This November coincides with 100 years since the passing of the Qualification of Women Act – when women could legally stand for Parliament. Over this century, Britain got its first female prime minister, Marie Curie became the first women to win the Nobel Prize and women joined the army and explored space. In all that time, only 491 women have gained seats, compared with 4,503 to men. Even now, men outnumber women 2:1.
A recent event in London organised by Pregnant then Screwed brought women of all political ilks together to ask why. Founder, Joeli Brearley, said: “Thirty-two per cent of MPs are female and 20% of MP are mothers, yet 40% of the adult population are mothers.
“It doesn’t reflect the demographics of the UK at all; we need twice as many mothers for that to happen – there’s a huge disconnect.”
Frances Scott who runs the 50:50 Parliament campaign, said: “At the last election only 12 extra women were elected – at this rate, it will take over 50 years to achieve a gender-balanced Parliament.”
Even at a local level, only one in three councillors in England are women, something the Fawcett Society says is an increase of just 5% in 20 years.
One of the issues affecting mothers, who still tend to be the primary carers in their families, is that Parliament is not very family friendly. It often runs until a very family-unfriendly 10.30pm. Voting in the Commons can run to the early hours. Ironically, you’re allowed a sword through the House of Commons voting lobby, but not a baby. And with no proxy voting, young families are offered few incentives to become elected. However, perhaps more shocking is the lack of any maternity leave.
MP for Hampstead and Kilburn, and former frontbencher Tulip Siddiq, said: “Being a parent, on the whole, in Parliament is rubbish… There is no formal maternity leave. You have to ask your whip for time off. When I was in a 40-hour labour and having an emergency c- section, I was marked [when voting] as ‘absent’.”
Time is money
Other obstacles include financial ones and childcare. “Running for election is such a long process – that’s a long time without being paid,” said Brearley. She adds that eager politicians have to bankroll their own campaigns.
“Some parties do offer a childcare pot, but it’s not usually taken up. If you’re in politics, you need to be on call 24/7. Childcare runs between 8am and 6pm. The cost is astronomically prohibitive, even when trying to get into politics.”
To share or not?
Could sharing jobs be a solution? Conservative MP Caroline Noakes, the UK’s Immigration Minister, said: “I missed out on every single one of my daughter’s hockey and netball matches. She gave me 4/10 as a parent but as a person 9/10…,” describing the impact on family life.
Despite this, she said, she would not job share. “I think when you’re elected an MP then people expect to see you there all the time.
“It makes more sense for them to work us to the bone Monday until Wednesday until 10 pm and then we have Thursdays to Sundays with our families. That’s not available.”
However, the Green Party’s Baroness Jenny Jones, says: “The Greens push for as many job shares a possible. Our women leaders are in a job share.”
What’s been helpful?
Conservative MP for Saffron Waldon, Kemi Badenoch, who won her seat in Essex during a snap election in 2017 soon after giving birth, said being invited to a Conservative forum helped her.
“You’re assessed for public speaking and suitability. It’s very tough; only 40% of people go through. Candidates are then encouraged to apply for seats.”
Even with that in mind, she said the difference in confidence between men and women is stark. “On average, it takes men about 48 hours to decide whether to stand; women will think about it for a year.”
For Siddiq, Labour’s Emily’s List, which was the first to introduce all-female shortlists, and provides support (including childcare costs) for women who have taken time off to aim for selection, was invaluable.
“I was given advice on media scrutiny-training, put in touch with women’s network and a mentor – Angela Eagle helped me,” she said.
Baroness Sal Brinton, President of the Liberal Democrat, pointed out that the Liberal Democrats Women’s Group offers job shares and champions for underrepresented groups. “It’s important to measure people against their
competencies,” she says, “and that’s what party training is about. There are women all around who will support you – including mentors.”
And while the Conservatives do not offer all-women shortlists like Labour. However, 50:50 lists as well as networking, support and mentoring for women in politics are available.
Perhaps the most forward-thinking party for women is, unsurprisingly, the Women’s Equality Party. Mandu Reid, from the party said she felt forced to have a termination, saying she could not envisage managing as a single working
mother. “I needed to campaign for someone who had thought about my life and those of others – women and babies,” she said.
The WEP, she said, provides support for those looking to stand for election, including paying for campaigning and childcare up to the age of five, as well as offering shared paternity leave at 90% pay.
What needs to change?
Summing up, 50:50’s Scott said: “If women choose to work when their kids are younger, they should be supported. Parliament should be spearheading changes to ensure it’s fully inclusive of parents – not just mums – and should be providing childcare and be mindful of its practices.”
It starts, she said, with getting a better balance in Parliament.
If you’re interesting in making a stand, 50:50 Parliament, Jo Cox Foundation, Fawcett Society and Centenary Action Group are organising #AskHerToStand Day on 21st November, the centenary of the Qualification of Women Act. On the day MPs of all parties are inviting a woman from their constituency to attend Parliament. It aims to be an opportunity for women to gain a better understanding of political life and the difference that they can make.
*Written by Beena Nadeem.