Dehenna Davison is MP for Bishop Auckland.
Women are outnumbered in Parliament and local government by two to one. So what’s the answer to getting more into politics and retaining them? Networks like Conservative Young Women.
The 2019 General Election returned the highest number, and proportion, of female MPs ever recorded and a new record of female Conservative MPs, me included. I firmly believe that, if any party is doing the most to get women elected into public office, it’s the Conservatives.
While admittedly it is the Labour Party that still has the most female MPs elected, that is predominantly because of the use of all-women shortlists or quotas, something any self-respecting meritocrat could never support.
I certainly didn’t want a better chance of being selected because I was a woman. I just wanted a fair chance at getting there. And, in the end, the Bishop Auckland selection final comprised of two blokes and me. I have the confidence of knowing that I won fair and square based on merit, and not because of my gender.
Besides, regardless of Labour’s use of all female shortlists, it has still failed to produce a single female leader, whereas the Conservative Party delivered not only the first female party leader, but the first two female Prime Ministers.
It can’t be denied that tools like quotas can be useful for getting women through the door. However, if we are serious about getting more women into politics, it has to be more than just cosmetic. We have to dig deeper into the reasons why women aren’t already getting involved. That means looking into, and addressing, the cultural and working practices that exist in Parliament and local government, which create and maintain significant barriers for women.
A recent study by the University of Bath suggested there are three factors that prevent women from getting into elected life: social and cultural barriers, structural and institutional barriers, and knowledge and information barriers.
The social and cultural barriers are, to some extent, the hardest to change. Politics has long been thought of as a man’s world or a boys’ club. I am confident that almost every political woman, of any party affiliation, could name multiple examples of going to a political event and being the only woman in the room. For some people, this wouldn’t pose a problem – I certainly never felt put off because of such experiences.
However, for other women I have spoken to, it can be very offputting walking into a room full exclusively of men in suits, particularly if this happens during someone’s very early political experiences.
Paradoxically, the best way to tackle these cultural barriers is by getting more women elected. But not just women – people of all demographics from all walks of life. The more the makeup of elected politicians reflects our society, the easier it will be for people from non-traditional political demographics to picture themselves in positions of power and consider standing for election. The 2019 General Election saw the most diverse Parliament ever elected, and we must continue this trend.
The structural barriers have been changing in recent years, with measures put in place to make Parliament more parent-friendly. An in-house nursery and more sociable working hours are all part of these steps. And we have seen excellent female MPs like Chloe Smith, Juli Lopez, and Kemi Badenoch taking maternity leave while doing Ministerial jobs.
On the knowledge barriers, training is key. Groups like Women2Win and the Conservative Women’s Organisation have long played a crucial role in providing training opportunities for women interested in political life.
The pipeline of good candidates is paramount, and that means making sure we have excellent younger women ready to take on leadership roles in their communities when they arise. That is why I am delighted to take on the role of Honorary President of Conservative Young Women this year.
Conservative Young Women is for those aged 18-35, meaning that despite officially being too old at 27 to be a Young Conservative I am still thankfully well within the bracket! CYW is laying the groundwork to deliver change to the often perceived masculine character of Westminster.
Now a central feature within the party, the organisation this year has gone from strength to strength and, despite the challenges the Coronavirus pandemic has thrown at the world, the organisation has delivered a number of fantastic events remotely.
If we are to achieve 50/50 representation without the use of quotas, it is vital that we connect young women in the Conservative Party so that they can share their resources to learn more about political life, and understand the opportunities available to them.
Confidence in conviction can sometimes be all that holds back a woman and visible representation of women in power is key in ensuring women are empowered to stand for election. With representatives from across the UK (including the devolved nations) and events for young women to connect and network, the Conservative Young Women’s organisation is the backbone of the effort to get more women into political life.
In my role as Honorary President, I will be working with Conservative Young Women closely over the next 12 months to see how best we can tackle some of those earlier mentioned barriers. I am excited to work alongside Ella Robertson McKay and the new committee of talented women.
One of the things I’m really excited about is the CYW Policy Essay Competition, which we launched last week. We’re asking young women to write a short essay about a policy to tackle one of the key challenges facing our nation. As well as a cash prize, the winners will get to pitch their idea to senior leaders from the Number 10 Policy Unit and the Conservative Party Board. To find out more, go here.
Despite incredible progress in recent years, there is still a long way to go to encourage more of our talented women to consider going into politics, and sharing their skills and expertise for the good of our society.
But it is a challenge that I and Conservative Young Women stand ready to tackle.