Training and encouragement play their part in getting women into politics, but role models are important too
December 2019 was a record-breaking month in Parliament – the General Election had seen the highest number of women ever elected to Parliament.
But that milestone, while important, was 220 – only around a third of all MPs elected. Since then the number has risen to 225. So, while a success it’s still short of where it should be.
When I was first elected to Parliament in 2005 there were more men in Parliament than there had ever been women elected. This remained the case until December 2016 when Conservative MP Caroline Johnson was elected in a by-election as the 455th woman MP to have ever been elected – equalling the number of male MPs in the House of Commons at that time.
The barriers to women being elected have not been the electorate but political parties. Trail blazers like my Labour colleagues Diane Abbott and Harriet Harman were among only a handful of women MPs in the 1980s when it was still unusual for MPs to give birth. Those of us who have followed owe them a lot.
This is where initiatives such as Women in Westminster are significant – celebrating women’s achievements and highlighting role models. This annual showcase of experienced, new, and up-and-coming talent in Westminster is an inspiring roll call of women from politics, the media, and Whitehall
By the 1990s the Labour party was introducing all women shortlists as a proactive attempt to improve representation. The Conservative Party was also proactive through David Cameron’s A list which saw a big increase in Conservative women in the 2010 intake.
The real work to support and encourage women begins well before an election. The Labour Women’s Network and the Conservative’s Women to Win are two organisations which work to support and develop women to ensure there is a strong pipeline of talent. One A list woman told me that she’s been busy getting on with her life and career but was enticed into active politics when she was encouraged to get more involved. There are also more professional networks on the civil service – which is also male dominated in many areas.
So training and encouragement play their part. But role models are important too.
This is where initiatives such as Women in Westminster are significant – celebrating women’s achievements and highlighting role models. This annual showcase of experienced, new, and up-and-coming talent in Westminster is an inspiring roll call of women from politics, the media, and Whitehall. For generations the Who’s Who of different sectors have been male dominated. The list of the top 100 women in Westminster is an inspiring reminder of female talent. Last year, as a patron, I was involved in the challenge of judging and we celebrated the fact that we had so many top women nominated that we struggled to whittle the list down to 100.
Both Women to Win and the Labour Women’s Network also provide valuable peer support to women keen to learn and develop their career. This network of support is one of the hidden sides of Parliament where we have three quaintly named “Lady Members Rooms” (so named after Edwina Currie once marched into a WC labelled “Members Only” to find several male colleagues using the urinals). In these spaces women MPs of all parties support each other as a shoulder to cry on, as a source of advice, or a compliment. It is remarkable that such private moments are never reported. Quiet female solidarity in action.
Do nominate some of these remarkable women for the Women in Westminster Awards – especially the “one to watch” category to boost those younger women who perhaps don’t know how good they are yet. And in doing so we’ll also be able to highlight these role models to those young women wondering if politics is for them.
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