Last woman standing

The “new politics” announced by David Cameron and Nick Clegg has sidelined women from most of the to

There are now five times as many Davids in government as there are women in the cabinet. David Cameron promised that a third of his inner circle would be women, but walk into a cabinet meeting and you are three times more likely to meet a minister who went to private school than you are to meet a woman. Nick Clegg and Cameron may trumpet the arrival of a "new kind of politics", but women have been left with the same old sidelines.

This follows the most male-dominated election in recent history. The leaders' televised debates highlighted women's absence from the top ranks of the major parties; the chancellors' fared no better. With a shift in focus towards the more "serious" issues of the economy and the constitution, women seemed to give up the steering wheel and return to the back seat. The most high-profile women in the campaign were Sarah Brown and Samantha Cameron.

Asked about the current gender imbalance, the new Home Secretary, Theresa May, and the newly elected Conservative MPs Nicola Blackwood and Charlotte Leslie said they were "too busy" to comment (or perhaps they've already learned to be "seen, not heard"?), but the other parties were more forthcoming. The Lib Dem MP Lynne Featherstone - one of the few new female ministers, who has responsibility for equalities at the Home Office - describes the situation as "atrocious". Caroline Lucas, Green Party MP for Brighton Pavilion, says that it is "shameful". Shirley Williams, a Lib Dem who helped write Labour's manifesto in 1974 with Barbara Castle, clearly feels betrayed: "It's a step backwards," she says. "It was appalling that neither of the two coalition parties included a single woman in their negotiations. I wasn't consulted - I was out campaigning for them. It was a bad slip for both sides. It was only when we started shouting that they noticed."

Some parties did better than others. With its policy of all-women shortlists, Labour might have lost the best part of 100 seats, but it still put 81 women in the Commons. The Tories gained 100 seats but brought in only 48. Although women contested 40 per cent of the Lib Dems' winnable seats, the number of its female MPs dropped in what was a bad night - seven out of 57 are now women, down from nine in 2005.

“It's ridiculous," says the Labour MP Emily Thornberry. "Clegg stands up and says how inclusive and diverse his cabinet is, but there aren't even enough women to doughnut [form a ring around] the leader for press shots. If the party can't bite the bullet and take the necessary steps to increase their female candidates, then we'll benefit. The Labour Party will be the only party that represents both genders."

Labour members might be right to criticise, but they have challenges of their own. At present, five out of the party's six candidates for the leadership are men. The two leading women MPs with cabinet experience have already ruled themselves out of the race. The party's deputy leader, Harriet Harman, seems to have internalised the view that she's not "up to it" and Yvette Cooper says she might consider it when she doesn't have a two-year-old to look after (but presumably this constraint does not apply to her husband).

Diane Abbott, MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington, is the only woman standing. Gender is a card she intends to play. "This is a pivotal moment for the leadership of the Labour Party, and it's important to get the full range of opinions represented," she says. "The current front-runners are all very nice but they all look and sound the same. Women were invisible in the election - they can't disappear in the leadership, too. This is the 21st century, not the 1950s."

But why does women's representation matter? To date, the left has struggled to explain why gender equality might be important in politics beyond an abstract notion of "fairness". Yet women don't just help with legitimacy - they also make tangible differences to policy. Sarah Childs, professor of politics and gender at the University of Bristol, has researched the effect of 100 new female Labour MPs on party policy and documented their vital role in the development of Sure Start, child tax credits and policies against domestic violence.

In the wake of the recession, the Fawcett ­Society points out that women's input into policymaking is more important than ever. Women make up 65 per cent of public-sector workers and 89 per cent of carers. Their experiences must be heard, because when state services are slashed, it is women who pick up the slack. Or, as Abbott puts it, "One man's public-sector cut is another woman's job loss."

“The labour movement has fundamentally changed," she says, "Trade unions now have huge numbers of women working in hospitals and transport, and we need a woman who can speak to their concerns. I've brought up a son as a single mother. I can speak over the heads of union bosses and reach the members."

Bully boys

Abbott was one of the early campaigners for all-women shortlists, a policy that has helped Labour push its female MPs up to 30 per cent of the total - the highest of all the parties. Supporters argue that female under-representation is driven largely by a lack of role models and a macho political culture best characterised by the jeering and bullying of Prime Minister's Questions. The only way to break the cycle, Labour argues, is to get a critical mass of women into the chamber to change its culture (though it remains to be seen whether the party will commit to using female quotas in its own elections for the shadow cabinet).

The Lib Dems and the Conservatives, on the other hand, have always seen all-women shortlists as an insult to meritocracy. "We've always had problems because we're a party of clashing principles," Featherstone concedes. "We believe local people should decide on their choice of candidate and intervention from the centre isn't welcome. You can't just drop people in."

The Lib Dems say all-women shortlists are unlikely to fix the problem in any case, because the root cause of the under-representation is not female insecurity about a "boys' club", but bigger issues. Political careers tend to take off at the same time as a woman's biological clock starts to tick (Charles Kennedy delayed having children until his forties - an option not available to most female colleagues) and many end up dropping out. Those who carry on face a difficult task. Running for office and holding down a job is challenging enough; adding in caring responsibilities makes it almost impossible.

“I still feel perpetually guilty about my children," Featherstone says. "They've grown up now, but earlier on I was bringing them up as a single mum. When I was out canvassing I felt guilty about not being at home; when I was with them I felt bad I wasn't at work. I used to hold political meetings in my house because I couldn't afford a babysitter."

All-women shortlists won't fix these problems, the Lib Dems argue. Far better to work on measures to promote flexible working and paternity leave. According to the Lib Dem MP Jo Swinson, parliament itself may have to change. At present, the building still makes space for a suiting lounge but no crèche, and the recently extended hours have made it more ­difficult for families. "Nick has got some great changes for political reform but we need to look at the business of parliament, too," she says. "Parents need to be able to work flexibly, and at the moment votes are held at very short notice, making it hard to balance family life."

Fresh hope

Reforming the electoral system would also be a step forward for equal representation, as women tend to feature as second or third preferences rather than first. Countries that adopt proportional representation tend to have more women in higher places. The Spanish cabinet has 53 per cent women, South Africa 33 per cent and Sweden 50 per cent; compare these figures to our impoverished 17 per cent. The Welsh Assembly has the best profile in the UK: a form of PR combined with a policy of joint male and female candidates has pushed female representation up to 50 per cent.

Could the "new politics" of 2010 offer fresh hope for women? The overall proportion of women in parliament went up 2.1 per cent in the last election, and coalition governments are supposed to be better suited to women's more "consensual" style. Some, like Lucas, the Green MP and party leader, are already proving hard to ignore. "The biggest challenge is not to be trivialised," she says. "We know that women aren't less able to do these jobs, so we have to look at what else is holding them back. We need to get over the stereotypes, and fight to keep women visible."