Cross-posted from Lib Dem Voice:
Women now have the vote on the same terms as men. With the majority of the electorate female – and indeed the majority of actual voters at the last general election female too – what’s there left to worry about, one might ask?
Well – with only around one in five MPs female, there’s a big difference between what goes in to the electoral system (majority: female) and what comes out (overwhelming majority: male).
So what I want to address in this piece head on why I believe this matters. It is in everyone’s interests to have a Parliament that is made up of the best people for the job, and that includes a range of people who can best represent the diversity that exists in our communities. If we don’t have the best, and if we don’t have a Parliament that fully understands how issues look to people from all those diverse viewpoints, then we get worse decision-making – and we all suffer from that in the end. To take a very simple example – if you have a Parliament passing laws on fighting crime which doesn’t understand the perspectives of people under 25, then those laws will not be as effective – and we all suffer as a result.
Now you don’t necessarily have to be of a particular group or community or whatever to be able to understand and represent its views. But in general it certainly helps.
Would a Parliament full of people over 70 have some MPs who were good at understanding the viewpoints of those under 30? Of course it would – but it would be even better at doing that if not all the MPs were over 70. The same applies to gender. Yes, some men are good at understanding and representing the views of women, and vice-versa. But when you have a Parliament that is four-fifths men, we are far too close to that everyone over 70 situation.
Now people sometimes say – ah, but if you can’t point to an example of an act of explicit discrimination, then the system is fair and doing anything to fix the results means we won’t be getting the best person for the job. So I’m going to try to tackle that head on.
First, when you have the number of female MPs at record levels – but still a Parliament that is 80% male – I think it fair to ask, “Are you really, really sure there’s no discrimination going on anywhere?” As prima facia evidence goes, that’s pretty strong stuff. Of course, it doesn’t make the case in itself, but I think too many people are too complacent in the face of what should be a shocking figure.
And, I would ask – do you really think that if you picked the 646 best people for the job of MP (using whatever definition of “best” you think suits), you would end up with four out of every five of them being male? Do you really think the distribution of talent, ability, experience, knowledge – whatever goes in to your definition of “best” – is so lopsided amongst the population that the result is that four-fifths of those people are male?
I am happy to acknowledge that there are – on average, in general, with individual exceptions – differences between the sexes. Yes, if I needed someone to run with an urgent message as fast as possible then, other things being equal, I’d ask a man as on average men are faster – or even, dare I say it, better – at running than women. Just as it would be wrong to assume that all men are faster than all women, it would be foolish to close our eyes to the differences on average.
But what such difference could there be that would justify four-fifths of MPs being male?
Certainly there are aspects of the way our political system works which typically appeal more to men or are more off-putting to women, but those are not aspects that are engraved in stone and always have to be that way. Take the bear-pit performances (and I use that word kindly – embarrassing shambles might often be more appropriate) of the PM / Leader of the Opposition exchanges at Prime Minister’s Questions, with massed ranks of people sat behind each and shouting at each other. That sort of behaviour would be completely unacceptable in a work place – imagine running a meeting at work where people behaved like that. And there’s no essential need for PMQs to be like that – look around at how other walks of life and other countries manage to have question times that are meaningful and dignified.
And in this example is where, I think, some good news can be found. For tackling issues like this would not only tackle the male/female imbalance, they would benefit politics overall.
But most importantly, we shouldn’t turn a blind eye to the gender balance of Parliament as if it doesn’t matter. There is no one magic wand to fix any and all problems, but we can only fix problems if we acknowledge they exist.