Feminising Politics, Politicising Gender


Jonathan Dean (University of Leeds) on varieties of gender politics scholarship — and the issues and tensions in play. Reflections from the 4th ECPG held recently in Uppsala. Signs of a healthy and dynamic field!

Originally posted on UK PSA Women & Politics Specialist Group:

Some musings following the 2015 European Conference on Politics and Gender from Jonathan Dean.

JoniThe Fourth European Conference on Politics and Gender saw no fewer than 450 scholars from across Europe and beyond descend on Uppsala in central Sweden, rendering it an excellent opportunity to take stock of the current state of gender and politics scholarship. At one level, the news is unreservedly positive. Feminist perspectives are being brought to bear on a bewilderingly wide variety of political phenomena, and the affective climate of the conference was often defiant and optimistic. But on digging deeper, one could detect numerous signs of unease. In the lunch breaks and in the bars of Uppsala all too frequently talk was of precarious employment and institutional marginalisation. No one could be left in any doubt that to pursue “gender-aware” political analysis is to engage in often bitter political struggle against a political science…

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Why women talk less


No easy answers – but a measured response to complex issues from the Debuk blog

Originally posted on language: a feminist guide:

This week on Newsnight, Evan Davis talked to three women about all-male panels—a subject made topical by the recent popularity of a tumblr set up to name and shame them. Why, he asked, are women so often un- or under-represented in public forums? Are they reluctant to put themselves forward? Are they deterred by the adversarial nature of the proceedings?

The women offered some alternative suggestions. Women don’t get asked, or if they do it’s assumed you only need one. Women aren’t seen as experts, unless the subject is a ‘women’s issue’. The age-old prejudice against women speaking in public means that any woman who dares to voice her opinions can expect to be deluged with abuse and threats.

But while all-male panels are obviously a problem, they’re only the tip of the iceberg. Just ensuring that women are represented on a panel does not guarantee their voices will…

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Another Crack in the Glass Ceiling? Leslie Evans appointed Scotland’s top civil servant

Another first for gender equality this week: with news that First Minister Nicola Sturgeon had appointed Leslie Evans as Scotland’s top civil servant – the first time a woman has held this position. Guest genderpol blogger Professor  James Mitchell, University of Edinburgh reflects on this break through and the barriers that remain for women in public service. 

Leslie Evans has been appointed Permanent Secretary at the Scottish Government. The office dates back to 1885 when the Scottish Office came into being (though had its antecedents dating back further). She is the nineteenth person to hold the post and the first women. That the new head of the Scottish civil service is a woman has drawn most attention.

While much attention and research focuses on the number of MPs, MSPs and councillors, there has been far less on the opportunities for women in the civil and public services. A year ago, research on Whitehall by the Hay Group concluded that the culture and leadership climate in the civil service prevented talented women from progressing into more senior roles’. This constraint on the talent pool was a major impediment in performance. The research concluded that women who entered the service had the qualities and capabilities required to reach the top but raised questions about the conditions that inhibited this talent from rising. The conclusion of the report (Women in Whitehall: Culture, Leadership, Talent) warned that if these matters were not addressed then the civil service would no longer be ‘fit for purpose’.

While stated policy was broadly positive, there were significant problems when it came to how this was translated into practice and particularly people’s perception of the reality – the rhetoric was not believed when it came to policy and promotions and what is valued. Many talented women simply opt out. The challenge was presented diagrammatically.


 There is considerable variation across the civil service with the Ministry of Defence, Ministry of Justice and Foreign and Commonwealth Office amongst the poorest. The Department for Education was the only department in Whitehall in which the number of women senior civil servants exceeded men. The Scottish Government’s record has been better probably reflecting the nature of its responsibilities.

One response has been to scrap all-male shortlists, except in ‘exceptional circumstances’ and emphasise a more inclusive leadership climate. The greater effort to ensure more women are appointed to public bodies and boards is thought to contribute to a changing climate. Having diversity champions and mentoring and providing support for women before, during and after maternity leave, and training to remove unintended bias in interviews are all being encouraged.

The current climate is unlikely to have been decisive in Leslie Evans’ appointment but this appointment highlights the loss of talent in the career progression of the civil service. We are still some way from the day when the sex of a senior official is deemed the most notable factor in an appointment

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Women and the 2015 General Election: Fractures in the Glass Ceiling?

By Meryl Kenny, Juliet Swann and Fiona Mackay

The run-up to the 2015 General Election was dominated by coverage of ‘dangerous women’ shaking up the status quo in British politics – ranging from the ‘scarlet sisterhood’ of female party leaders to the now infamous photo-shopped ‘wrecking ball’ image of Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. In the end, a record high of 191 women MPs (29%) were elected to the House of Commons on 7 May, an increase of 48 women from the immediate post-2010 election results. With the resignations of Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband, five of Britain’s main political parties are now led by women – including interim party leaders Harriet Harman (Labour), Sal Brinton (Lib Dem)…and (briefly) Suzanne Evans (UKIP) until Nigel Farage’s recent ‘un-resignation’.

Yet, while these gains are to be welcomed, women’s presence at Westminster remains a long way from parity. The 2015 election results put the UK in only 37th place worldwide for women’s representation, lagging well behind several of its European comparators, as well as many African and Latin American countries – including the world leader, Rwanda (which has 64% women in its Chamber of Deputies). Those countries that have overtaken the UK on women’s representation have done so largely through the use of ‘fast track’ equality measures – 16 of the top 20 countries for women’s representation worldwide use some form of gender quotas (ranging from voluntary party quotas to statutory legal ones). The global evidence, then, is clear – without active intervention, gains in women’s representation at Westminster will likely continue to be slow and incremental.

How did the parties do? All three of the largest parties in the new House of Commons – the Conservatives, Labour and the SNP – have seen increases in the number and proportion of women MPs elected in 2015, though there are still significant disparities between the parties (see Table 1). Labour continues to lead the way on women’s representation at Westminster, with 99 women MPs (43%), due in large part to the party’s use of all-women shortlists in winnable seats. The Conservatives, meanwhile, will see more women MPs on their benches than in 2010 – rising from 49 to 68 – but these women are still only 21% of their parliamentary party. And women are 20 of the 56-strong SNP group in the House of Commons (36%), a huge increase from 2010 when the party had only one woman MP, Eilidh Whiteford (Banff and Buchan). After an electoral wipeout, there are no Liberal Democrat women MPs remaining, nor does the DUP have any women MPs. The one Green MP elected is a woman (Caroline Lucas), and, in Wales, Plaid Cymru elected its first woman MP (Liz Saville Roberts). The remaining two women MPs were elected in Northern Ireland: Margaret Ritchie (SDLP), and Sylvia Hermon (Independent).

Table 1: Women MPs by party (2010 and 2015)

2010 2015
Conservative 49 16% 68 21%
Labour 81 31% 99 43%
SNP 1 17% 20 36%
Liberal Democrat 7 12% 0 0%
Plaid Cymru 0 0% 1 33%
Green 1 100% 1 100%
Sinn Féin 1 20% 0 0%
SDLP 1 33% 1 33%
Alliance 1 100% 0 0%
Independent 1 100% 1 100%
TOTAL 143 22% 191 29%

Focusing on the Scottish results, the overall increase in women’s representation was dramatic – women are now 20 of 59 Scottish MPs (34%), a net gain of 7 women from 2010. These results are all the more significant given that Scotland has historically had a relatively poor record with regards to women’s representation in the House of Commons compared with the UK overall figures (see Figure 1). All 20 of these women come from the SNP, including 20-year old Mhairi Black (Paisley and Renfrewshire South), the youngest member of parliament since 1832. The remaining three non-SNP seats in Scotland were won by men: Ian Murray (Labour; Edinburgh South); Alistair Carmichael (Liberal Democrat; Orkney and Shetland); and David Mundell, the new Secretary of State for Scotland (Conservative; Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale).

Our analysis of Scottish candidate selection figures (read more on the genderpol blog and the ERS Scotland website) found that only 27% of candidates for the six main parties across Scotland – the SNP, Scottish Labour, Conservatives, Greens, the Liberal Democrats, and UKIP – were women (see Table 2). 13 of Scotland’s 59 seats had no women candidates standing at all (beyond Scotland, an additional 89 constituency contests across the UK were men-only). The rise in the number of Scottish women MPs elected, then, is the result of the SNP electoral surge – the party selected 21 women out of 59 candidates in 2015 (36%), and all but one of these women were elected (SNP candidate Emma Harper lost to the lone Scottish Conservative MP, David Mundell).

Table 2: Scottish candidates 2015, by party and gender

Party Women Men Total (% women)
SNP 21 38 59 (36%)
Scottish Labour 16 43 59 (27%)
Scottish Conservatives 9 50 59 (15%)
Scottish Liberal Democrats 16 43 59 (27%)
Scottish Greens 13 18 31 (42%)
UKIP 7 34 41 (7%)
Total 82 226 308 (27%)

The increase in the proportion of SNP women candidates and MPs reflects a significant step-change in a party that has traditionally been seen to have a ‘problem’ with women. Much of this change has been driven from the top, with First Minister and SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon making powerful statements on women’s representation, including her appointment of a 50/50 cabinet, and her support for the Scottish cross-party civil-society lobby group Women 50:50. But there are also significant changes within the party coming from the bottom-up, including a huge growth in membership and the entrance of grassroots activists – including women from groups like Women for Independence – into parliamentary politics. Indeed, the number of SNP MPs who are Women for Independence members and supporters now outnumbers the number of Liberal Democrat MPs at Westminster.

In terms of the overall numbers, however, SNP women are only 10% of all women MPs in the House of Commons. The majority of women MPs (51%) in the House of Commons come from the Labour Party, while Conservative women are just over a third of women MPs at Westminster (36%). While only 34% of Labour candidates were women across the UK, the party’s use of gender quotas (in the form of all-women shortlists) in key retirement and target seats meant that high numbers of women were elected. In Scotland however, the party’s proportion of women candidates was lower than UK-wide figures (27%) and the party only used AWS in two selection contests: Glenrothes (a retirement seat), and Argyll and Bute. Ultimately, only one (male) Scottish Labour MP was elected (in a seat with no women standing). The Conservatives, meanwhile, ran only 26% women candidates UK-wide, and were much less likely to run these women in winnable seats than the Labour Party.

Do the 2015 elections represent a breakthrough for women in British politics? When the parliament does reconvene, it will look significantly different – with substantially more women on the benches, and also a record number of black and minority ethnic MPs. It is also worth noting that the 2015 election returned the highest number of ‘out’ LGBT MPs. Seven of David Cameron’s 22-member Cabinet are women (32%), though men continue to occupy the majority of the most senior cabinet roles. But beyond the numbers, the outlook for women is mixed, with the Conservative government’s election commitment of £12bn in welfare cuts looming on the horizon, and women continuing to bear the brunt of austerity measures. Several advocates pushing for women’s representation in the House of Commons have also lost their seats, including (but not limited to): Jo Swinson (Lib Dem), Chair of the Liberal Democrat Campaign for Gender Balance; Anne Begg (Labour), the Vice-Chair of the Speaker’s Conference on Parliamentary Representation; and Mary McLeod (Conservative), Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Women in Parliament.

Despite the gains made for women in 2015, then, there is little room for complacency. There is still a significant distance to travel before we reach equal representation at Westminster, and further progress is unlikely without greater commitment by all of the parties. In Scotland, the attention will now turn to next year’s Scottish Parliament elections, where the numbers of women have dropped over time. While the SNP has led on women’s representation in the 2015 GE, the party continues to lag behind Labour in terms of women’s representation at Holyrood (women are currently 27% of SNP MSPs, compared to Labour’s 47%). There are promising signs here for 2016, including the SNP Party Conference’s recent backing of the ability to set all-women shortlists –the key now for the party will be effective implementation of these measures. But the prospect of equal representation at Holyrood and Westminster cannot rest solely on political will and individual party champions. Repeated calls have been made for the need for legislative quotas, led by the cross-party campaign group Women 50:50 in Scotland. It is time for Scotland and the UK to heed these calls in order to ensure real change.

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General Election 2015: women MPs and candidates

Party and gender breakdown of new parliamentarians  after 2015 General election from the House of Commons library

General Election 2015: women MPs and candidates.

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Where are the women in #GE2015?

By Meryl Kenny

This blog was originally posted on Think:Leicester at the University of Leicester. Read the original here.

The 2015 General Election is one of the most unpredictable electoral contests in British political history. Amidst all the post-election scenario discussions, though, lies one political certainty – the overwhelming majority of the MPs elected to the House of Commons on 7 May will be men.

Five years ago, the prospects for women’s representation at Westminster were promising. The main political parties were publicly competing over the issue, with Labour continuing its commitment to the use of gender quotas (in the form of all-women shortlists), and David Cameron pushing for change in Conservative Party candidate selection procedures. The Speaker’s Conference on Parliamentary Representation had put the issue of women’s under-representation higher up the political agenda, and the aftermath of the expenses scandal meant that there were plenty of vacant seats. But, despite this favourable window of opportunity, the 2010 General Election results were disappointing – the percentage of women in the House of Commons increased only slightly, rising from just under 20% to 22%. Indeed, the number of male MPs elected in 2010 alone outnumbers the total number of female MPs ever elected to the House of Commons.

In the 2015 GE campaign, however, the issue of women’s political representation has arguably not been as prominent as it was in 2010. Much has been made, though, of the ‘missing millions’ of women voters, notably in the Labour Party’s efforts to target women through their ‘pink bus’ tour of marginal constituencies. Yet, while the research evidence suggests that women may be less interested in formal politics than men, there is little convincing evidence of a significant gender gap in voting turnout in recent British General Elections. Meanwhile, women politicians have played a prominent role in the leaders’ debates, but have continued to face sexist media coverage –including the now infamous photo-shopped image of SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon (‘the most dangerous woman in Britain’, according to the Daily Mail) in a tartan bikini riding a wrecking ball à la Miley Cyrus.

Despite these trends, recent predictions suggest that the numbers of women MPs may improve in the 2015 GE, potentially rising to almost 30 per cent (a figure which is still well short of equal representation). This predicted rise is largely due to the Labour Party – indeed, the one prediction that we can make with certainty about the 2015 GE is that Labour will once again have the highest number of women MPs, due to the use of all-women shortlists in retirement and key target seats. Another party to watch will be the SNP – 36% of its candidates are female, a significant increase from 2010, and a potential step change for a party that has traditionally been seen to have a ‘problem’ with women. SNP leader and Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has made powerful statements about women’s representation, including appointing a gender-equal cabinet, publicly supporting the Scottish cross-party campaign Women 50:50, and backing the ability to set all-women shortlists and other gender balancing measures at SNP party conference.

Regardless of whether we reach the 30% threshold after 7 May, there is clearly still a significant distance to travel before equal representation at Westminster becomes a realistic prospect. Recent analyses have suggested that the way forward is electoral reform, that switching to a system of proportional representation would lead to increases in women’s numerical representation. But, the significant body of research on women and politics suggests otherwise – PR electoral systems may facilitate, but certainly do not guarantee increases in women’s political presence.

What the global evidence does point to is a more immediate solution – the use of gender quotas. Indeed, the comparative and international evidence overwhelmingly demonstrates that well-designed and properly implemented quotas are one of the most effective ways of ensuring significant increases in women’s representation. Yet, in the UK, quota debates have been marginal (in that they have largely taken place within the parties, and until now, only with any effect within Labour), and parochial and non-scientific (in that they have refused to engage with or follow the global evidence). While Labour continues to prop up the overall numbers, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats continue to raise the possibility of introducing gender quotas, only to not follow through. Repeated calls have been made for the UK to consider legislative quotas – and certainly the UK evidence suggests that without system-wide statutory quotas, women’s representation remains contingent upon party will or individual champions. But if we do reach 30% women in the House of Commons after 7 May, there is a risk that this may engender a sense of complacency among parties, that these debates and wider reform agendas may lose momentum, and that gains made in 2015 may stall or fall in subsequent elections.

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How the major UK parties are trying to court women’s votes

Originally posted on UK PSA Women & Politics Specialist Group:

Rainbow Murray, Queen Mary University of London

Women comprise 52% of the British electorate, so it’s fair to say our votes will decide this election. This is a fact that none of the parties has ignored. All three main parties (Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat) have written a number of policies into their manifestos that are targeted directly at women. Alongside these policies are more gender-neutral measures that will nonetheless particularly affect women (whether positively or negatively).

Why do all parties feel a particular need to woo women voters? It comes down to more than their simple proportion of the electorate. Labour has enjoyed an advantage among women voters in recent elections, based on its stronger track record for feminist policies, as well as its strengths in areas that women value, including the welfare state, the public sector, the NHS and education. But Labour have also occasionally misfired…

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