Strategies for Success: Women’s experiences of selection and election in the UK parliament

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Earlier this month, The Fawcett Society released Strategies for Success, a new report containing research on women’s experiences of selection and election to the UK parliament. Dr Leah Culhane summarises the key findings and argues that political parties must act to reform their internal structures and tackle discrimination head-on if progress is to be made on women’s representation.

It is 100 years since some women first won the vote and approaching 100 years since the first woman was elected to the House of Commons. While progress has been made since then, parliament remains male-dominated; women make up only 32% of all MPs, with significant variation across political parties.

While men are undoubtedly present in greater numbers, the culture of politics, its rules, norms and expectations also continue to reflect a masculinised way of operating. In recent months, heightened attention has been brought to the culture of sexism within parliament, in light of Dame Laura Cox’s report on bullying and harassment and various allegations of sexual misconduct amongst and towards Commons staff. This follows on from previous reports such as Professor Sarah Child’s Good Parliament report, which details the various ways that the infrastructure and culture of the House of Commons has led to an unrepresentative and exclusive parliament.

The new Strategies for Success report makes further inroads into explaining women’s under-representation. The report aimed to revisit the age old question: what enables some people to get through the ‘eye of the needle’ and succeed in getting elected? Consisting of a survey, focus groups and one-to-one interviews with political activists, aspirants, candidates and MPs, it sought to reveal new insights into the journey to political office.

The research finds that while parliament must change, it is political parties and party gatekeepers that play a pivotal role at every stage of the process. Crucially, it shows that women and other traditionally marginalised groups continue to face obstacles at each stage of the political process and that political parties must look inwards and address their own internal cultures, rules and norms, particularly around recruitment and selection.

Recruitment

A common claim is that under-representation is a ‘supply issue’ and that women do not put themselves forward for selection as they are less politically interested and have lower levels of confidence than men. A key question of the Strategies research was then, what generates political interest and political aspirations amongst women and men, and what factors shape their decision to seek selection? This research finds that it is socialisation and exposure to politics, in addition to encouragement, which shape political interest and political aspirations. Families, careers and the role political parties play are central. For women and men, having a family member who was active within a party or community organisation or served as an elected representative nurtured their interest in politics and encouraged them to run. Careers which offer exposure to national politics also fulfil this role by nurturing political interest, providing knowledge and introducing citizens to the political sphere and political mentors.

While families and careers matter, political parties are particularly crucial in cultivating political aspirations and the main source of encouragement. However, a number of women pointed to the organisation and culture of political parties which hinder women participating and progressing within party structures on the same terms as men at this initial stage. Respondents referenced the times and locations of party meetings — which are largely incompatible with childcare responsibilities — in addition to an aggressive and masculinised local party culture. Party members and activists also spoke about the various everyday ways that women were ‘made invisible’ within party structures and described being spoken over, ignored, shouted at and patronised. As one female activist remarked ‘the culture is men constantly talking over women.’

Party demand is also key. Both women and men MPs and candidates had a long-standing interest in politics; however women were less likely to have perceived themselves, and to feel they were perceived, as potential political representatives. A number of women described feeling that they did not ‘fit’ the traditional image of an MP due to the existing trends within parties of selecting men, while others described being actively discouraged by party members from going forward for selection due to their childcare responsibilities or because they were thought to be too young. Contrastingly, being directly asked or ‘recruited’ by their political party or a political mentor positively influenced women’s decisions to seek selection. The political actions of political parties are therefore important, acting as indicators for the likelihood of being successful.

Equality measures which create a political demand for women were also key to encouraging women interviewed for the research, highlighting the possibility for future change where the political will is strong. A number of women stated that equality rhetoric, equality promotion and equality guarantees were clear signs that they were in fact wanted by the party and shaped their political aspirations. While internal rules around selection are the strongest signal, commitments from political parties to train and support women candidates in addition to statements from party leaders were still raised as highly valuable, signalling to women a change in party attitudes.

Selection

A second question that the research addresses is what is needed to get selected within UK parties? While a common argument is that political selection is based on merit, in practice, becoming an MP requires a number of resources, which are not listed in job descriptions or in party handbooks.

The research shows, for example, that the costs of being selected and elected remain extremely high. Getting selected, and being a candidate, can also be a full-time job, as parties require a significant time and personal commitment. The research finds that the process of selection is therefore organised such that a number of personal resources are required in order to succeed including money, time, flexibility and party patronage networks. While other identities, not least, ethnicity, class and disability, mediate access to these resources, men continue to have greater access due to factors such as the unequal division of domestic responsibilities, the gender pay gap and the gendered barriers to party participation.

The research also finds that party selectorates employ informal criteria during selection, favouring certain characteristics and experience in a potential candidate. In the UK, a history of party activism, professional and voluntary experience and a ‘local connection’ are key considerations for those picking the candidate. While these criteria are not explicitly in favour of men, they often advantage men indirectly during the selection process. Candidates also need to present themselves as having authentic motivations for wanting to run. While an appropriate personal story was a necessary informal requirement, female candidates felt that only certain stories were seen as valid with a number of women being warned against drawing on their own personal stories of rape and abortion.

In addition to gendered access to resources, the research shows the ongoing and explicit resistance to the inclusion of women in politics. Equipping typically marginalised groups with the necessary resources through careers or through party support will not in and of itself challenge some of the deeply embedded opposition to their selection. Selectorate bias is a fundamental way that this manifests; women still meet resistance from local parties who have a preconceived idea of their ‘ideal candidate’ who is white, male, middle-class and able-bodied. Women who contributed to the research were consistently asked discriminatory questions during the selection process about their childcare responsibilities and their marital status. A number of women also described being questioned on their religious status, ethnicity and disability.

Alongside examples of explicit discrimination, many female candidates reported experiencing bullying, harassment and threats of violence from competitors and members of their own party during the selection process which was felt to be compounded by a lack of strong party will to address the problem. As one woman remarked: ‘I found the (selection) process pretty soul destroying, frankly. I got spat at by members because they didn’t like the fact that I was on the shortlist.’ This damning sentiment was reflected in the experiences of female candidates who recounted various occasions when they felt unsafe. A number of women retold stories of their children being bullied in school, online trolling, verbal and physical aggression from the public, and serious concerns about their own and their families’ personal safety.

Resistance is also evident through ongoing opposition to party equality measures. Participants reported that internal party rules around gender and political representation were often met with resentment from the local party. Female candidates also commented that in constituencies where no rules around gender apply, local party gatekeepers consider open shortlists an opportunity for ‘the men to have a chance.’ Participants from some parties perceived that women were being put forward on mixed gender shortlists only to meet the formal requirement for gender balance, or in order to ensure that the process appeared competitive. One woman recalled being told ‘we need a woman for the shortlist. Don’t worry, we won’t select you.’

Election/role of an MP

Having been selected, party candidates must then be elected by their constituents. Many of the resources needed for selection also apply to election, particularly money, time and flexibility. The research indicates, however, that party support is also crucial with a number of women suggesting that they were not given the appropriate support and resources to win the election. This, in a number of cases, was due to the fact their seat was not considered a target seat; however the perception that parties may select women to run in less winnable seats was mentioned by a number of female candidates.

The research also indicates that there may be ongoing resistance to the election of certain women to the UK Parliament. While electorate bias based on gender was not considered an issue, respondents suggested that in some more socially conservative areas a candidate’s ethnicity, religion and sexuality continue to shape voter choice, making it more difficult for a diverse range of women to get elected to political office.

Once elected, female candidates must also assume their roles as MPs and take on the day-to-day tasks of political office. However, the features of political life continue to present challenges for typically marginalised groups. Westminster culture — that is the traditions, informal rules and expectations within parliament — is an ongoing issue for women who are elected. As one MP remarked: ‘part-time, white, male is how Parliament is designed…it was never designed to be anything but an exclusive club.’ Long and anti-social working hours were also cited by a number of MPs as being a problem, including the expectation that you are available to constituents around the clock, and the need to live in two places. A number of women who participated in the research stated that their selection had a devastating effect on their career, family life and personal relationships.

Going forward

While Strategies draws attention to the ongoing resistance to women’s inclusion in politics — both individual and institutional — it reiterates issues that have long been voiced by women in politics and political researchers. In fact some of the findings are identical to those from research carried out by the Fawcett Society on UK parties 15 years ago. Political parties must now take action to actively recruit, elect and select women and to ensure that party and parliamentary politics are not hostile to women and other traditionally marginalised groups.

Critics of equality measures — particularly within political selection — are quick to evoke corporate narratives to defend the status quo. It is proposed that political representatives, like all other professions, should be the ‘best people for the job’ and that affirmative action measures skew selection based on capabilities and are unjust. The underlying presumption here is that selection and recruitment processes in politics are fair, unbiased and meritocratic.

What comes out clearly from this research is that political spaces and processes are too often considered unique, meaning that normal rules and etiquette need not apply. Violence and harassment towards women cannot be excused as ‘politics as usual.’ Discrimination and bias during recruitment and hiring should still be deemed unacceptable when it is the selection of a political candidate. Online threats against those who have opposing political views must still be treated as threats. These must be challenged by political parties if we are to make any improvement on women’s representation.

So what, specifically, should be done off the back of this report? Fawcett’s recommendations are:

  • Parties should implement an independent process for dealing with harassment and abuse, and put meaningful sanctions in place for those who are found to have harassed or abused others.
  • Women should be prioritised for retirement seats and target seats, and in the event of any boundary changes
  • Parties should set targets for selections and have a strategy in place for meeting them which is properly resourced with local parties, and supported by guidance from the centre including equality and diversity training. We need to change the culture. All women shortlists have proved to be the most effective mechanism, but for parties which are reluctant to use them we advocate an approach that combines targets with a strategy including equality rhetoric and promotion.
  • Parties should make support available to enable women to stand, including covering childcare costs.
  • Leadership from the top of and throughout each party, asking women to stand but coupling that with a commitment to change their parties.

About the author

Dr Leah Culhane is the co-author of Strategies for Success and Senior Policy Research Officer at The Fawcett Society.