Dolly Theis is the Co-Founder of 50:50 Parliament’s #AskHerToStand Campaign. She is completing her PhD at Cambridge University’s MRC Epidemiology Unit and contested Vauxhall in the 2017 general election.
Today marks 104 years since women in the UK won the right to stand for election and become Members of Parliament (MPs). At just one page and 27 words long, the 1918 Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act is the shortest UK statute. I am reminded of Margaret Thatcher’s comment in 1975 when she said, “In politics, if you want anything said, ask a man. If you want anything done, ask a woman.” The Act certainly favours game-changing action over words.
When it comes to female representation, the Conservative Party has much to be proud of. The first woman to take her seat in Parliament was a Conservative (Nancy Astor); the first female Leader of the House of Lords was a Conservative (Baroness Janet Young); and of course, all three female prime ministers have been Conservative (Margaret Thatcher, Theresa May and Elizabeth Truss).
However, progress remains slow. Despite 104 years of women being able to become MPs, only 35 per cent of MPs today are female. If we continue at the current rate of increase, it will take another 50 years before we reach equal representation. So why is this the case?
Occasionally people will say to me, “well maybe women don’t want to be MPs”. I have been involved in campaigns supporting women to become MPs for over 12 years and I can assure everyone who thinks this that there is no problem with finding women interested in politics. They would love nothing more than to become MPs and to spend their lives making the world a better place. No, the real barriers are much more varied. Fortunately, a growing body of research has helped shine a light on them.
Research shows that women are less socialised than men to think of standing for election. When women do consider standing for election, they face more barriers than men. For example, getting selected and elected requires time (largely unpaid) and money. Many women are more time poor than men because of taking on more caring responsibilities and many women earn less than men because of gender pay gap issues and/or unpaid caring responsibilities.
Even when elected, women face more barriers. For a start, MPs are considered officeholders rather than employees so are not eligible for statutory maternity leave. This has led to a hostile culture around MPs taking time off after birth. Conservative MP Siobhan Baillie wrote powerfully about her experience receiving abuse for taking time off after giving birth in May 2020. She only took four weeks.
There are many more reasons why the cards are still stacked disproportionately against women. However, the parties differ considerably when it comes to female representation.
Out of the main political parties, the Conservative Party ranks lowest for female representation. Just 25 per cent of Conservative MPs are female compared to 52 per cent of Labour’s, 64 per cent of the Liberal Democrats’ and 36 per cent of the Scottish National Party’s. There are clear reasons why other parties have fared better when it comes to selecting and electing women.
For example, the Labour Party has used all-women shortlists – a mechanism allowing only women to stand in particular constituencies. Although this is a route that the Conservative Party has purposefully decided not to go down, there are multiple ways that the number of Conservative women being selected and elected could be increased and you can play a vital role.
Studies have shown that on average women need to be asked three times before they seriously consider standing for election and that women are three times more likely than men to consider themselves as completely unqualified to stand. That is why I co-founded the 50:50 Parliament #AskHerToStand campaign, which encourages people to ask incredible women they think would make superb MPs to stand for election.
It has been such a powerful and effective campaign. Every single time we hold an #AskHerToStand event or do media about the campaign we get a spike in the number of women signing up on our website and of people asking women to stand.
Think of the women you know. Which of them would make superb MPs? Have you ever told them you think they would make a brilliant MP and why? And have you ever encouraged them to stand? If you haven’t – do so now! You could be the person who ignites their political journey the helps increase the number of outstanding women in the selection pool.
The Centenary Action Group, a campaign started by Helen Pankhurst to help achieve equal representation in Parliament, has launched a campaign called Women Count which has set the target of achieving equal representation by 2028. As the campaign states, most parties are already selecting candidates for the next election so the next 12 months are crucial for encouraging and actively supporting as many women to stand as possible.
What better way for us all to celebrate this political anniversary than asking incredible women in our lives who we think would bring vitality, vigour and a fresh vision to Parliament to stand for election? By asking three women three times to #SignUpToStand, you play a vital role in the dynamic future of our Parliament and our democracy.