says he did not hear of the bullying claims until August. 

Asked about the case at a conference in Malta, David Cameron pointedly refused to offer Shapps his full backing, saying a statement would be released. “I think it is important that on the tragic case that took place that the coroner’s inquiry is allowed to proceed properly," he added. “I feel deeply for his parents, It is an appalling loss to suffer and that is why it is so important there is a proper coroner’s inquiry. In terms of what the Conservative party should do, there should be and there is a proper inquiry that asks all the questions as people come forward. That will take place. It is a tragic loss of a talented young life and it is not something any parent should go through and I feel for them deeply.” 

Mark Clarke denies any wrongdoing.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.