An interesting set of statistics highlighted by last week’s Sunday Times revealed that, after David Cameron’s latest reshuffle, almost a third of female ministers are “divorced or unattached”, and 40% of the female Shadow ministers on the Labour benches are in exactly the same position. The numbers are small – a rather damning comment still on the state of play in our Parliament in its own right, with the survey looking at the only 16 female Coalition ministers (17%) and the (better, but still not gender-equal) 46 Labour Shadow ministers (40%), out of the 219 total ministers and Shadow ministers. But what is really interesting is the percentage difference when compared to the male equivalents: of the 76 male Coalition ministers, 65 (91%) are married, which means that only 9% fall into the category of “divorced or unattached”. (The numbers aren’t reported for the Labour benches.)
The statistical difference is significant and we have to work out why. What is it about Parliament that makes it so hard to either attract or retain women who have relationships and families? This concern is not a new one – it is a debate which has been simmering for some time, and which has resulted in some changes in how Parliament works, including supposedly more ‘family-friendly’ hours. Perhaps these changes will filter through into more women choosing to come forward to serve as MPs, but it would be foolish to rely on this. It might be more revealing and more pertinent to look closely at how welcoming the ethos in the Houses of Parliament is to women, or to what extent the same latent prejudices about women and their role as carers in the family still persist. Natasha Engel, the Labour MP, is quoted in the same article as pointing out the differences in how men and women are treated in politics: “Women are in the spotlight in the cabinet. There is always a spotlight on a woman who is up for a top job like that. The fact that she has children will always be a matter for comment which is not the case for a man.”
While women are still in the minority, there will always be a spotlight of some kind on them; while we are still seeking as a society to change the opportunities available to women, then there will be a spotlight too. What we have to make sure is that this spotlight is prompted by the real desire to make a positive difference in equalising representation for women in our political offices, and not – however unintentionally or subconsciously – by a resistance to this forward movement. We need more women in politics; we need a better and more equal representation amongst our leaders. We know, too, that we need to work hard in order to achieve it, and we need to keep thinking of creative solutions to help make the path into politics more straightforward and welcoming.
What we mustn’t do is forget that there is still quite some way to go.