Julia Manning is Chief Executive of 2020Health.
I will never forget the day. It was 2008, and my teenage daughter had been selected to stand in the school’s mock mayoral elections. She came home distraught. That day they had been discussing the number of women MPs and her shock at the percentages was genuine. 19.5 per cent overall; nine per cent in the Conservatives; 15 per cent in the Liberal Democrats and Labour with 27 percent. She could not understand the logic; the inequality; the extraordinary bias; she thought it couldn’t be true.
Gender equality is never far from the headlines, whether it is on boards, in academia, in medicine or – as we saw yesterday at Prime Minister’s Questions – in politics. Time and again sincere individuals claim that they only selected a candidate on merit, oblivious or in denial of the existential evidence that demonstrates our skewed partiality. Gender parity is a long way off, but this has little to do with party politics and everything to do with semantics, value, stereotypes and caring.
In her excellent book Eyes Wide Open, Noreena Hertz recalls a study from another text, Delusions of Gender, where 238 university psychologists were asked to rate the CVs of two fictitious applicants for a job. The CVs were exactly the same apart from the name at the top: one was for Dr Karen Miller, the other was for Dr Brian Miller. Three quarters of the psychologists recommended hiring Dr Brian; less than half thought Dr Karen was up to the job. And these were both male and female psychologists assessing the CVs.
When a gender-blind application process is put in place, fairness increases. A Princeton study in 1997 looked at the effect of holding auditions for symphony orchestras with the musicians performing behind a screen so they could be heard but not seen. They found that the success rate of women increased by 50 per cent. However, this sort of gender-blind process is not possible in many sectors.
The subtleties of gender discrimination are compounded by our emotional vulnerability when it comes to what we value. In the calm of the day we seek character, competence and chemistry; in the heat of the moment, in selection and interview meetings, we are persuaded by charisma, charm and blatant competitiveness. Even having a lower-register voice is heard as being more acoustically robust and associated more with authority, regardless of content. The latter ‘qualities’ are far more likely to be exhibited by a man and we forget that gentle, relaxed, softly-spoken people can be super-achievers.
No woman who goes for a high-level job isn’t competitive, but their realism can come across as a lack of confidence; demonstrate confidence, and they are accused of arrogance and aggression. A propensity for collaboration can be interpreted as a lack of tenacity; female charm can be misinterpreted as insincerity. In politics, the MP’s job of patient scrutiny, intelligent legislating, confident representing and creative campaigning is just as – you could argue more than – aligned with characteristic female virtues than with male.
Our history shows that selection of women for Parliament only increases significantly when there are all-women short lists – and every political party should have had the guts to admit this by now and implement them.
Yet this would not be enough. The working life of an MP for the diligent (which women achievers instinctively are, an accurate stereotype) has expanded beyond healthy human capacity. We expect them now to accept sacrifices that politicians of a few decades ago would not recognise. We say that we want ‘real-life’ experienced politicians, that they should be in touch and understand the day-to-day pressures of living. How can we possibly expect that when we also demand minimum six working days a week, including evenings, and minimum leave when Parliament isn’t sitting? I know MPs who didn’t feel they could take a single week off last summer.
The result is stressed-out politicians, who, if they have family, rarely see them nor experience the day-today challenges that raising a family and living in community bring – simply because they are not there. There are of course superb female MPs in all parties who use their talents in political service and have made huge sacrifices to represent their constituents, but to say so publicly would open themselves up to derision. The rising trend that I have observed anecdotally, which I would not be surprised is a direct result of the anti-social job, is more single MPs who then don’t have to manage this dilemma. How could we ever attract a reasonable number of women into a role with such a disruptive work-life imbalance? No matter how wealthy we are, there is only so much we can delegate, and women are almost always the ones who manage the intricacies of care with their aging parents and growing children. I should also point out too that any MP who isn’t wealthy is at a huge disadvantage; delegating usually costs money and for the entire furore over expenses, the salary doesn’t match public expectations of availability.
So not only should there be all-women short lists, we need to ask why we have let it become so difficult for women to choose equality of opportunity. Why haven’t we redesigned the role to enable gifted women to contribute in politics without having to choose to remain single or risk their marriage? (The same goes for enabling men to spend more time with their families, although some seem to prefer writing books and being on boards than going home.) Why hasn’t job-sharing been enacted? Why, in an age of technology, do we stick to antiquated rules of walking through a lobby for every vote instead of messaging? (Is it because it’s easier for the whips to intimidate that way? MPs would still want to be there for the controversial and tightly fought ballots, so we wouldn’t lose the media-pleasing Government defeats).
The presupposition about women needing to change to fit in or contribute should be as scandalous as the lack of women in Parliament. Labour were intelligent enough to instigate all-women short lists: which party is now going to take the lead on ensuring that the job is one that goes on attracting and retaining smart, gifted female candidates?