The women in British politics

In light of International Women’s Day on 8th March, I thought that now would be a particularly good time to briefly survey the treatment and role of women in British politics today and what we – not just women, but those of all genders – can learn from them.

It goes without saying that it has been quite a year for both women and politics. Whilst gender equality as a whole has unarguably improved in recent years, there is still a long long – maybe less explicitly clear – way to go. It goes without saying that women in the limelight are treated differently to men. Theresa May is one individual of many who springs to mind here. Misogyny remains rife in British society, and this arguably speaks to entrenched ‘traditional’ norms, but is also blatantly exacerbated by the press, which is seldom sufficiently held to account. This broader inequality has been highlighted during the pandemic, as women have taken on the brunt of homeschooling and childcare, ushering back in – if it ever left – the notion of the male breadwinner. Partially as a result of this, many women expect recent progress on gender equality to reverse in the coming years.

Looking at the current Cabinet, there are five women who are full members, in comparison to eighteen men. Boris Johnson has also recently admitted that he probably will not take delayed paternity leave (he previously suggested he would) following the birth of his son, Wilfred, last April. In characteristic contrast, on International Women’s Day Keir Starmer wrote a letter to his daughter expressing his frustration regarding how women are often forced to choose between having a career and a family.

There is scope to argue, however, that the Labour party as a whole is less inclined to support women in positions of high office than other political parties. This time last year, the party was in the midst of a fierce battle for the leadership. Rebecca Long-Bailey and Lisa Nandy were Starmer’s final contestants. When the moment came, Starmer won 56.2% of the vote, with his female competitors receiving 27.6% and 16.2% respectively. It has been suggested that gender played a key role in this outcome, with the Labour electorate yearning for “someone who could win” and restore faith following their defeat in the December 2019 general election.

During the general election, both the Scottish National Party (SNP) and the Liberal Democrats had female leaders, although they experienced very different outcomes. Nicola Sturgeon’s SNP swept up 48 of 59 Scottish seats, including Jo Swinson’s East Dunbartonshire constituency. Both women, however, displayed admirable leadership qualities. Swinson laid out an ambitious agenda for her party, and remained fully committed to these goals until defeat was painfully clear.

Sturgeon’s tenure has been considerably longer, and she has set an example during the pandemic of which all leaders should take note. She has been level headed, calm, and admitted when mistakes have been made. This last point is something men in the public eye seriously need to learn. The ramifications of the still-unfolding scandal regarding her old ally and predecessor-turned adversary, Alex Salmond, however, are likely to manifest in a regression in terms of women in Scottish politics. Salmond is essentially drawing out accusations against him of sexual assault. Although receiving verdicts of ‘not guilty’ and ‘not proven’ last March, he seems to be committed to somehow dirtying Sturgeon’s reputation as debates and inquiries drag on. Scottish campaigners believe that this whole episode will prevent women from coming forward to report harassment.

So, what can we take from all of this whistle-stop tour? I think one of the most important things is that, as we move into a period of post-pandemic reconstruction, parties and individuals take a future-centred and forward-looking approach to their agendas. There is no place for a gendered retreat in this process. Those holding the levers of political power must take note of how many of us around Britain have celebrated and marked International Women’s Day, and recognise the societal change bottom-up forces are demanding. Women in British politics remain underrepresented and mistreated and thus recent progress must not distract us Britons from continuing to break glass ceilings.

Feature image by Number 10. Available via Flickr under Creative Commons 2.0.

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