No Politics, Please ….We’re Women!
Over 90 people attended a Hansard Society meeting in Westminster to discuss a new
briefing based on original Hansard Society research about women's attitudes to
politics. The panel was: Helen Goodman MP (Government Whip), Ros Taylor (The Guardian), Dr Jonathan Dean (Gender Institute, London School of Economics), and Lee Chalmers (the Downing Street Project). The event was chaired by Dr
Sarah Childs (Bristol
Gender Research Paper
Click here to listen to the research paper being discussed on Radio 4's Women's Hour
Audio: Part 1 Dr Sarah Childs, Helen Goodman MP
Part 2 Dr Jonathan Dean, Ros Taylor, Lee Chalmers
Part 3 Questions & Answers
Dr Sarah Childs outlined
the key points of the research which shows that women are disproportionately
less likely to say they are both interested and knowledgeable about politics
than men. In addition, the research shows that while men tend to overestimate
their actual political knowledge, women tend to underestimate how much they
know about politics.
Helen Goodman MP rejected the notion
that women are less interested and knowledgeable about politics. The problem is
that politics has been formed in a male image. Two key differences between the
genders in the way they approach politics are that women's agenda is often
different from men's (for example, women are more interested in health and men
are more interested in the economy) and style (women are not so interested in institutional
Goodman said that in 1997 Labour won because 44% of women voted for them - the
first time that such a large percentage of women voted for Labour. She listed
Labour's achievements which had benefited women, such as the minimum wage, but
acknowledged that the political ‘brand' is still portrayed as a ‘boxing match'
- Brown v Cameron. She emphasised that All Women Shortlists had made a real
difference to women's representation in Parliament - 28% of Labour MPs are
women compared to 16% of Liberal Democrats and 9% of Conservatives.
stressed that women's representation does
matter - women can shift the political agenda and make a difference to the way
in which Parliament works. Furthermore, in constituencies where there is a
woman MP, turnout rises for both women (by 9%) and men (by 5%).
Dr Jonathan Dean welcomed the report
but also disagreed that women are less interested and knowledgeable about
politics than men. He said that he is concerned that women are seen as a
problem group as this distracts attention from the creation and maintenance of
gender hierarchies in our political institutions. He outlined three
institutional obstacles: firstly, institutionalised sexism in political
parties, especially at local level, secondly, the media treatment of women politicians
and thirdly, the myths about women's attitudes to political participation (for
example, that women are fickle, that they are more interested in personalities
than polices and that they need gimmicks to involve them).
pointed out that while there is a gender gap in participation in ‘high'
politics, this gap is much smaller or non-existent, in local or grass roots
activity - but this is too often regarded as not ‘proper politics'. He acknowledged
that these problems are deeply entrenched and hard to legislate against and
called on the media to examine perceptions of politics. The key to change is to
have an open and concerted debate about gender assumptions in public life.
Ros Taylor was dismayed by the
title of the discussion and thought it was too Westminster-focused. We need to
move beyond Westminster.
felt that the key point was not that women actually know less than men about
politics but that they think that
they know less. She puts this down to women being more modest and underestimating
their own knowledge. When it comes to issues such as how education and the
health service works, women often know a very great deal. The problem is that
women confine themselves and this humility means that they are excluded from
many areas of national debate. We need to instigate a culture where women are
more willing to put themselves forward.
her job she finds that women have less time for media self-promotion and don't
submit opinion pieces nearly as often as men. In addition, political coverage
in the media centres on an obsession with factional debate and attempts to
identity rebels so that many important elements (for example Select Committee
reports) are overlooked. She also pointed out that many women journalists are
pushed away from the front line of politics into features.
key conclusion was that we need to be more positive about women's political
Lee Chalmers said that the whole
style of Parliament is set up to accommodate the way that men debate and
although it's true that women don't talk about politics in the same way that
men do, what they can do is make a difference.
asked why, when women often take action at local and national level, more women
don't go into politics? She felt that the answer was one of attitude - women
often have to be asked to stand for office and need to be encouraged to see
themselves as leaders. They need mentors at the earliest stage of political
involvement. She stressed that the concept of leadership is gendered and both
women and men see leaders as being naturally male.
said that women have other hurdles to cross - for example they know that they
will be judged by their looks and appearance in ways that men are not.
Chalmers also asked why any of this matters. She stressed that making
representation equal was important; it's not the whole story. She feels that men and women reason in a
different manner - men in a linear manner and women in a more ‘holistic' way. The world has complex problems and linear
thinking has not solved these problems. Women must take a step into leadership
roles because it's essential to utilise your entire nation, not just one half
of it. Progress is slow and we must look at how to speed up the process.
The panel then responded to questions from the audience.