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The Commons must lead – not lag – on women’s full and proper participation

4 min read

We need more women MPs if the House of Commons is to be fully representative of the nation it seeks to serve, writes Maria Miller

This year we are celebrating the centenary of suffragettes and suffragists winning the fight for women to start to play their proper role in our democratic process. On 21 November these celebrations continue when parliament marks 100 years since women first had the right in law to stand for election to the House of Commons.

It’s good that we celebrate the incredible achievement of 100 years ago but we also need to ask why, since then, more women have not chosen to stand for election or indeed been successful in being elected to the House of Commons to represent their communities in our most important democratic decision-making body.

There has been no shortage of women, over the past 100 years, with the capacity and credentials to become MPs. Indeed, over the past two decades more women than men have left our best universities with the best degrees; today more women than men move into law and medicine. Yet, a total of just 489 women nationwide have ever been successful in being elected as an MP of any political party. At present just one in three MPs sitting on the green benches is a woman.

It matters that we have more women in parliament because women see the world through a different lens. Their experiences of life are different, and that difference is relevant in every single area of government policy and needs to be heard.

There are also specific issues such as maternity discrimination, the gender pay gap, upskirting, intimate image abuse, sexual harassment and domestic violence that disproportionately affect women. No one is saying men can’t tackle and understand these subjects, but has the under-representation of women in parliament marginalised recognition of and debate on these issues over the past 100 years? The evidence would suggest that is the case.

 In 2016 the relatively newly formed Women and Equalities Select Committee, which I chair, took a forensic look at what barriers women still face in successfully standing for parliamentary election. It is clear that political parties have a pivotal role to play and that no single party has found the holy grail.

The recruitment industry knows that it can take a very different approach to successfully recruit women, particularly into senior posts, compared with men, yet most parties still use ‘one size fits all’.

In November the Women and Equalities Select Committee will be taking a further look at the barriers women face and will be recommending how parties can tackle them successfully in the months and years between now and the next general election.

It would be wrong to overlook the role parliament itself has to play in attracting more women to become MPs. While the reforms that have taken place under Speaker Bercow are significant and welcome, we haven’t seen a wholesale modernisation of parliament. Many of the recommendations called for by Professor Sarah Childs in her report, The Good Parliament, remain on the shelf gathering dust.

Parliament needs to do far more to actively attract the brightest and the best to see standing for election as a way to positively contribute to our national good. Parliament needs to shake off its combative, long hours and presenteeism culture to embrace a modern, agile working culture and become a choice for more people. This will go a long way to increasing the number of women who put standing for parliament into their future plans.

Being a modern, forward-thinking workplace is as relevant in our most important democratic institution as it is in industry and commerce.

It is an extraordinary privilege to be elected to the House of Commons, even more so as a woman. Most of us are still the first women to ever be elected to represent our constituencies. In this centenary year of women first being able to vote and stand for election, we need political parties and parliament itself to pledge to the change that’s needed to ensure the House of Commons is leading, not lagging, when it comes to women’s full and proper participation. 

Maria Miller is Conservative MP for Basingstoke and chair of the Women and Equalities Select Committee

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