Visible Women

An open letter from Dr Helen Pankhurst about the need for more women in politics

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Helen Pankhurst
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In a exclusive, women’s rights campaigner Helen Pankhurst calls on the government to do more to get women into politics. 

In these polarised times, there isn’t much that unites senior Conservatives, Labour, the SNP, Greens, Plaid Cymru and the Liberal Democrats. 

But on the centenary of women winning the right to stand for the House of Commons, there is broad agreement: we are a long way off achieving equality in politics.

How we fix this is a source of contention. But to deal with any problem, you have to start by assessing where you are before you can find out the best route forward.

Today, as women – for one day only – outnumber men in Parliament as part of the #AskHerToStand campaign, an unprecedented coalition of campaigners and politicians are calling on the government to take action on the ‘political gender gap’ to mark the centenary of women’s right to stand for Parliament. 

In April this year, we saw a simple change move equality up the agenda: businesses reported their gender pay gaps. This act of transparency has made waves – forcing many companies to change tack. Fundamentally, the lesson from the gender pay gap reporting is that far from being a burden, this kind of transparency brings out best practice and can raise the status of women across the board.

Why shouldn’t parties follow suit?

My great grandmother Emmeline Pankhurst and the thousands of other women who campaigned to get us the vote would not be satisfied with the representation gap that remains in politics. But they would be encouraged by the momentum for change. 

Emmeline Pankhurst

Everyone from Women’s Aid and the Electoral Reform Society to the Conservatives’ Nicky Morgan and Labour’s Shadow Equalities Minister Dawn Butler are calling for a very specific change today: for Ministers to enact a part of the Equality Act that would let voters know where each party stood in terms of candidate diversity.

Currently just a third of MPs and councillors are women, with BME and disabled voters severely under-represented too. But the picture is blurry: we simply don’t have good numbers on who parties select or where for the many elections and offices in the UK. If we don’t know where we stand in terms of candidate diversity, further progress on the diversity deficit will be extremely difficult. This is lesson one stuff.

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One simple change would require parties to publish the demographic makeup of their election candidates, as the first step towards tackling the gender gap in politics and to improve diversity.

And yet the government have argued it would be too ‘burdensome’ for parties to implement S106. Given the coalition of campaigners and parties who disagree (and the ease with which gender pay gap reporting came in), that argument now looks untenable. Many parties already collect the data internally. 

Dr Helen Pankhurst 

The Minister for Women last week said it was up to individual parties, and that she hopes they were looking at it. They are – and they want it to be enforced.

As the Minister’s Conservative colleague Nicky Morgan MP notes today: “It would be a fitting way to make the centenary year of some women’s right to vote for this simple change to be made. In fact, it is the least we could do.”

100 years on from the centenary of women’s right to stand, we still lag behind 37 countries when it comes to gender equality in politics. In total, since 1918 there have been just 491 women MPs. What are the roadblocks? Where are parties failing to select women? We can’t wait another hundred years to get to the root causes of the crisis of representation in our politics.

That’s why the Centenary Action Group, the Electoral Reform Society and others are asking women to stand today – and at the same time, urging the government to take action on this symbolic day.

With the encouragement to stand, and action to change the structures of inequality, we can win through deeds and words.

Dr Helen Pankhurst is convenor of the Centenary Action Group #StillMarching. Use the Electoral Reform Society’s tool to write to your MP, urging them to back Section 106

Stylist’s Visible Women campaign aims to raise the profiles of women in politics – and inspire future generations to follow their lead. See more Visible Women stories here

Images: Getty