In a bold move to achieve equal gender representation in the House of Commons by 2025, Sophie Walker, former journalist and leader of the new Women’s Equality (WE) party, is calling for gender quota targets to be in place for the next two general elections. The party, officially formed after the general election earlier this year, aims to make equality for women an issue for all, focusing on equal representation in politics, business, education and the media as well as equal pay, equal parenting rights and an end to violence against women.
The WE party wants political parties to field women in two-thirds of seats, including two-thirds of winnable seats. Since the 1990s, political parties have deliberated over various strategies with the aim of increasing women’s representation in parliament, but they have failed to bring about fundamental gender parity. The Labour party has since 1997 adopted a policy of all-women shortlists, whereby its national executive committee decides on target seats that should have only women candidates. The results have been significant with 43% of Labour MPs now women, compared to 31% in 2010. The Conservatives and SNP have 21% and 36% respectively. At present, 191 out of all 650 MPs are women.
Affirmative action such as gender quotas ensure that women are given not only the equality of opportunity in standing for election, but the equality of outcome too, as parties often place women candidates in unwinnable seats, usually down to an incumbency factor. Gender quota strategies have fallen nothing short of criticism, and the most common argument made against them is that, to place women in positions for the sake of having more women goes against the principles of competition and merit and is crucially unfair to men.
There is the false assumption that women standing for election would not be aptly-skilled or capable of doing the job. Yet, research shows that they are just as qualified and experienced as men, and their political backgrounds are in fact more similar to men’s than non-quota women. It also begs the question; what extraordinary criteria must a woman meet to become a legitimate contender as an MP? We don’t seem to question men’s abilities in the same way. Moreover, quotas are not designed to be inherently unfair to men, they are simply the recognition of a structural inequality and an active means by which the overrepresentation of men should be adjusted.
While the House of Commons is now more diverse than ever before, there are still more Oxbridge graduates in parliament than there are women, and less than 7% of MPs come from ethnic minority backgrounds. The Conservative party boasts its lead in selecting 10% of its candidates from non-white backgrounds and critically placing them in winnable seats. This is the precise point of using quotas effectively in safe seats which ought to be applied to women, as well as ethnic minorities, in all political parties.
Supporting calls made by the WE party, a report published by the LSE this month has recommended that gender quotas be mandatory for senior positions across private and public sectors in Britain, suggesting that “the burden of the argument should now shift from the under-representation of women to the unjustifiable over-representation of men”. Greater representation of women is finally gaining some much needed momentum, and if appropriately applied, gender quota targets will effectively give the system the shake it needs.