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How do you get more women into politics? This is the question that Boris Johnson delved into last week when he called for the “biggest ever recruitment drive” for female candidates, activists and potential MPs.

Johnson made the announcement as part of “Ask Her To Stand Day”, which marked the 102th anniversary for the Qualification of Women Act. In a video for the occasion, he spoke of the importance of achieving 50:50 representation among men and women in parliament, a goal he also stated in the run up to 2019’s election.

Despite there being a record number (220) of women elected to parliament that year, they still only make up 34 per cent of Members of the House of Commons, and five members of the current Cabinet, leading to the emergence of groups such as 50:50 Parliament, which aims to boost the figures.

As of yet, no details have been released about what the plan for 50:50 representation is. One paper reports that Johnson is not considering selection quotas for Tory candidates.

However, his announcement might raise hopes among campaigners that the Government will take affirmative action. Frances Scott, Director of 50:50 Parliament, said of Johnson’s video “We have never before heard a Conservative Party leader publicly state their support for fully equal representation of women at Westminster”. After the Government took a more interventionist role in its obesity strategy, anything is possible now…

But how do you reach 50:50? And should you set quotas at all? As a woman in political journalism, who did psychology at university, the question of why women and men go into different sectors, in uneven numbers, is one I have always found extremely interesting. There are all sorts of hypotheses about why this is, but I believe the answer is a complicated mixture of personal preference and societal factors, hence why imbalances are so hard to remedy.

One point that often gets overlooked is that disparities between men and women shouldn’t always be taken as evidence of sexism or gender inequality. There is a tendency to pathologise anything other than 50:50 representation, but it’s more complicated than that. For instance, in some of the most gender equal societies, women are much less likely to go into science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) than men, whereas the STEM gap isn’t as pronounced for those in more oppressive societies. This phenomenon is called called the “gender equality paradox”.

That’s why it’s important for politicians and society to focus on “equality of opportunity”, not “equality of outcome” when assessing gender equality. In short, men and women should have the same opportunities, but we shouldn’t expect these to neatly convert into equal representation across industries. Freedom means being able to choose different things.

As far as parliamentary careers go, there are some very big reasons why women might not choose to go into politics. Personally, I am wary of the long hours, thankless tasks, and especially put off by the abuse and media intrusion. Perhaps if the Government could magic away the latter, I might give politics a try – but it’s an unfortunate part of the job description that has become worse with social media.

Of course, there are some things the Government and society can do to make things better for women. I suspect one positive step is more education about it in schools, so that girls can build experience in political campaigning. Clare Ambrosino, who stood as the Conservative candidate for Easington last year, tells me “I think if women started being active in politics earlier, we’d have a better chance of having more women politicians.”

She adds that some of the weekends away and after work hours can make things particularly challenging for mothers. Given that women are still expected to take the brunt of childcare, trying to manage the many demands of an MP is a mammoth challenge. Anything that makes life easier here should be implemented – indeed, Johnson has previously pledged to make flexible working and childcare more accessible.

Organisations such as 50:50 Parliament, too, are playing a vital role in promoting women’s participation in politics, offering networking and support, and this will make a big difference, as so much of success – in many fields – comes down to building contacts.

There are many small steps we can take that have a big effect on participation. But the Government should not force the issue by trying to emulate Labour’s quotas. Not least because it is anti-Conservative, undermining the values of self-determination. It will, too, backfire on Johnson; seen, alongside his obesity strategy (and all the other Coronavirus measures) as another sign of too much state intervention.

And fundamentally, targets are not the right way of looking at things. The focus should be on equality of opportunity. Are women receiving the same access to politics as men? The answer to that is where we begin.

55 comments for: Johnson’s 50:50 target for women in parliament. An important pledge – but Conservatives should avoid quotas.

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