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Record gains for women in UK election, but only quotas can bring gender parity

Written by Tam O'Neil

​In Britain’s general election last Thursday, the first three members of parliament announced were women. This was a good omen in an election that saw record gains for women’s representation overall. Women occupied 142 of the 650 parliamentary seats after the last election in 2010; now there are a record 191 women MPs. This brings them to the cusp of the magic 30% number – often advocated, if not proven, to be the tipping point for women to have real influence.

This is the largest gain for women since Labour’s landslide victory in 1997, moving the UK from 56th to 36th place in the global rankings of women’s representation in national legislatures. One in three MPs being women is better than one in five, but it is not good enough. The UK still trails behind 35 other countries, including low-income countries such as Mozambique and Bolivia.

Getting more women into parliament is necessary to get more women onto government front benches and into the cabinet, where decision-making power is concentrated. From this perspective, the picture for women’s representation in the new parliament is mixed. The Prime Minister has delivered on his commitment to ensuring that one third of his cabinet are women, but women fill less than one in five of the winning Conservative Party’s seats.

Cross-bench alliances between women (and men) are possible on limited issues in the UK system. But negotiation within the Conservative parliamentary party is what will really shape policy in the next parliament. The party’s emboldened right wing is likely to reduce the space for Conservative MPs of both sexes to hold the Prime Minister to account for election promises to tackle gender and other types of inequality.

Redressing the gender imbalance in parliament is a question of basic fairness and democratic legitimacy. 51% of the UK population are women and girls but their diverse views and experiences do not influence discussions about how public resources and power are allocated and used. Women are under-represented in all areas of policy influence in the UK; not just in the Commons but also the House of Lords (24%), elected mayors (19%), local government leaders (13%), civil service permanent secretaries (25%), Bank of England Monetary Policy Committee (0%) and editors of daily newspapers (5%).

Are quotas the answer?

The global evidence is clear that quotas have been the principal mechanism to increase women’s representation. They are the most effective way to overcome the social and economic barriers women face to standing in and winning elections. This is also borne out by the UK experience. Labour’s all-women’s shortlists have been instrumental to increase the number of women in parliament, and 43% of Labour MPs are now women.

There has been little appetite for quotas for women in the UK, either from the public or from the Conservative and Liberal Democrats (who now have no women MPs). But, as Professor Sarah Childs argues, a mandatory law on quotas is the only way the UK will reach anything near gender parity in an acceptable time frame, and political leadership on this issue is desperately needed.

Yet quotas alone are insufficient. To increase women’s political power, countries must overcome entrenched male political dominance and challenge gender norms that ascribe women primary responsibility for domestic work and childcare. Poverty is also a serious barrier to women’s political participation.

An ODI review points to three lessons from across the globe on what it takes to enable women’s leadership and political influence.

1. Introduce proportional representation.

PR gives minority or marginalised groups more access to power and produces more representative parliaments. It reduces entrance barriers for new parties, less encumbered by historical male dominance. Note the better gender balance in the UK’s devolved assemblies and in the new left parties – SNP, Greens, Plaid Cymru – which all also have women leaders.

2. Pay close attention to the design of quotas.

Quotas come in many shapes and sizes. Whether they work to increase women’s representation depends on how they are designed and implemented. In Egypt a quota policy led to 65 women MPs being elected in the 2010 election, but this fell to nine in 2011/12 transitional election because the quota was ‘indicative’ only, not compulsory.

If loopholes in the law exists, with women placed on the bottom of party lists or selected for seats they cannot win, quotas may even damage women’s representation.

3. Support autonomous women’s movements.

The evidence is unequivocal that having strong and independent women’s movements has been pivotal to gender equality gains. These movements can incentivise politicians to support policy change and provide critical support to women politicians and bureaucrats. For example, during both South Africa’s transition and devolution in Scotland, strategic alliances between women’s organisations and decision-makers led to legal provisions to ensure women’s future political participation.

While the numbers don’t always add up to women’s substantive representation, women’s presence in parliament is itself a measure of gender equity. It is also a necessary condition for parliaments that are more representative of women and their diverse interests.

Affirmative action is an important part of the solution to gender discrimination. Let’s accept this, campaign for it, and move on to the more important business of working out how women in politics and their allies negotiate and change gendered institutions. This is the key to achieve the social and economic reform that can knock down barriers to women’s leadership.