42% of women wouldn’t get involved in public life because they’re “not that type of person”. But why can’t “that type of person” be an ordinary woman?
Here’s a head-scratcher for you: would you ever stand for parliament?
If your automatic response to that question was a snort and a ‘no chance’, you’re not alone. According to new research conducted by BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour, just 10% of women would consider getting involved in public life in any formal way, such as running for election as an MP or local councillor.
The figures make for startling and sobering reading, but they capture something I’ve long suspected. Many UK women would love to see more gender diversity in public life, particularly in positions of political power. But far, far, far fewer women are prepared to actually put themselves out there. Why are we so reticent, when we’re generally so confident about pursuing what we want in our careers, our friendships, our education, our relationships?
Over the last couple of years, online abuse has frequently been singled out as a major factor deterring women from politics, particularly women from marginalised groups. Female MPs from all parties – including Diane Abbott, Ruth Davidson, Jess Phillips, Jo Swinson, Anna Soubry and Caroline Lucas – have spoken out about the harassment they receive on platforms such as Twitter. Prime Minister Theresa May, meanwhile, has highlighted the problem of social media misogyny as a threat to democracy itself, and called on social media companies to do more to address the problem.
But while concerns about online abuse are far from unfounded, the threat of being trolled doesn’t seem to be what’s putting many ordinary women off getting involved in public life – at least, not consciously. Just 4% of women polled by Woman’s Hour cited fears about personal abuse or threats as a reason for why they wouldn’t stand for a public position.
More than 10 x that amount (43%), in contrast, attributed their reluctance to get involved to something much simpler: that they’re just “not that type of person”.
This, I think, is very telling, and I wish we had the ability to ask these women what exactly they mean. Are they too shy? Do they hate confrontation? Do they think they’re not tough enough, to paraphrase Ed Miliband? Do they doubt they could sit through a single PMQs without yelling at everyone to shut the f**k up? Are there too many dodgy drunk photos of them on Facebook? Are they working-class or disabled or fat or black or brown or Muslim or LGBTQ+ or a mixture of several of those identities? Are they mothers? Did they study a creative subject at university, and think politics is only open to those who read PPE at Oxbridge? Did they leave school at 16? In other words, what “type of person” do they think has the right to get involved in public life, and just what is it about them that makes them think: that’s not for the likes of me?
I’ve got a pretty good idea. Despite the fact that there are more female MPs than ever before, as well as increasing numbers of senior women in high-profile public leadership positions, our ideas of power are still heavily influenced by traditional ideas of masculinity. The traits we typically associate with leadership and value in leaders – forcefulness, dominance, toughness – tend to be profoundly coded as male, yet they are not qualities that society generally appreciates in women.
As a result, women in the public eye find themselves walking a near-impossible tightrope: be tough, but caring; charming but not conceited; well-informed but not a know-it-all; likeable, but not desperate to please. We saw this bind in action in the 2016 US presidential election, as Hillary Clinton – an eminently qualified and capable woman who rubbed some people the wrong way – lost to a racist, misogynistic, arrogant, inexperienced bully and liar.
Is it any wonder that ordinary women look at all the plates that must be spun in the air at once if they want to succeed in public life and decide that actually, they’d rather not go through all that?
It’s important, too, to think about class, race and career background, and how these might be influencing women’s perceptions of who deserves to hold public office. Things are improving – there are now more BAME and state-educated MPs than ever before – but more than half of May’s current cabinet, not including the PM herself, went to private or grammar school and graduated from Oxbridge. Home secretary Sajid Javid is the only non-white member of cabinet, while just four out of 22 cabinet ministers are women.
There’s also the fact that many MPs came from political backgrounds even before they were elected: according to research by Channel 4, almost 20% of current MPs had worked in politics before last year’s general election (compared to 14% who had a background in business, 11% who worked in the legal profession and just 0.8% who’d been social workers). The prevailing image of the British political class is still that of a white, middle- or upper-class man who has dedicated much, if not all, of his life to a career in politics. This is bound to deter people who are none of those things.
If we want more women of all backgrounds to consider pursuing a role in the public eye, we need to reshape how we see and what we expect from powerful people. We must stop judging women leaders against outdated, macho criteria, and start celebrating what they can bring to the table – whether that’s life experience, communication skills or something else entirely. (Think about how powerful it was when MPs Heidi Allen and Jess Phillips recently shared their own stories of having had terminations during a Commons debate on abortion.) In a recent interview with stylist.co.uk, Bishop Sarah Mullally – the first female bishop of London – summed this thinking up.
“As women I think we need to ask: OK, what skills do I bring? What gifts do I bring and therefore how do I inhabit this role differently?” she said. “It’s vital to not try and pretend to be anybody else because, actually, that’s when we fail. When we are asked or appointed to a role it is because they’re asking us to bring what we’re good at and the skills that we’ve got.”
We also need to continue to raise the profiles of women who might not seem like the “type of person” you’d traditionally expect to see in Westminster. Women like Liberal Democrat MP Layla Moran, a former science teacher who ran on fighting education funding cuts, or the Conservatives’ Nusrat Ghani, who worked for Age UK and Breakthrough Breast Cancer before becoming the first Muslim woman minister to speak from the Commons dispatch box. Women like the SNP’s Hannah Bardell, an ex-TV producer who has been open about her experience of coming out in the public eye; like Labour MP Dawn Butler, born in east London to immigrant parents from Jamaica; and like Rosie Duffield, a single mother who left school at 16 and went on to successfully stand for election after being backed by 50:50 Parliament.
A successful modern democracy needs all kinds of voices, not just the ones that have always been heard. If you’re convinced that you’re not the “type of person” who could get involved in public life, you could do worse than heeding the advice Chi Onwurah gave me earlier this year.
“Always remember you have something amazing to contribute – your experience, your views, your life,” said the MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central. “Those – generally men – who take up all the political airtime, they have no better right to speak than you and very often less to say of any use! Speak for yourself, and for all those whose voices need to be heard.
“If women are not in the room when decisions are made, women will always be disadvantaged. And if we are disadvantaged the whole of humanity loses out.”
Images: Getty Images / Bishop of London