The question of ensuring that women are fully represented in all areas of public life is one that is vitally important. It seems obvious to me our public institutions are best when they bring together a diverse mix of people with different backgrounds and experiences. In politics particularly, that represents constituents up and down the country, it is clear that that this kind of diversity is not simply a nice to have, but essential. I’m therefore delighted that Parliament Week 2013 is focussing on Women in Democracy – for we are in the middle of a journey in Britain and we need to highlight the role of women within the UK’s democratic life and explore how women’s voices can be better heard.
How far we have come
In 1918 the Conservative Party backed a coalition that would extend suffrage to women and 96 years ago, just a year after the Eligibility of Women Act was passed giving women the right to become MPs, Conservative Nancy Astor was elected and took her seat in the House of Commons. In the same year, 1919, The Conservative Women’s organisation was founded which was the first women’s political organisation in the world. However, despite all this it was still some ten years before women were even granted the vote on the same terms as men, in 1928.
The truth is that the women’s agenda is one of the last great battles for franchise. It did not finish with votes for women, it started there.
Over the intervening years, important milestones have been reached. In 1958 a Conservative Government allowed women to sit in the House of Lords and the first female Prime Minister – Margaret Thatcher – was elected in 1979, a Conservative.
Indeed our coalition government recently ensured that the first born child of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge could have inherited the throne – regardless of sex – It just so happens the legislation hasn’t been tested with the arrival of Prince George.
Today there are 147 women MPs – just over 22% of the total. This might not seem like a lot, but in 1992, the figure was just over 9% and now we are proud to have the most gender diverse Parliament in British history.
In today’s Government, women occupy top positions. We have five women in the Cabinet and a further 20 women in high profile ministerial positions across government. They are the tough jobs done by tough women, whether it’s running the Home Office, or the Northern Ireland office, negotiating the waters of International aid or the work that I have done on Leveson or equalising same sex marriage. Women are not just window dressing, as the Labour Party was once accused of.
But despite this we recognise that we are on a journey and it is one that is far from complete. Women make up over half the workforce and as with our aspiration for 50% of our appointments to our public institutions to be women so we aspire to at least the same level of representation in politics.
Barriers women face
Often the most successful organisations, whether we are talking about the private sector or the public sector, are those which are the most diverse. It means that they can draw on the experience and skills of people from a variety of backgrounds.
But why, then, is it the case that many of the highest echelons of these sectors contain disproportionally small amounts of women? One answer is that women face certain barriers – certain challenges – which men simply do not face.
These come in two main forms; barriers that are practical and barriers that are personal. And they exist whether we are talking about women in politics or women in business. Quite often that we notice that the workplace was designed by men, for men; working hours can be long and unpredictable – usually more so the higher up the ladder you climb. I understand how difficult it can be to juggle work and family commitments. I know that mums worry about their children when they are at work and worry about work when they are with their children.
But it’s not just the practical – frequently we hear about the personal barriers that women face: lack of confidence, lack of visible role models and fear of media intrusion.
In politics, you are under constant scrutiny – and rightly so – but it is an industry in which women, more often than not, face commentary that men do not face. How often do I hear a female colleague at the dispatch box and then hear commentary about her clothing or her appearance, the substance of her argument a secondary consideration. Never do you hear the colour of a man’s suit commented on. The innate acceptance that women can and should be judged on their appearance is one that must be challenged. For it goes further, women fear that it is not only them but their children and their family that will come under the same scrutiny. It puts them off from putting themselves forward into public life.
Representation and opportunity
In the House of Commons, particularly, there are challenges for women. It was an institution designed for men hundreds of years ago – women were not thought of and often it shows. The hours are long, often we do not leave until 10pm at night and for those MPs with families it is a difficult balance; although there have been recent changes, like the introduction of an in-house nursery and making sitting hours more family friendly.
Of course, as more women enter parliament this will change and there are a number of ways that this can be approached. Some favour all-women shortlists. I don’t think that’s the answer. Women want to be judged on their work and their achievements, not by their gender.
We need to concentrate on drawing on the vast pool of talented women from across all sectors and encouraging them to get involved in politics. Support networks and women’s groups are vital part of this and whether its women to win; the Conservative Women’s organisation or Parliament’s Workplace Equality Network we need to use mentors and other inspirational women and men to get out there and find the best women to lead us into the future.
I have always considered Parliament as a place of opportunity. Anyone can succeed, whether you are male or female. The key is hard work.
There are huge opportunities for women to succeed in public life and instigate real change. Parliament week sees a wide range of events happening in Parliament and across the UK, events which highlight both women’s contribution to democratic life and the possibilities that lie ahead.
There have been many steps taken since 1918 but my message is this. The Road has been long, but progress has been made and will continue to be made. We need women to be part of the system, in order to change it.
To learn more about events happening during Parliament week visit: parliamentweek.helpful.ws
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