In 2022, The World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index ranked the UK 24th out of 146 countries on the ‘political empowerment’ metric. The ranking is calculated by combining a country’s score on the number of women in serving in their parliament, the number of women in ministerial positions and the number of years out of the last 50 with a female head of state (if it wasn’t immediately obvious, the UK’s rank on that last one really helps the average).
But even so, while we still haven’t got the 50/50 Parliament campaigners desire, the UK ranks favourably among other nations and female representation in Westminster grows with every general election. When we eventually get there we can all give ourselves a big pat on the back and say job done…right?
While measuring progress towards gender-equal parliaments and increasing the number of women leading government departments is undoubtedly important, and these scores are helpful for global comparisons, the challenges women face in British politics will remain even when equal numbers of men and women sit on the green benches.
Analysis has shown that women MPs are more likely to leave Parliament at a younger age and after a shorter tenure than their male counterparts. At the 2019 general election, the average service of a woman MP who chose not to stand again was half that of the male MPs who did the same (9 years vs. 18). Many of these women walking away from politics sooner than they had hoped cited the abuse and the pressure the role put on their family life as contributing factors.
It is with this idea in mind, of wanting to understand more about the experiences and challenges faced by women once they get into Parliament, and how those challenges differ from those faced by their male counterparts, that Savanta recently conducted research among MPs into the culture in Parliament on behalf of the Fawcett Society.
The findings are stark. Seven in ten (69%) women MPs surveyed say they have witnessed sexist behaviour in Parliament in the last five years. This figure is 31 percentage points lower among men (38%). Four in five (82%) women MPs agree the media reports unfairly on MPs based on their personal characteristics (e.g. gender, race, sexuality) and three quarters (73%) agree they do not use social media to speak on certain issues because of the abusive environment online. These figures are 16 and 22 percentage points lower among the men surveyed, respectively.
Women MPs are more likely to disagree than agree that the culture in Parliament is inclusive for people like them (48% disagree, 37% agree). In contrast, more than half of men agree (55%, while 20% disagree). Three in five (62%) women MPs say that the culture in Parliament has a negative impact on how they feel about being an MP, while only a third (34%) of men surveyed say the same.
And it is not just sexism, abuse and culture that make the role challenging. Two thirds (65%) of women MPs say the work/life balance has a negative impact on how they feel about being an MP, while half (51%) say the same about the timing and unpredictability of the parliamentary schedule.
With this context in mind, it is perhaps unsurprising that survey also found women MPs are open to change with the majority (51-76%) supporting each of the 7 reforms tested by the Fawcett Society.
The greatest support among women MPs relates to more help for MPs with caring responsibilities (76%), changing the expenses system so that childcare and staff budgets are reported separately (68%), being able to contribute to committee meetings remotely (66%) and more certainty in the timing of votes and sitting hours (65%).
If we consider gender equality within our legislature to be important – and given Parliament’s job is to represent the people, one would assume achieving a gender balance more akin to the make-up of the UK is important – getting more women in the chamber certainly helps. But solving the issue of recruitment does not singlehandedly solve the issue of retention, and while Parliament alone can do little to change the huge societal shift needed to lessen the disproportionate abuse, online and offline, that women MPs experience, the work of the Fawcett Society based on Savanta’s survey data shows that there are reforms the mother of all parliaments can make to improve the experience of its female representatives and thereby improve our democracy.
Methodology: Savanta interviewed 100 MPs online between 11th May and 25th July 2022. Data were weighted to be representative of the House of Commons by party and region.