As the cabinet appointments are finalised, it is confirmed that just four women have made it to the top table, only two of them in senior roles.
Frequently blamed for this lack of women in the top command is the dearth of female MPs with enough experience to merit a seat in cabinet. This is true — it would be ridiculous, not to mention divisive and ineffective, to parachute in women who lack the necessary expertise.
But, by the same token, we must stop and ask why — 13 years after the number of female MPs broke through the 100 mark in 1997 — women in parliament are not progressing at the same rate as men.
Margaret Beckett, speaking to the Evening Standard, says:
[It’s] a consequence of the lack of encouragement and the lack of bringing people forward in the past.
In the Liberal party, for example, they talked for years and years and years about bringing more women in, but it simply hasn’t happened.
I am inclined to agree. All-women shortlists are controversial, and indeed, there are compelling arguments against them. But the fact remains that they have been effective. In 1997, after Tony Blair enthusiastically embraced the policy, 120 female MPs were elected, 101 of whom were Labour (13 were Conservatives and just 3 were Lib Dems). David Cameron also introduced them — not without controversy — as part of his attempt to detoxify the Tory brand, more than doubling the number of female Tory MPs from 19 to 48.
The Liberal Democrats, meanwhile, have consistently opposed the policy on the grounds that it is illiberal. Their number of female MPs has remained low, going down from eight in 2005 to seven in last week’s election. The party’s argument that it is better to increase the number of female MPs by encouraging them to stand, rather than enforcing their selection, is a good one in theory, but there have been no concerted efforts to make it work.
The pitfall is assuming that we have come far enough in the battle for equal representation for women, and that such measures give them an unfair advantage, rather than simply levelling the playing field. This is simply not true, the evidence being that the number of female MPs has increased only incrementally since 1997. There were 120 then, and there are 142 now. In percentage terms, both figures equal roughly a fifth. Increasing the number of female MPs now is a vital first step in making sure that the next generation does not have to use all-women shortlists.
Beyond selection, more must be done at every stage to allow female MPs to progress. This is not about special treatment, but about being taken seriously. The “Blair’s Babes” epithet instantly given to the 101 female Labour MPs is sadly indicative of the trivialising attitude to women that prevails. There were echoes of this in Thursday’s election, with the Mail on Sunday quick to pin the flag of “Cameron’s Cuties” on the new female Tory MPs.
Many right-wing critics cite the failure of “Blair’s Babes” to make any remarkable breakthroughs, or the personal failings of individuals, to argue against the need to bring more women into parliament. However, it cannot be denied that such issues as equal pay, domestic violence and maternity leave have been on the agenda in a way that they were not before.
It is certainly down to the individual female MP to excel, and to be worthy of her elected position. But it is also the responsibility of those around her to take her seriously. Let’s hope that the next cabinet has somewhat more equal representation.