Sunday, 13 June 2010

A Man’s World?

Politics has, to one extent or another, always been a primarily male pastime. Harriet Harman's suggestion that fifty percent of Labours shadow cabinet should be women, and that the party rules should be changed to accommodate this, comes at a time when women are more represented in British politics than at any previous time. Obviously Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister, but she was just one woman and her approach to the job could hardly be considered overtly feminine.

Presently a third of Labour MP's are female, more than in any other party. This clearly falls short of representing the actual population of the country. Therefore the concept of the shadow cabinet reflecting society on these current figures would require a disproportionate number of cabinet positions being allocated to female MP's.

This issue of women in politics was debated on Question Time. Diane Abbott, who has since been nominated as the only female Labour leadership candidate, featured on the panel and had a few things to say on the matter. The suggestion of cabinets members being selected on merit was, unsurprisingly, met with enthusiasm. This is widely, and rightly, accepted as the way things should be done. Abbott did, however, suggest that there are mediocre men in cabinet so why not mediocre women. To be quite honest a fair point, though ideally not a model for future cabinet selections...

The problem, which was touched upon on Question Time, is a lack of females in politics generally. It would seem that people are reluctant to bring up the actual reason. Abbott suggested that politics is still a 'boys club', which may be true to a point. The real difficulty though is that most women just aren't attracted to politics. Some women may enjoy the idea of power and competition but far more men are drawn to it. Generally women find the confrontational nature of politics unappealing, again there are exceptions but I would say that this is true for the best part. I can't imagine that the House of Commons would be the work place of choice for many women.

Above these reasons, however, is the fact that women often put their family before themselves. Political success often leads to family being thrust into the limelight, or at least subjected to increased and unwanted scrutiny. This occurs regardless of whether the Mother or the Father is the politician but it seems to sit better with males who perhaps feel they are able to protect their family. Like males do. Sadly with the British media and British politics currently it seems rather unlikely. The idea of having your family suffer as a result of your career seems rather un-maternal, and selfish, to many women. Often wives put their careers second, or even quit their jobs in order to support their husband's political aspirations. Samantha Cameron is a perfect example, especially since she has give up a perfectly successful career be Mrs Prime Minister. The likelihood of a female MP's husband putting his career second to further hers is neither likely, nor would it be expected. As, of course, is the likelihood of the public electing a single 35 year old career-minded woman to represent their constituency over a 'more rounded' candidate, sympathetic to their needs, probably a parent and spouse.

If there were to be a rule change there would be more definite female places at the top which may inspire more females to enter politics to a point, or at least enthuse current female MP's to aspire to be more. This isn't the answer to the problem though is it? The cabinet might better reflect the gender division of the population but it probably wouldn't be made up of the best people for the job. Though it might well result in Abbott's suggestion of a cabinet of mediocre men and women.

In order to truly change the gender division of positions at the top of not just the Labour party, but of any of the political parties, there must be an increase in female politicians from the grass roots up. For this change to happen the face of politics needs to soften a little. Women need to feel that they are welcome and able to succeed in the world of politics whilst retaining their femininity. The shape of politics will inevitably change as more women enter it, thus becoming more accessible for all people, not just women, who don't fit the mould of white, Oxford educated, male. As for how the media, and society in general, would react to women in the more traditionally 'masculine' cabinet positions, for example defence secretary, remains to be seen. What is clear is that meritocracy is essential if people are going to have confidence in the party. If women aren't in the cabinet it should be because they simply aren't as good as their male counterparts, not because they are women.


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