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Where Are We After The Centenary? 50:50 Gender Representation in Parliament

Shivani Sen

Shivani Sen

Policy and Research Analyst at Curia

Shivani reflects on the efforts for 50:50 Gender Representation in Parliament 105 years from women’s first vote.

“If you close your eyes and imagine what a politician looks like, most people would not have a diversity of images in their mind. We need to be in situation where when we ask kids at school what a politician looks like and we get all sorts of different answers, only then will the foundation of our political and social structures be strong and rest on equality”

As a part of Chamber’s political Sandbox series, Founder and Director of 50:50 Parliament, Frances Scott, sat down recently with Professor Helen Pankhurst CBE, the Convenor of Centenary Action to speak about her work, experiences and views on gender representation in elected office and public life. The discussion touched on global feminism, the need for diverse voices in parliament and measures to be taken for violence against women.

Scope of the movement – Links between the Suffragette Movement in the UK and international development of global feminism

Emmeline Pankhurst spearheaded the Suffragette Movement in the UK, and her daughter Sylvia carried its legacy forward, making significant contributions to international feminism while working in Ethiopia. This illustrates the inherently global nature of early feminist waves. The movement addressed universal topics such as political engagement and the questioning of authority, transcending geographical boundaries. The struggles and narratives of this movement resonated in countries around the world and continue to reverberate today. Consequently, international issues related to women’s political role remain central to development agendas, highlighting the movement’s enduring unity.

Simultaneously, the methods employed in this movement, the “how” of their efforts, also had a global reach. Women emerged from submissive roles within patriarchal households and reimagined new ways to organise themselves, whether through campaigns, supportive networks, or pursuing elected positions. Men’s roles also required transformation to embrace more supportive roles. This interplay between different roles, their strengths, the dynamics of power, and the reimagining of societal norms regarding who speaks and advocates for whom lies at the core of global feminism. Importantly, these dynamics remain relevant even in contemporary times.

Intersectionality at the heart of the debate 

While women were historically the largest minority (rather, a minoritised majority) excluded from the political process, the campaign for equality cannot end there. Disability, age, ethnicity all too often make it harder for people to gain elected office.  Allowing these traits to perpetuate exclusion,especially in women, would be counter to the aims of everything the feminist movement has fought for.

The fight goes on. While those with visible disabilities have made great progress, it is equally important to focus on those with hidden disabilities. We must ensure that those previous sidelined and unrecognised are able to take centre stage and add their voices to the narrative. By bringing individuals from different backgrounds to policy spaces they can affect change that will not be addressed otherwise. Representation comes in all forms, the more of it we have in elected office, the more our younger generation can envision themselves in the corridors of power, irrespective of age, gender, sex, ethnicity etc.

A good start to this work would be enacting Section 106 of the Equality Act 2010, requiring political parties to be transparent about the candidates who are standing. Through this data we could see problem areas within populations where there is lack of diversity and push for change allowing women to come through strongly from the current confines of the system. 

Centenary Action – Establishing the campaign 100 years from the first vote

Though we have come a long from the first vote, there still remains a great deal to be accomplished.

Convened by Helen Pankhurst, Centenary Action is a cross-party campaigning coalition of over 100 activists representing a diverse range of issues, campaigns and organisations. It was formed just before 2018: 100 years on from when women over the age of 30 got their first vote and were first able to stand as MPs.

In addition to celebrating the anniversary, a collective need was felt by leaders and civil society to reflect on all that had not been achieved. Here there was opportunity to think about making concerted efforts until 2028 – the centenary of equal franchise where women got the vote on the same grounds as men. During the decade between 2018-2028, the aim has been to shift polices in favour of women as much as possible and address the constraints faced by women in politics.

There are three major areas where women face constraints:

  1. The structures and systems in Parliament itself – hereditary peerages, late votes, a lack of maternity leave. Women were not present at the founding of this system and it shows.
  2. Economic constraints – As women have less income and wealth, due to cultural and social norms around childcare, economic engagement with parliament is harder.
  3. Violence – Women, particularly women of colour, are more likely to be abused and face violent threats, leading them to be severely concerned about their personal safety.

To work towards addressing these constraints, the Women Count Campaign led by Centenary Action spotlights candidates and understands where women are coming through the system. Similar to gender pay gap reporting, the women count reporting helps to show where areas with diversity in elected candidates and areas without. This aim is to provide accountability that will enforce change and help address the aforementioned problem areas.

The issue of violence against women

The threat of violence is the most obvious exercise of misogynist power. It is when women are considered vulnerable that imbalance of power is most salient. Put simply, violence and the threat of violence is an expression of patriarchy and inequality. Across the globe, women have an internalised sense of danger that translates into heightened vigilance and fear of their surroundings and activities. This can limit women’s confidence and is designed to scare them from power and public persona. While men in politics also face violence and threats of violence, it is not systemic to the same degree. This is a systemic inequality faced by women.

To tackle this, policies are needed. The Online Harms Bill will be a way forward but simultaneous structural shifts in the fabric society are needed. It is necessary to address culture, ideas around equality, norms, tackle attitudes and increase accountability of individuals sand bystanders to uphold a different and healthier culture that enforces equality in the relationship between men and women. 

The way ahead

Only 35% of MPs are women, 23% of current Cabinet are women and 28% peers are women in the House of Lords. In councils, roughly 36% of councillors in England are women. While a third representation represents great progress we cannot assume equality is on the horizon. In the face of systemic inequality we are facing barriers to further advancements in equal representation.

Further changes to gain the equal representation for women include reopening the Access to Elected Office Fund for women. Changes should be made urgently to support disabled people in positions to affect change. The issue of accessibility caused by Parliament being located in one place and people being dispersed across the country poses a hindrance not just for women and mothers but also for families. Additionally, the tight parliament sitting schedules could be relaxed further so that MPs can spend more time in their constituencies and allow family life to flourish for all.

Looking forward, achieving 50:50 representation promises hope of a more collaborative and cooperative parliament. It envisions a society where major socioeconomic problems are solved cohesively while respecting and uplifting all members of society.

The full interview between Frances Scott and Helen Pankhurst can be watched here.

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