Emmeline Pankhurst descendent slams ‘appalling’ gender divide in British politics

By Lauren Hirst

Women are still under-represented in most of the world’s parliaments and Greater Manchester constituencies are no exception.  

In the United Kingdom 51% of the population are women yet just over one in five MPs are women.

Currently, in the House of Commons, there are 650 elected MPs of which only 146 of these seats are taken up by women.

Although the 2010 general election returned a higher number of female MPs than any previous general election – until 1987, women had never made up more than 5% of MPs – the UK is still significantly behind the times in comparison with the rest of the world.

Dr. Helen Pankhurst, the great-granddaughter of the leader of the suffragette movement Emmeline Pankhurst and the granddaughter of Sylvia Pankhurst, labelled the level of women MPs in parliament as ‘appalling’.

Dr. Pankhurst said: “The promise to change things and increase women’s representation has been there, but David Cameron’s actions seem to be moving us in the opposite direction.

The Liberal Party’s record is also the worst of the big three in this area – surprising given their liberal credentials.”

According to the Inter Parliamentary Union’s (IPU) July 2012 monitoring report, the UK has the fourteenth highest proportion of women MPs out of the 27 EU member states and the UK parliament is ranked 60th out of 190 countries in the IPU.

Countries such as Vietnam, Ethiopia and even Iraq have a higher proportion of female representation in parliament than the UK who has the same level of women in parliament as Malawi; a country where power cuts and periodically dry taps are the norm.

Regionally the statistics reflect the same trend at national level.

The 2011 census revealed Greater Manchester’s population was made up of 252,600 men and 250,500 women.

Out of the 27 parliamentary constituencies in this area, only 10 of these seats are held by women.

Hazel Blears, MP for Salford and Eccles, said: “It has been heading in the right direction.  In 1951 only 3% of MPs were women – now it is 22%. 

“But for me, that is not enough progress over the space of 60 years.”

She continued: “Labour is doing better than the Tories and Lib Dems. 32% of our MPs are now women, compared to 16% of the Tories and only 12% of the Lib Dems.

“But all political parties need to do more, including Labour.”

Lisa Nandy, MP for Wigan, also believes that the current level of representation is far too low.

She said: “It’s still a very male-dominated environment in Parliament and, although there is a great deal of solidarity amongst women MPs of all parties, it can be daunting and needs to change.”

Ms Nandy, who joined the Labour Party when she was 15, admitted that she has felt a chauvinistic opposition to her presence in parliament before.

She explained: “I think people are often surprised to see young women in politics and it attracts some comment.

“I also think that much of the criticism of female politicians in the media is designed to undermine them.”

“It’s quite common to see women criticised for their appearance, or for being ‘shrill’ or other things that men don’t have to deal with.”

Mrs Blears said she has always been treated fairly but at times has had to work that little bit harder to have her voice heard loud and clear.

She said: “I am the only woman on the Intelligence and Security Committee, but I have not been treated any differently by my male colleagues.”

“Sometimes you have to push a little harder to make your voice heard and to ensure you have a really detailed knowledge of a subject in order to secure people’s respect.” 

The recent cabinet reshuffle resulted in a fall in the level of women involved in government at the highest level, therefore surely now more than ever, the cabinet is perpetuating an unequal society – this is something both Hazel and Lisa agreed with.

Mrs Blears said: “The Government should be leading by example and encouraging businesses and society to follow suit. 

“Of 121 Government ministers, including the Cabinet, whips, Lords in waiting and 13 unpaid positions, 19% are women.”

With the decline in the number of women in the cabinet, could women’s issues be pushed to the sideline?

Ms Nandy said: “I think the reason that the Labour Party gives priority to issues like childcare is because of the presence of women at the top of the Party, like Yvette Cooper and Harriet Harman, who understand the pressures of balancing a career and a family.”

“By contrast, the current Coalition, with its under-representation of women in the Cabinet, has been disastrous for women.”

No one can dispute the fact that society, in both the workplace and at home, has made steps towards equality but Dr Pankhurst claims her ancestor would not be happy at how small those steps have been.

She  said: “They wouldn’t be impressed and nor will our descendents.  Down the line this period of poor representation will, I believe, be in the history books, just as the period before women had the right to vote is in the current books.”

Although the solution to more female representation in parliament cannot be fixed overnight Mrs Blears claims more can be done by the government.

She said: “I think we must ensure that women have the same opportunities as men at all stages of their life. 

“If that is not the case politicians need to take the lead and say ‘This is not on, it is socially unacceptable in the 21st century’.

“Jobs should go to the best person for that job and once equality of opportunity is fully established that person is just as likely to be a woman as it is a man.

Until that point I think a degree of positive discrimination is necessary in certain circumstances.” 

Ms Nandy agreed with her party colleague and said: “I think all women shortlists have been hugely important for the Labour Party and I’m not convinced we’ve yet made enough progress to get rid of them.”

She continued: “We also need to do more to include women in the party at constituency level, so that they become councillors and activists and consider putting themselves forward for parliament.

“The Future Candidates Programme has a strong role to play in this.”


The aspirational target for new public appointments to be held by women by 2015


Of directors in FTSE 100 companies are women 


The highest percentage of female directors in a FTSE 100 company (Diageo Plc)


The average pay gap between men and women in the UK

Statistics from the Home Office and the Female FTSE Report 2012


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Picture courtesy of Incurable Hippie, with thanks.

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