Rebecca Lowe is Director of FREER—a new initiative promoting economic and social liberalism, which is based at the IEA, where she is a Research Fellow. She is also an Assistant Editor of ConservativeHome.
In May, I wrote about the claim that the Conservative Party needs to focus on attracting more women representatives, members, and voters. This fixation on “fixing things” annoys me. Worst is the implication of a “women-focused” approach, premised on the idea that women and men are essentially different, rather than recognising that gender is just one of many things that describe us, as individuals. Sure, some of those things sometimes make some of our kinds of behaviour predictable in some ways. But that’s light-years’ away from commissioning a pink bus, or switching references about soldiers for ones about sewing.
That heavy-handed approach is typically seen as the Labour Party’s (pink) bag. Yes, the Conservatives have been edging that way with new identitarian-style stances, alongside an ever-increasing interventionism. But, since 1993—when Labour introduced them—the biggest divider has always been all women shortlists (AWS). The main evidence, therefore, that suggests it’s no longer just the critics of the Conservatives who believe in the party’s so-called “women problem”, but the people on top of its internal hierarchy, too, is the new “50:50” candidates target.
I’ve written so many times about the problems inherent in these approaches that I can’t justify doing it again, now. So, rather than focusing on why this kind of policy is unjust and leads to unintended negative consequences, let’s assess the extent to which the panicking that (presumably) led to its introduction is warranted.
First, let’s consider the numbers. 209 of the current 650 MPs are women—this, at 32 per cent, is a record high. 32 per cent of that 32 percent are Conservatives, constituting 21 per cent of the party’s MPs. See below for comparisons with Labour et al, but remember the parties’ size differences, and also issues related to length of service and the “safety” of seats. (See here for details about how, in 2017, Labour had a greater proportion of women running in “safer seats”, but that the Conservatives had 10 per cent more than Labour of its female candidates in “the most winnable seats”. And this, which concludes that, generally, “the longer an MP has been in Parliament, the more likely they are to be male”.)
Percentage of MPs who are women, by party, UK
Women make up 26 per cent of the House of Lords’ membership. 25 per cent of Conservative peers are women, as opposed to 31 per cent of Labour, and 35 per cent of LibDems. Meanwhile, five of the current 23 cabinet members are women, making 22 per cent. When you include all the parliamentarians who attend cabinet, that proportion increases to 31 per cent. The shadow cabinet, unsurprisingly, has a 50:50 gender split.
So, why do fewer women hold high political office than men? And why is this particularly the case regarding Conservative representatives? To what extent might the latter of these questions be related to a general gender division regarding party preferences? As when I wrote about this last, views between the genders remain very similar to each other in terms of headline voting intention. The most recent YouGov poll shows slightly more women than men favouring the Conservatives (40:38) and Labour (36:35), with the genders very equally balanced, and the Conservatives winning overall. Survation shows men as slightly keener than women about the Conservatives (39:37), and a sizeable gap between the genders among those favouring Labour (33:43, although this is more balanced if you include “undecided” voters).
As in May, YouGov shows both genders’ overall policy priorities to be similar. When asked to choose up to three issues as the “most important facing the country at this time”, both put “Britain leaving the EU” top—both finding this even more important than last time; the gap has tightened (68:63, as opposed to 62:52). In May, health was the second priority for both; it remains so for women, but men now put the economy in second place. Women also see the economy as more important than before: it was in fifth place closely following immigration, housing, and crime; now, only immigration is more important. Male and female preferences regarding the other policy areas remain very similar.
By now, you’re probably shouting at the screen about other variables. Again, age disparities look much greater than gender, particularly in terms of the priorities of 18-24 year olds. Unsurprisingly, it’s still the case that the younger you are, the better you believe Labour to be at dealing with political problems. There’s no time to consider other factors such as education, family background, or even specific political beliefs, to understand the stories beneath this data better. Since it seems unlikely, however, that general gendered views about the parties explain Labour’s “better” ratios—again suggesting the most significant divider to be AWS—let’s compare the parliamentary statistics with other top professions.
Kate Andrews has raised awareness about the inherent failures of the new “pay gap” reporting measures, as well as the assumption that any disparity in pay between the genders is necessarily a result of discrimination. The fact that pay is not unequally unfair, however, does not, of course, mean that that an equal number of women and men hold positions of seniority. A recent Catalyst study reported that, in 2017, women constituted 28 per cent of FTSE 100 board members, and that women in “senior leadership roles” was at 22 per cent in 2018. On those figures, the Conservative Party (with women comprising 21 per cent of its MPs, 25 per cent of peers, and 31 per cent of ministers attending cabinet) is not so unusual.
A key reason for gender disparities in terms of long-term pay is the way in which career interruption affects lifetime pay, and longer tenure’s association with higher pay increases. This has obvious parallels with seniority of positions. The elephant in the room here is very much a baby elephant. So, rather than assuming endemic institutional sexism, or essential differences of attitude between men and women, let’s consider the extent to which parenthood might affect parliamentary gender balance. Again, let’s assume AWS to be the main driver of difference between the parties, although employment practices would also, ideally, be considered.
Only 2 per cent of MPs elected in 2017 were under the age of 30. The average age of MPs elected in 2017 was 50, which is also the average age of current MPs. Meanwhile, the latest ONS bulletin shows that, in 2016, the average age of mothers was 30, and fathers was 33. On average, therefore, almost all MPs entering and serving in parliament are above the average age of parenthood. Being a parent, or wanting to become one, seems crucial here.
A 2014 Political Quarterly article entitled “Parents in Parliament: ‘Where’s Mum?” reported that 45 per cent of women MPs are childless, as opposed to 20 per cent of all women born in 1966 (used as a comparator), and 28 per cent of male MPs. Males MPs also have more children on average, and male MPs’ children tend to be of a younger age when their parent is first elected.
Being an MP typically involves peculiarly long hours, long-distance travel, and time away from one’s family. Although there’s been a small parliamentary nursery since 2009, suggestions that women should be allowed to breastfeed in the chamber have caused an astonishing amount of controversy. Later this week, there will be a parliamentary debate on parental proxy voting, but this seems ridiculously overdue.
Parliament, therefore, seems an extreme exemplar of the parenthood-related issues that are replicated throughout the country. In a world in which women still tend to be the primary caregivers of children, and men don’t even take equal amounts of parental leave, big economic questions remain, not least regarding the effects of all this on workforce productivity. Big societal questions also remain. Many women want to stay at home for the first part of their child’s life, but we shouldn’t assume that to be the case. (The average age of MPs should again be taken into account when considering their views about parenthood.) The physical burdens of pregnancy and motherhood should not be used as a reason to discriminate unfairly against women; other things being equal, mothers and fathers should be treated equally at work. Moreover, although people choose to have children, and must bear primary responsibility for them, it is also in our combined societal and economic interests for people to continue to choose to become parents.
Rather than wasting time with unjust and counterproductive forays into positive discrimination, therefore, the Conservatives (and other parties) should lead the way in considering how various forms of increased flexibility at work might not only move them closer to the gender parity they desire, but also inspire the country towards greater freedom, wellbeing, and prosperity, in general.