Understanding David Cameron’s (and Nick Clegg’s) women problem

14 September 2012

Last week’s reshuffle left the Government with a cabinet that is 85% male, with female secretaries of state in mostly marginal positions covering 8% of departmental spend. This raised questions yet again about the under-representation of women in politics. But with a commitment from the prime minister to righting his 'women problem', can we expect better in future?

A striking result of the reshuffle is the gap in the middle of the ministerial hierarchy. With the exception of the demoted Baroness Warsi, there is not one other woman at minister of state level. This leaves little chance to improve the balance in a hypothetical 2015 cabinet, as neither party leader will have a promotable female MP with the experience and media profile normally required to progress to cabinet.

This is in part due to the low proportion of women in the parliamentary pool from which ministers are mostly drawn, and in part to the relative newness of those that are there. Women MPs are no less likely than their male colleagues to be in the cabinet or in a government position – just under 1 in 14 of each group are in cabinet, and about 1 in 4 hold some ministerial or whip role. There simply aren’t very many of them.

Both parties of government have failed to return women to parliament in great numbers; they make up just 12% of Lib Dem MPs and 16% of Conservatives. This is significantly lower than the proportion of women selected as candidates by the parties, suggesting women are still less likely to be selected for winnable seats.

Meanwhile those who are there are relatively new. The overall low proportion belies the fact that the 2010 cohort saw a near tripling of the number of women Conservative MPs in parliament. While about a fifth of this cohort has been promoted, it has invariably been to the most junior levels. This suggests we would have to wait for the reshuffle of September 2017 to see any of this talent emerge in the cabinet, if the Conservatives are still in power.

Beyond that, the 2015 election will need to see a stark increase in the proportion of women to see really significant changes in any subsequent Conservative government. Increasing your proportion of women is of course much harder for an incumbent party of government than it was for Cameron in 2010. The Liberal Democrats, meanwhile, are investing heavily in talent development programmes to prepare candidates ahead of the next election, but for them nothing is ever guaranteed.

Outgoing minister Cheryl Gillan suggested that the reporting of the reshuffle will put women off politics. Let’s hope not. As we said in a report on candidate selection last year, future improvements in the diversity of government require pro-active drives by parties to recruit more women. This would mean a large investment in encouraging more women to apply to be candidates and support for them to succeed once they are selected. This may require a fundamental rethink of candidate selection processes, and of perceptions of the role of MP itself.

David Cameron recently chastised public companies
for their failure to advance women, saying “if we fail to unlock the potential of women in the labour market, we’re not only failing those individuals, we’re failing our whole economy.” His ‘women problem’ may have its origins in his predecessors’ failure to promote the selection of women, but as he reflects on his reshuffle, he might want to think about how far his words also apply to government.

Share this post:

Comments (2)

  1. Lesley Abdela on 15 September 2012 at 8:34 am

    Well done Liz Carolan for writing this article. I would like to add to her point about the need to increase the pool of women MPs. I have worked on increasing women in politics for many years in this country and over 40 other countries on 4 continents. All countries with over 30 per cent women in their legislatures have one thing in common – they use some form of quotas. The most democratic type of quota is ‘the Zipper ‘ which entails the same rules for men and for women –
    alternate men and women candidate names appear on their political party’s list of candidates and all have to then get elected by the voters. This would require a PR electoral system. The Liberal Democrats should by now have realised by their paltry and shamefully low number of 12percent women MPs that the ‘one more heave ‘ approach does not work.

  2. Liz Carolan on 17 September 2012 at 2:32 pm

    Hi Lesley, thanks for the insight from your decades of work in this field. My concern is that a PR system is unlikely to materialise in the coming decades, and the Lib Dem’s particular vote share in a majoritarian system meant that their policy of putting women in target seats largely fell through in 2010. Either way, these things take such a long time. Labour managed to break through the 30% mark in 2010 through various methods, but this has taken a long time, and consistent, sometimes controversial, and very proactive measures – no doubt we are now seeing the effects of efforts pre-1997.

Blog: Permalink