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Women in Parliament and government: the numbers

5 min read

Ahead of International Women’s Day Steve Browning from the House of Commons Library looks at how the UK Parliament measures up against legislatures around the world

This International Women’s Day we have taken a look at the number of women parliamentarians in the UK and abroad. While the number of women MPs in Westminster is the highest it has ever been, they remain the minority in the House of Commons and the House of Lords. Looking further afield, about a third of all countries have now been led by a woman and 22 countries currently have a female president or prime minister. Here we break down the figures in the UK Parliament, devolved governments, in Europe and beyond

Women in Westminster

There are now 209 women Members of Parliament. At 32%, this is an all-time high. The proportion of women MPs grew slowly until the 1997 election, when 120 women were elected, making up 18% of the House of Commons. Before then, women had never made up more than 10% of all MPs and until the late 1980s the proportion had always been below 5%.

Since the Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act 1918 which gave women the right to stand, 491 women have been elected to the House of Commons. Of these, 58% were first elected as Labour MPs and 29% as Conservatives.

There are currently 207 women in the House of Lords, making up 26% of all peers. The first women were admitted to the Lords in 1958. As recently as January 1995, fewer than 7% of peers were women.

As well as the Prime Minister, four women are Cabinet ministers. Nine of the 29 ministers (31%) who attend Cabinet meetings are women. The highest proportion of women in the Cabinet was 36% between May 2006 and May 2007. 

Women standing in general elections

The number of women candidates has risen at almost every general election since 1966. In the 2017 General Election, 973 women stood across all parties – 29% of all 3,304 candidates. Although this is the highest proportion on record, the total number of women candidates was lower than the 1,033 who stood in 2015.

Labour had 256 women candidates, the highest number of any party in any general election. 41% of Labour’s candidates were women, compared with 34% in 2015.

184 (29%) of Conservative candidates in 2017 were women – a 3 percentage point increase on 2015 and the highest number in the Party’s history. Similarly, 184 (29%) of Liberal Democrat candidates were women.

35% of Green Party candidates were women, as were 34% of Scottish National Party and 28% of Plaid Cymru candidates. Women made up 13% of UKIP candidates. The Women’s Equality Party, founded in 2015, fielded only women candidates.

Women in other elected UK bodies

The proportion of women in other elected bodies has tended to be higher than in the UK Parliament. 47% of Members of the Welsh National Assembly are women, as are 35% of Members of the Scottish Parliament and 32% of Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly.

In Northern Ireland, 26% of councillors are women, while the proportion rose to 29% in Scotland after the 2017 elections and sits at 28% in Wales. It has been estimated that over 38% of councillors elected in England in 2018 were women, bringing the overall total of female councillors in England to 34%.

40% of Members of the London Assembly are women.

European Parliament

41% of the UK Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) elected in 2014 (the last election) were women. This was slightly higher than the overall level of 37% across the European Parliament and put the UK 10th in terms of the proportion of women MEPs. Malta ranked first with 67% while Lithuania had the lowest proportion, 9%. 

International comparisons

22 countries (or 11% of members of the United Nations) currently have a woman as president or prime minister – a record high.

The first woman to become a non-hereditary national leader was Sirimavo Bandaranaike, elected Prime Minister of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) in 1960. Margaret Thatcher became the sixth female national leader in 1979. About a third of all countries have now been led by a woman. 

At 32%, the UK is in 39th position for the proportion of women in the lower (or only) house of parliament. Rwanda has over 61%, and along with Cuba and Bolivia has a majority of women in parliament. At the other extreme, Micronesia, Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu currently have no women in parliament.

In February 2019, 54 women presided over one of the 222 national houses of parliament throughout the world, therefore making up 24 per cent of all speakers. In two countries – the Netherlands and Trinidad and Tobago – women presided over both houses.

In 1927 Austria became the first country to elect a woman to the presidency of a parliamentary chamber; the next was Denmark in 1950. To date women have held one of those positions in 98 countries.

The UK became the 27th country to achieve this when Betty Boothroyd was elected Speaker of the House of Commons in 1992. 


This article was written by Steve Browning, Assistant Research Analyst at the House of Commons Library specialising in social and general statistics.

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