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Are female politicians judged differently to their male counterparts?

Monday, August 9, 2010

The following article was published in Total Politics magazine.


Golda Meir, Indira Gandhi, Margaret Thatcher three women politicians who we remember more readily than their male equivalents. It’s because they were different that they stand out. They were the exceptions to the rule that women do not have what it takes to be successful politicians. Writing these words seems to hark back to an earlier time, where women knew their place was in the kitchen and politics was a man’s business. Has this perception changed?


Women complain that today’s female politicians are too often judged by how they look and what they wear, not what political point they are making. Both of our female Home Secretaries have experienced this. Theresa May’s shoes appear regularly in the newspapers, while Jacqui Smith suffered the indignity of references to her cleavage when she made an important announcement at the dispatch box.


We can look over the Channel to France where being glamorous is nigh on essential to being a successful female politician. There’s Segolene Royal, Socialist MP and presidential candidate or President Sarkozy’s ministers, Rachida Dati and Rama Yade. They all receive huge coverage in the news media, rarely about any political opinions they may hold, usually it’s their attire or other personal details that get the column inches.


Perhaps this media obsession fuels the subconscious idea that women can only handle the fluffier policy areas. In the UK we still have ministerial jobs that have never been held by women, or only rarely. There has never been a female Commons defence minister, although two women from the House of Lords did hold that brief. Female Foreign ministers are rare, but the International Development portfolio is clearly seen as the softer end of foreign relations and has had several female ministers.


So yes, women politicians are judged differently. Some judgements of course are based on a level-headed appreciation that women and men are different; often have divergent attitudes, ideals and approaches to life. Other times judgements can be based on outdated assumptions about what women can and should do. And this is the area where it can matter.


There is the difficulty of getting selected to stand for parliament, and here the numbers speak for themselves. More than 90 years after women could first stand there have been fewer than 400 female MPs, fewer than the number of male MPs today. Some say it’s that women don’t want to stand for parliament, but the truth is different.


Of the three main parties in the 2010 election only Labour achieved the same proportion of women elected as the proportion of women candidates standing. Overall a greater proportion of women from main stream parties who wanted to become an MP failed to get elected than men candidates.


Historically more women have been selected to stand in marginal or unwinnable seats than men. The result is that on average men stay longer in parliament, making it more likely that they will hold senior positions and become the visible face of parliament. This reinforces a view that politics is a mainly male occupation.


So what’s behind the selection problems? Until recently women still reported being asked about their family arrangements whereas few aspiring men candidates have ever been asked this. But the truth is probably more subtle. Candidates are predominantly selected by ordinary party members the majority of whom are male and consciously or unconsciously men appear to look more like the next MP than a woman does.


But does it really matter whether we have a more equal spread between the sexes? To me it’s a matter of plain fairness elected bodies should broadly reflect the population they represent. Women do have different experiences in life to men and that perspective should be included in the mix. Before we reached 100 women MPs in parliament a whole range of issues had barely merited a mention, not being thought of as part of mainstream discussion.


I’m sure that nowadays most people believe that women should have the same chance of becoming an MP as men. The public want to see the best people there regardless of gender. But the fact that the UK still lags in the numbers of female candidates elected shows that there are still barriers holding women back.

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