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The Government Glass Ceiling

6 min read

Does Boris Johnson really have a woman problem? It appears no Prime Minister has ever covered themselves in glory when it comes to appointing women to the Cabinet. Kate Proctor crunches the numbers.

Like every Prime Minister before him, Boris Johnson has a woman problem when it comes to his Cabinet. Diversity was not at its healthiest prior to his arrival; but since becoming Prime Minister in 2019 he’s reduced the number of women from seven to five. 

The Attorney General, Suella Braverman, was not classed as a full member but attended meetings, and has been replaced by Michael Ellis while she is on maternity leave. Her presence meant that on occasion, six women were sat round the table. She has been given a curiously titled position: Minister On Leave, believed to have been created especially so she can keep her government job while having a baby. 

In the micro-reshuffle, justice minister Lucy Frazer has been promoted to Solicitor General – so there another woman in a senior post - but by convention she won’t attend Cabinet. In fact the latest arrival around the top table is Lord David Frost, now minister for state for the Cabinet Office, adding another man to the 17-strong team of males occupying the highest offices in government.

Former cabinet attendee, Anne Marie-Trevelyan, who was secretary of state for international development was axed last year when the department moved to the Foreign Office, and was not offered a minister’s job. 

A former minister said part of Johnson’s difficulty around the lack of women is that he only wants to appoint loyalists and those who voted for him.

 He has a group who back him strongly, and they are mainly men

“The last reshuffle was definitely a step backwards in terms of women in Cabinet,” they said.

“There should be some pressure to appoint more women this time round but I’m not sure that will change. He’s been remarkably consistent in that almost nobody who didn’t vote for him is given a place in government.

“That is one of the reasons why he hasn’t got so many women in cabinet now and this probably won’t change. He has a group who back him strongly, and they are mainly men.”

Strong advocates like Patel, and party chair Amanda Milling are already in the cabinet. 

But this is far from an exclusively Johnsonian issue. The maximum number of women who have ever attended cabinet is eight, in a brief period between 2006 and 2007 under the third government of Tony Blair. Theresa May started out as Prime Minister with the same figure, but that included her own position. Aside from the obvious achievement of Conservative women Margaret Thatcher and Theresa May becoming the first and second female prime ministers, when it comes to women in cabinet, no political leader has made anything close to truly representative strides.

Remarkably, only 46 women have ever been appointed to cabinet since 1929. The sixth woman to become a secretary of state was Margaret Thatcher, who was education secretary in Edward Heath’s 1970 to 1974 ministry. When it was her turn to lead however, she swiftly kicked away the ladder behind her, appointing only one woman to cabinet in her entire time as prime minister –

Baroness Young, who was leader of the Lords for two years in the early 1980s. 

Her successor John Major carried on Thatcher’s disregard for women with his first ministry being entirely woman-free. In 1992 he appointed Virginia Bottomley to health and Gillian Shephard to employment. However, there weren’t huge numbers to choose from. In a fifteen-year period between 1983 and 1997, there were only 17 Conservative female MPs. 

Despite the headlines of “Blair’s babes” and the huge increase in female MPs in 1997, Tony Blair appointed just five women to cabinet. David Cameron began his Coalition government with five women too, and Liberal Democrat leader and deputy prime minister at the time, Nick Clegg, was allocated four positions, but none of those went to the party’s female MPs.

By the time Cameron left government in 2016, female cabinet members had only risen to seven – around 30 per cent of the 22 positions. One way various prime ministers have tried to argue that they’re including women in decision-making is by creating a series of posts where they can attend cabinet as junior ministers. 

One former woman minister who went to meetings due to her brief said that under May everyone was treated equally and that she was given the same respect as a full-time member. 

“I never felt like I was there on sufferance, just to make up the numbers of women,” she said.

Theresa Villiers, one of the most senior Conservative women from the past decade, who served as Northern Ireland Secretary between 2012 and 2016 and as secretary of state for Defra between 2018 and 2019, said: “Being a woman in politics comes with pluses and minuses. There are times when gender is an advantage. In some instances, particularly at the start of their careers, women

MPs can get noticed, and get considered for certain things to a greater degree than their male contemporaries. 

“But women in political office do tend to attract more hostile comment and briefing than their male competitors. It can work both ways.”

A former government special adviser said there have been occasions when they think men have been treated differently regarding their career trajectories. They listed the example of the appointment of Gavin Williamson to defence secretary from his position as chief whip, having never even served as a junior minister beforehand. They didn’t think a woman would have ever been parachuted into a similar position.

They said they’ve also seen some “inane” reshuffles where women are moved continuously from one ministerial post to the next. Caroline Dinenage, for example, has been digital minister, social care minister and a junior minister for family support and housing and women equalities and early years. Yet she still hasn’t been promoted to a full cabinet post.

With an anticipated early 2021 reshuffle now expected to be pushed back to the summer, or late autumn, there are months of speculation ahead on whether more women will be promoted to secretaries of state, and who exactly they will be. 

It’s an incredibly low bar, but can Johnson be the record-breaking prime minister to push past the cap of eight, and get nine women round the Cabinet table?  

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