Fawcett Society finds women face obstacles at every stage on the way to Parliament

By agency reporter
November 5, 2018

In the month of the 100-year anniversary of women winning the right to stand as MPs, the most comprehensive study of its kind, published  by the Fawcett Society, finds that women face obstacles at every stage on the way to Parliament, particularly from ‘gatekeepers’ within the political parties. The report, Strategies for Success: women’s experiences of selection and election in UK Parliament, concludes that women still experience multiple barriers to being selected as candidates simply because they are women.

However, a more positive finding is that asking women to stand does make a significant difference. Women MPs are more likely than men to say that they decided to try to become an MP because someone asked them to. This was true of 75 per cent of women MPs but only 54 per cent of male MPs. The research also uncovered gender differences when it comes to planning to run. Male MPs were twice as likely as women to have decided to run over six months before they were selected for their seat (40 per cent compared to 18 per cent for women) indicating that they are planning their political careers long before women are. Women are also less likely than men to perceive themselves as potential MPs.

The research is launched amidst heightened attention to a culture of sexism within Parliament, in light of Dame Laura Cox’s report on bullying and harassment, and now turns the spotlight on to the political parties and the route to election.

Key findings:

  • Women still meet resistance from local parties who have a preconceived idea of their ‘ideal candidate’ who is white, male, middle-class and able-bodied.
  • Women are still being asked questions about their marital status, their children. Some were also asked about their religion or belief, their ethnicity or their disability.
  • Many female candidates experienced abuse or harassment from the media, the public and from members of their own party.
  • Resistance to equality measures was perceived to be a problem with some local parties subverting them.
  • Getting into Parliament requires money, time, flexibility, and party networks, and that all of these resources are harder for women to acquire.
  • Personal networks and patronage matter more than merit in getting selected – who you know not what you know. Women tend to do less well as a result.
  • Men were more likely than women to have the informal party experience or to have spoken at party meetings or conferences. Party organisation and culture can inhibit women from participating and progressing, particularly at the early stages, meaning they do not get the informal political experience they need.
  • Long and anti-social working hours were cited by a number of MPs as being a problem including the expectation that you are available to constituents around the clock, and the need to live in two places. The culture of Westminster was also cited as being a barrier.

The wide-ranging research included interviews with MPs and a survey with 113 MP respondents, analysis of public data on MPs’ careers, and for the first time in over a decade, focus groups with women who aspire to enter Parliament. It ranges across party lines and looks at the process of getting elected from beginning to end. The conclusions of the research are applicable to all political parties.

Sam Smethers, Fawcett Chief Executive said: “A century on from the first women standing for Parliament, our research shows that for many the ‘ideal candidate’ is still a white, able-bodied man.”

“The women whose voices we hear through this report share stories of discrimination within political parties that are completely unacceptable. Those who lead our parties must confront reality and change the way their institutions work.”

“Dame Laura Cox’s report is a massive wake up call. But the best way to change parliamentary culture is to be there to drive that change so we urge women to come forward as candidates and create a parliament fit for the next 100 years. More than ever we need women in all their diversity in our politics.”

In response, Fawcett is joining forces with 50:50 Parliament, the Jo Cox Foundation and the Centenary Action Group to hold a number of events on 21st November – the anniversary of the passing of the legislation which permitted women to stand as MPs - asking MPs to #AskHertoStand and bring a woman interested in becoming an MP to parliament for the day.

Key quotes from research participants include:

Discrimination

"They came to my house, they de-selected me and then I really couldn’t do much about it. […] They de-selected me and another woman who was a candidate, who was a council candidate, but she gave birth and I gave birth as well so we were de-selected at the same time. This was a very good council seat."
- Female candidate who was pregnant

"A few of the more senior Councillors, who are all older men, were saying “We just need to get anyone else to stand, we can’t have a young woman, we can’t.""
- Female MP

The ‘Ideal Candidate’

"A man or a woman who has founded and run a business makes them think you’re grounded in the real world. I remember going to a mock-up selection meeting and the feedback afterwards was, ‘you referred to your office’. That made me too cold, I was too structured, I’m too much of a ball breaker. I am the businesswoman and yet that never really assisted me. I was always told I needed to be softer and fluffier."
- Female candidate

"I had a blessed existence as an aspiring young candidate. I can’t possibly complain, I had all the advantages. I was white, male, Cambridge with a tinge of state education in my background to give – you know. I thought the industrial/financial background was also an advantage. I looked like the young aspiring future Cabinet Minister that a safe [local party] in the Home Counties wants to select as their MP. I had none of the disadvantages of being a woman, of being from the ethnic minorities, from being from a non-savvy background, I had every possible advantage."
- Male MP

Women from marginalised backgrounds

"I had people saying things like, ‘So how are you getting to the House of Commons? There are steps everywhere.’ So there were people’s assumptions about what you could and couldn't do."
- Disabled woman who was unsuccessful at being selected

Money

"For me, when I think of the reasons I haven't stood, it’s stuff like cost. It costs a hell of a lot to go through the process; it cost a hell of a lot to stay on the party list every year."
- Female candidate

Ask Her to Stand

"A very great family friend who is also an MP put my name forward. I should have done it before but what stopped me was I didn’t think people like me became MPs because I hadn't gone to a private school, I hadn’t gone to Oxford or Cambridge, I wasn't a lawyer and I wasn't a man. I hadn’t really thought people like me became MPs."
– Female MP

"There was a big call for more women in politics. And I just remember sitting, listening to Cameron speak. And I thought, well actually yes that's me you're talking about so I am going to do it."

- Female candidate

* Read the report Strategies for Success: women’s experiences of selection and election in UK Parliament here

* 50:50 Parliament https://5050parliament.co.uk/

* The Jo Cox Foundation https://www.jocoxfoundation.org/

* Centenary Actio Group https://www.centenaryaction.org.uk/

* The Fawcett Society https://www.fawcettsociety.org.uk/

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