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Opinion

We need more women MPs – but we can't just expect women to stand for election. We must act

There is no sense of urgency to reach equal representation in politics, writes Lyanne Nicholl, CEO of 50:50 Parliament. Why are we all happily sleepwalking into continued gender inequality?

Suffragette campaign, London ca 1920. Image: Alamy

The results are in… and the gender imbalance from the local elections remains… stagnant. The total percentage of women voted in was 38%, and the number of women in the population is 51% – so why on earth are we accepting such inequality in our elected bodies?

Women made up just 34% of candidates selected to stand across the main political parties, which means we have reached a frustrating plateau. We are committed to change, and progress has been made over the last 10 years since 50:50 Parliament was established, but it’s too slow. The sense of urgency to reach equal representation seems confined to small circles. The question is, why are we all happily sleepwalking into continued gender inequality? If the Covid-19 enquiry taught us anything, it’s that we need more women in the room, not because there are DE&I targets, but because women’s lived experience is crucial in decision-making. 

One issue that needs to be addressed is the lack of transparency and accountability regarding candidate selections. Gender, ethnicity and disability aren’t being monitored; we know that only 36% of women are being selected, but we don’t know how many women are putting themselves forward, and we should. To say that you want equality in your political party is one thing – to show how you are working towards it and to put stakes in the ground is another thing entirely. Centenary Action is calling for the enactment of Section 106 [of the Equality Act], which would require political parties to publish diversity data. We both want this to be extended to local authority elections, also.

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We must address the barriers preventing women from standing. We need more women MPs, and there are 34.5 million of us in the UK, so the talent pool is not exactly small. However, we need to create a workplace and a campaign trail that appeals to the brightest and best women in the UK in all of their diversity. This will empower and enable women to stand up and be counted. 

The 50:50 community has indicated that the biggest barrier for women who want to stand is the culture, which, from the outside looking in, is often viewed as misogynistic, and women don’t want to be in that environment. We need to tackle this, and one way to do this is to create a safe space, and a proper, independent system, for women to be able to say when things aren’t right. 

The systems currently in place need reviewing. Too many serious issues seem to be dealt with by the whip’s office. This compromises impartiality. There is not a great deal of water between the ‘Pestminster’ scandals and today – change in this area cannot come fast enough. And it extends to local councils too. A female councillor approached me after a 50:50 event to say, “I was on the verge of giving up due to the misogyny I’ve experienced, but this has put the fire in my belly to carry on.” We need women to ‘carry on’ so that we can achieve the gender balance that we believe will lead to a better democracy for all. But they needn’t necessarily ‘keep calm’ at the same time as ‘carrying on’ – as MP Anum Qaisar has said, “Grab your seat at the table, and then smash it up.”

Today, we are more than 100 years from the first time women could stand for election, and yet, as things stand, it will be at least 2060 before we reach gender parity in parliament.

Imagine, for one moment, if the gender scales were flipped. If some by-elections had all-women candidate lists – similarly to Rochdale, which had 11 male candidates to choose from. Imagine if women made up 65% of parliament. There would be outrage. Yet there is barely a whisper when this is the reality for women’s representation in politics. 

It’s easy to say you want more women, but what are party leaders actually doing to make this happen? We need to look at issues that impact women more than men – economic disparities, safety concerns, childcare issues and caregiving responsibilities. These are key issues holding women back from campaigning – recognise these and implement changes that support your female candidates. 

When things are bad for women, they are always worse for Black and ethnically minoritised women. Alongside eradicating misogyny, there has to be zero tolerance of misogynoir – this should be a given. Parliamentarians and candidates need to be pulled up on any language and any behaviour that falls foul of this. 

Above all else, we need “deeds not words”, to quote the Suffragettes. We need to implement policies that recognise the things holding women back from standing and encourage more women to stand.

This isn’t a tick-box exercise, it’s about making sure everybody’s voice is heard. It’s about democracy. We need equality because it will drive our country forward. Anything less than 50:50 just isn’t good enough.  

Lyanne Nicholl is the CEO of 50:50 Parliament.

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