Has The Conservative Party Got A Woman Problem?
Much was made of the 50-50 gender split in Boris Johnson’s top team following the recent cabinet reshuffle, with Liz Truss’s promotion to Foreign Secretary alongside Priti Patel as Home Secretary meaning that two of the four most significant roles in government are now held by women.
But this week’s Conservative Party Conference, which one attendee described to PoliticsHome as a “sea of white men in suits”, was a reminder that below the surface, the Tories are still the least diverse of Westminster’s four main parties when it comes to gender. Truss herself declined to celebrate her appointment as a victory for women, telling a ConservativeHome fringe event that she preferred to be considered on individual merit, rather than as a woman.
“There were a lot of all male panels,” Rebecca Towns, party member and marketing and social media apprentice told PoliticsHome.
“Considering the now great number of headstrong women involved within the party, particularly within smaller associations, it is a shame that I didn’t see many of them speak publicly,” she added.
Towns believed that many women in politics find it daunting when walking into an event where the room is filled with men, because “there is a stereotype that women will feel belittled and possibly rather patronised,” although she noted that hadn’t been her personal experience last week.
Many social media users were right to note that two videos posted from PoliticsHome’s twitter account featured predominantly white men. While we approached as many women as we could, most were reluctant to be interviewed, while men we encountered were more than happy to have their voices heard.
Away from the conference floor in the Midland Hotel bar, the main social space within the secure zone, the atmosphere was even more macho.
One Conservative party member told PoliticsHome she was taken aback by the “alcohol-fueled atmosphere” in the hotel that she said had led to many “unwanted advances” from men.
“That's the most frustrating aspect of it — that you've got people who want to come to the conference to treat it like a freshers week at university… to hook up with people,” she said.
Tackling violence against women and resolving a shockingly low conviction rate for rape and sexual crime was a recurrent theme in Conference speeches. Following revelations that a serving officer used his police badge to kidnap 33-year-old in Clapham before raping and murdering her earlier this year, home secretary Priti Patel used hers to announce an inquiry into the circumstances surrounding Everard’s death.
But while violence against women was one of the few serious topics covered in Johnson’s otherwise jovial closing address, he has ruled out making misogyny a hate crime, and justice secretary Dominic Raab struggled to understand the meaning of the word entirely.
I do think that there's going to be a lot of work that needs to be done mainly to teach men how to respect women
On the same day as Patel’s inquiry announcement, the Evening Standard quoted one unnamed minister as saying that nearby women at the Midland Hotel bar would be “drunk enough later”.
“I do think that there's going to be a lot of work that needs to be done mainly to teach men how to respect women,” a female party staffer, who asked not to be named, told PoliticsHome.
“That is one thing with just being a woman in politics. Generally, if you're on a panel, you can't tell whether someone wants to talk to you because they want to network or because they want to try and pull you.
“It can be a problem, and that obviously can be off-putting for women if they don't feel strong enough to push back.”
A Conservative Party spokesperson said: “We have measures in place to ensure the safety of everyone attending Conservative Party Conference.”
The party’s gender diversity problem extends beyond panels and drunk men at their annual conference, however.
Across the UK Parliament, just 24% of MPs and 28% of peers are female. Labour bucks this trend with 52% female MPs, but Johnson’s cohort falls short with just 24% female MPs — 87 out of the party’s 362 elected members. The Conservative Party does not publish gender breakdown figures for its wider membership.
Ella Robertson McKay, chair of the Conservative Young Women (CYW) association, told PoliticsHome she was disappointed at the number of women being put forward as future Conservative candidates.
“The party does want to, and the Prime Minister is committed to, working towards 50-50 equality in Parliament, which means that our pipeline needs to look more or less like 50-50 and that's currently not the case,” she said.
But she was heartened by the fact that many Tory women who were put forward for seats were elected: “There was a healthy percentage of women in the new cohort elected in 2019.”
It's about action at all levels of politics, not just at the top.
Robertson McKay praised the diversity of the current Cabinet, claiming that it “encourages people who maybe have not seen themselves in the great office state before” to enter politics.
But she warned that putting big names at the top of the party was not the entire solution. “It's about action at all levels of politics, not just at the top, for us to get to where we want to be,” she said.
Her sentiments were echoed by many other party members, who told PoliticsHome they felt the party could be doing more to encourage women into prominent roles at all levels.
“The party needs to keep on giving women the chance to represent themselves in ways that men do within the party and I’m not just talking about in Parliament,” Towns said.
“I think it’s crucial that within local government, women are given the opportunity to stand up and express their views freely.
“Women like Esther McVey and Liz Truss need to stand up and tell young women that it’s okay to get involved and that they are just as powerful and as educated as men,” she continued. “It’s not all toxic and it’s not all constant hate.”
When women are in the room you get better policy that drives gender equality.
One party staffer said it was important that men in the party were also proactive in helping women progress up the ranks.
“There's no chance in hell that I would have sat on a panel a year ago, but my boss has been really, really good at being a mentor and encouraging me to do my own stuff rather than just working for him,” she said.
“Women’s groups are great, but you find that it ends up being very female dominated. The most important thing is that men need to do more to push women forward because women are facing each other forward all the time.”
Robertson McKay believed having more women in prominent roles was essential for the party if it were to deliver on its promises to improve women’s lives.
“When women are in the room you get better policy that drives gender equality,” she said.
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