Monday, 25 February 2013

How do you get more women into politics?

It's one of those age old bugbears – the question of women's representation in politics - also covered today by National Left. (Edit 26/02/13 : Another take on on this from Miserable Old Fart, much more detailed look at possible legislative and electoral reforms from Syniadau and an interesting post on gender balance at local government level from last year by Penarth a'r Byd.)

A few weeks ago, Llywydd Rosemary Butler (Lab, Newport West) noted her disappointment in the fall in the number of women AMs from the Third Assembly. Yesterday, Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood added to the debate, calling for possible legislative measures to ensure gender balance in the Assembly.

In a triple whammy, The Guardian reported that the numbers of women in positions of power was being "squeezed" in the UK. Just 23% of Westminster MPs are women, which is one of the weakest records in Europe.

Is there that much of a problem in Wales?

As uninspiring as this might sound, a legislature with 44% women is pretty good going compared internationally. The National Assembly is towards the top of the table despite the drop in 2011. We're similar to Sweden and Finland; and ahead of Denmark, Norway and Iceland.

I find it slightly odd that people are worried about this at Assembly level. Two parties in the Assembly are led by women (and the Welsh branch of the Green Party), Plaid are top-heavy with women at senior level, the Llywydd is a woman, many significant government portfolios except First Minister (Health, Social Services & Children, Finance, Economy) are held by women, or have historically been held by women....

It's probably local government and Westminster where the problems lie.

Legislatures should ideally be representative of the electorate - the Assembly already is in terms of ethnic make up. However, in practical terms, will a truly representative Senedd ever be possible? In some cases, is it even desirable?

In terms of actual job performance – which should be a primary concern - I doubt a gender balanced legislature would be any better or worse than one with a minority of either sex. I don't believe women or men have inherent traits that make them good or bad at politics, and it's probably more damaging thinking that either sex do, or that having more women (or men) in the Senedd would "make politics better"

It's hackneyed, but I consider power itself or - as exemplified more recently in certain legal cases - a lack of oversight and scrutiny the most corrupting influence on politicians. Along with things like arrogance and ambition trumping duty, they're general human failings.
As Glyn Beddau also points out, it's no good having more women in politics if they're just going to be a female counterpart to overprivileged, funny handshake, PPE Oxbridge men. I'd be quite happy for some intelligent slime on a distant moon becoming a minister if they could do a decent job of it.

Why are there few(er) women in politics?

I can't speak for women, so I don't know the answer to this, I can only make guesses.

It could be the old chestnut of "leadership" being seen as a "male trait" as a result of traditional gender stereotyping. Older people might be more likely to hold that view, and older people are more likely to vote – hence you might stand more chance of getting selected or elected if you're a man.

That attitude has been conclusively scotched, and will quite literally die out over the next 20-30 years. There must be deeper reasons.

There's the fact that being a full-time politician is probably one of the least family-friendly jobs there is - something I touched on last month. That might put off women, in particular single parents or those with/a desire to start a family, from going into politics. There's little point in coming up with various family-friendly schemes if it's still a 57 hour a week job for an AM - probably more for an MP.

I think one reason that it's a 57 hour a week job is because of presenteeism. That's usually defined as people turning up to work when ill, but it could increasingly include a culture of putting in more hours than necessary for the sake of it. Ministers and senior party officials are exempted from this though as it comes with the territory.

Politicians are more closely scrutinised on "how hard they work" than other professions. There's more pressure on them to be "seen" to give the public "value for money", even if all they do is snooze at a desk or shuffle papers. That drags average working hours up, which might make the job seem harder than it actually is, putting people of both sexes off standing for office. It's not really a male trait, but men are perhaps more likely to do it, especially if family responsibilities are delegated to someone else. You see it in all walks of life.

Women are also caught in an unfair bind. Because there's fewer of them in politics, women are put under greater scrutiny when they reach the top – in any sort of public role - than a man would simply because they "stand out". That means tiny slip ups are pounced on disproportionately, while they have to perhaps work much harder than male counterparts to be respected or get noticed.

There's a flip-side too. As parties want to be seen to be more "progressive" and "inclusive", you might end up with women put in higher positions for their face, not for what they would bring to the table in terms of skills and experience. If they screw up it becomes very hard to remove them because it would be seen, indirectly, as an indictment of women politicians in general, damaging the overall perception. You can kick men out of frontline politics without drawing any attention – barring a scandal.

So, you can see how sometimes affirmative action might damage women's ability to rise to the top. I see it as women not being properly judged in politics by what they can do/have done, more for who they are, especially if they're highly visible.

Related to the above argument, maybe politics is just too nasty. I'm sure many women have gone into it with a sense of wide-eyed idealism only to be ground down by the prevailing political culture of backstabbing, chest-thumping, smears and cynicism. I'd hardly call Assembly politics "macho", but you even see it there from time to time. Maybe women (and men) realise this and don't want to fall victim to it.

It's perhaps why it's increasingly becoming a struggle for parties to find candidates to stand for election. So you end up with more bland, robotic career politicians - who actually want to do it - and unsuitable "paper candidates"  (of both sexes) being elected.

Or, in the case of the 2011 Assembly election, it might simply come down to parties failing to find enough women candidates in the right seats, or a greater turnover of women AMs.

What could be done?

I'm not, personally, in favour of quotas as it goes against the spirit of equality of opportunity. Evidence from nations that have enacted quotas (page 146) points to them not really working either. I think this is probably going to have to be a cultural and attitude change more than anything. That'll take time, but I'm confident it could happen.

Any move to encouraging more women into politics should probably begin in lower tiers of government - getting people used to voting for women freely rather than forced to vote for them. So start with having more women selected to run for council seats, with party mentoring programmes overseen by more experienced female politicians/politicos.

Hopefully, if they get used to it, they would be encouraged to run for higher office, all whilst gaining political experience, creating a "conveyor belt" of sorts. That's how many AMs got where they are regardless of gender.

Being a backbench AM will probably have to become a standard professional 38-40 hour a week job. That would have benefits for all AMs. If you managed to reduce relative workloads to those levels, it could justify paying AMs less too.

It would probably be difficult, but not impossible. The Liberal Democrats are mooting "job sharing" for MPs. However, I think that would be too awkward - especially if two "partnered" MPs ended up disagreeing with one another on policy.

If you increased the number of AMs it might take even more workload pressures off, and parties would have more opportunity to put more women onto ballots - especially if there was a wholescale shift to a proportional voting system.

There are two equally important broad "themes" to AM's work - the advocacy side of it, and the legislative side of it.

I think most AMs enjoy/prefer the advocacy side, where you help people directly and highlight issues of local or national importance whether via campaigning or in the Senedd.

The legislative side is the day to day grind of Assembly paperwork and bureaucracy and looks incredibly tedious. Sometimes it may even be a complete waste of time. I think it's this aspect that needs to be worked on.

Individual AMs have support staff working on this sort of thing. Parties in the Assembly could also delegate the minutiae of legislative stuff to specialist backroom teams (things like scrutinising legislation, budgets, regulations, committee evidence) freeing up AMs to spend more time working with constituents, guiding and shaping policy or on general portfolio matters.

Committee work could be done collectively by party groups (or groups of AMs within party groups) instead of individual AMs, with more flexible delegation of tasks and attendances when appropriate - spreading the workloads between more AMs and staff.

You would still expect AMs to pay close attention to details, but they might spend less time doing so - knocking some working hours off and reducing travel. There should be enough technology around now to enable AMs to work, perhaps even vote or contribute to debates, distantly (in some cases) as well.

I think the overall issue of more women political candidates will have to remain the domain of individual parties. I don't think the solution to this lies in legislation, because once you open the door to gender balance by statute you'll have to – morally - do it for a whole host of other things. I think socio-economic background is still the biggest barrier to people getting actively involved in politics full stop.

If you want a Senedd that truly represents Wales :

  • The average AM's salary should fall by 50% from £53,900 to £27,000, with women AMs being paid £25,160.
  • 15-16 AMs should hold no qualifications.
  • Only 14-15 AMs should hold degree-level qualifications.
  • Only 11 or 12 AMs should be Welsh-speakers.
  • 13-14 AMs should have children living in relative poverty.
  • 15-16 AMs should have some sort of limiting disability.
  • And there should be significantly more AMs below the age of 30 and older than 65 – with at least one or two of those being women aged 80+.
Gender balance in the Assembly is important, because gender is the primary distinguishing feature between people. It's the first point people start to splinter into "groups", and gender balance is most fundamental way to ensure you can represent everyone fairly.

However, it's worth pointing out that AMs have got a lot of other things to sort out - look at that list above - if they really want to to be representative.


  1. If we want a Senedd that truly represents Wales then the majority of AMs should consider themselves Welsh not British. Just as the majority of people in Wales do.

  2. The family friendly argument is popular but doesn't stand up to scrutiny. Because of the distances travelled, by virtue of being held in two different places and because of the huge size of each constituency the most family unfriendly of elected offices is the MEP, where Wales currently has 50 / 50 gender balance and has been fairly well represented by women since the first elections in the 1970's. If a lack of family friendliness was the real reason for gender imbalance in politics 40% of all MEPs ever elected in Wales would not have been women .

  3. "In terms of actual job performance – which should be a primary concern - I doubt a gender balanced legislature would be any better or worse than one with a minority of either sex. I don't believe women or men have inherent traits that make them good or bad at politics, and it's probably more damaging thinking that either sex do, or that having more women (or men) in the Senedd would "make politics better".

    I disagree with this line of thought - as you'll see from this post:
    And Alwyn's contention is based on the laughable example of MEPs. There are just 4 MEPs in Wales, so it's actually not that surprising that half of them are women. Alwyn, feel free to rejoin this debate from a more informed position once you've got any statistically valid evidence to support your contentions. This paper might help you fill in some of the gaps:

  4. "A society that puts equality before freedom will get neither. A society that puts freedom before equality will get a high degree of both." Milton Friedman

  5. Thanks for the comments.

    WnB - And lets make sure around 50% of them are women. ;)

    Alwyn - "Family friendly" does mean more than workload or hours travelling. It could come down to things like maternity & paternity leave/pay or even as simple as having a creche on site. The European Parliament has a good track record in such things and even the Assembly to a certain extent. I do agree though that the problem is much deeper rooted than just working practices.

    Pa'rB - I did point out that local government in particular has a problem here. Any reforms/change will need to start there.

    Although I think we both agree on the importance of gender balance - probably for the same reasons - I stand by what I said about gender and political performance though. You can have compassionate, pacifistic, consensus-seeking male politicians as much as arrogant, overly-ambitious and bombastic female ones.

    Seeing "good" characteristics as inherent to either sex is as bad as seeing "bad" ones. We should ultimately weight up potential and current politicians by their personal merits.

    Llantrisant - But we also need a society where one person's freedom doesn't out-rank someone else's through privilege.

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  7. The example of MEPs is not laughable, there have been 21 Welsh MEPs so far of which 8 have been women(40%)- to ask why there has been close to gender balance in this most "family unfriendly" environment is a valid contribution to the debate.

    There are also valid questions to ask about whether family friendly policies will add to female representation. I was approached to stand as a candidate for my local council 16 years ago when my children were small, lack of creche facilities at the council was one of the reasons why I said no. Family friendly facilities "might" have enabled me to defeat an incumbent female. And of course what is family friendly to the AM for Penarth (sitting in school hours for example) may not be as friendly for an AM from the north who's family might benefit from 14 hour sittings and an extra day off to spend with her family.

  8. That's a good point, Alwyn. Those north Wales AMs could always do some Assembly (committee & plenery) work distantly from the Llandudno Welsh Government building, only travelling to Cardiff when they really need to - like for a major vote. We should have enough technology around to enable stuff like that (video conferencing etc.).