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Getting More Women Into Politics Will Change Everything

From Left: Jo Swinson, Dawn Butler, Nicky Morgan and Helen Pankhurst © Shutterstock

From #MeToo to #WhyIDidntReport, are we missing the obvious solution?

Brett Kavanaugh accused, Donald Trump unapologetic, Christiano Ronaldo in question and Johnny Depp on the cover of British GQ. We are told we are living through a global cultural reckoning because of #MeToo but, recently, it has felt like, perhaps, the scale of the problem we face is insurmountable - too big for a hashtag to solve in a year.

Part of the problem is that every time it feels like we’ve taken a giant step forward (like when Dr Christine Ford gave her powerful testimony at the Brett Kavanaugh hearings, where she recounted a how she was allegedly sexually assaulted as a teenager by a 17-year-old Kavanaugh) we then seem to take two steps back (after brief, cursory FBI investigation, Kavanaugh was then sworn in as a Supreme Court justice this weekend).

And that’s the problem. Women everywhere are laying our lives out, telling of our suffering and sharing our trauma, all in the hope that it can contribute to a groundswell of anger. But despite this emotional labour, change - if it happens at all - is frustratingly slow. But - maybe - we’re looking in the wrong place.

We’re expecting change to be borne out of big blockbuster moments like the allegations against men like Kavanaugh or Ronaldo, but the truth is that it often comes in less obvious (and less newsworthy) forms.

A little piece of legislation known as Section 106 of the 2010 Equality Act might be the start of that solution. The Equality Act was passed by the last Labour government but Section 106 was never enacted. Simply, it would require all political parties to publisher diversity data about the candidates they put forward in elections.

Like the compulsory gender pay gap reporting the government asked for from businesses earlier this year, the idea is that transparency would force conversations about why there are so few women in politics and be a catalyst for change.

From the gut-wrenching testimony of Dr Christina Ford at the Kavanaugh hearing to Donald Trump’s Twitter feed, from seeing a man accused of domestic violence hailed as an ‘outlaw’ on the cover of British GQ to looking on as Nike deliberate over whether or not accusations of rape are enough to see Ronaldo lose his £768m contract – one thing is clear. We need more women in positions of power. That is the only way our culture will truly change: from the inside out.

Sadly, because we’ve never had a truly representative Parliament in this country, we don’t actually know what the world would look like if it was run by women. That said, it’s hard to imagine that sexual assault on the scale that has been uncovered by #MeToo would have taken place. Similarly, if we’d had equal numbers of women and men in public office since day dot, perhaps child care would have been state-funded from the get go and there would be no gender pay gap. If there were more women decision makers, would be still be arguing about decriminalising abortion once and for all?

The World Economic Forum ranks all countries in its Global Gender Gap report which measures things like women’s health, educational attainment and participation in the economy and political systems. In 2016, the countries which had the smallest overall gender gap – Iceland, Finland and Norway – were the ones which had more women in politics. This tells us that women are more likely to do better when they are represented politically.

If Parliament truly reflected our society in terms of gender, race, disability and class, perhaps equality would feel less like a vanishing point on an ever-distant horizon. Maybe, just maybe, people would have more faith in politicians, too.

One hundred years after some women were first given the vote, it’s true that we have more women in Parliament than ever before. In fact, record numbers of women MPs were elected last year. But, women still only make up 32 per cent of our MPs in the House of Commons, only 26 per cent of peers in the House of Lords and only 32 per cent of local councillors in England. And, equally, we only have our second ever women Prime Minister which, in the grand scale of time immemorial, is hardly something to shout about, is it?

A group of senior MPs from different political parties – former Conservative minister, Nicky Morgan, deputy leader of the Liberal Democrat Party, Jo Swinson and Labour shadow equalities minister, Dawn Butler - alongside Helen Pankhurst as part of the Centenary Action Group, are calling for the government to bring section 106 into force and compel all political parties to publish their diversity data once and for all.

Jo Swinson told Grazia that such transparency would shine a spotlight on the problem and encourage solutions’. She also said that ‘all political parties should analyse and report on their candidate selection process’ because then and ‘only then will we be able to understand where the issues are, measure progress and be held accountable’.

Dawn Butler, who was only the third black woman MP to ever be elected in 2005, agreed but added that intersectionality needs to be at the heart of this conversation. ‘We must embrace positive change to ensure that Parliament and other elected institutions are as diverse as the country it serves’ she told Grazia.

‘There is simply no reason why the government cannot enact Section 106 immediately’ Butler added, ‘currently Theresa May’s legacy as Prime Minister is one of abject failure and only paying lip service to equality issues. She should grab this opportunity with both hands’.

It sounds so simple, doesn’t it? So obvious and so necessary. So, why hasn’t the Government enacted Section 106? Back in 2017, the Government responded to the Women and Equalities Committee’s recommendation that this needed to happen by saying that it might be too much of a ‘burden’ for ‘smaller parties’ such as the Green Party.

However, the Green Party have exclusively told Grazia that they are now publicly supporting the implementation of Section 106. The party’s deputy leader, Amelia Womack, told Grazia ‘in the Green Party we already survey our candidates’ diversity to ensure that we are taking action. Other parties may say that we are unable to administer this change in law, however we are currently getting a 90% return from candidates across England and Wales. We do it because it’s right, and because it enables us to understand the work we need to do to ensure that we are encouraging diversity, inclusion and that the voices of those too often ignored are heard. We do not let logistics stand in the way of ensuring that we are pushing towards a politics that represents all genders.’

We can’t wait another 100 years for our next milestone on the path to equality. Added together, the effects of small legislative changes, like enacting Section 106, would be bigger than the sum of their parts.

Of course, it doesn’t necessarily follow that all women politicians will introduce women-friendly policies (see Thatcher) but, studies suggest their very presence has an impact. As the saying goes, ‘you can’t be it if you can’t see it’. This was confirmed by a 2013 study which found that highly successful female role models empower other women's behaviour when tested in leadership tasks. Researchers had 149 male and female students gave a public speech, while being subtly exposed to either a picture of Hillary Clinton, Angela Merkel, Bill Clinton, or no picture at all. They found that women spoke less than men when a Bill Clinton picture or no picture was presented. But this difference disappeared when a picture of Hillary Clinton or Angela Merkel was presented. More than this, when faced with a picture of a woman leader the women’s performance was actually judged as having improved.

Women cannot just be survivors and advocates arguing for change, we need to be allowed to thrive and fulfil our true potential in the world. If anything, the news of the last few weeks is a stark reminder of how urgently we need more women in power and in public life so that we will, one day, be free to do more than argue against sexism, inequality and misogyny.

Sometimes, the problems we face, the barriers we must to overcome and the ceilings we need to smash feel insurmountable. In the last few weeks, they have felt particularly overwhelming. So, in times that can feel hopeless and when the news is hard to watch, it’s important to remember that there are still things that can be done to make a difference.

You can find out more about the Centenary Action Group #Enact106 campaign here.