Shortlists and Swagger: What’s behind the glacial progress of women in parliament?

By Laura Jones

It’s possible to detect a certain paucity of ambition in celebrating Britain taking its place as 38th in the global rankings of anything, but something like this was evidenced in the string of headlines last week touting the record breaking achievement of a 32 per cent female parliament. Although this was an improvement on the UK’s previous position at number 47 in the world, leapfrogging past Sudan and landing just south of El Salvador, it leaves us far behind much of Europe. Laura 1

UN Women and Inter-Parliamentary Union Women in Politics: 2017

So even if Theresa May meeting with Arlene Foster, whilst facing criticism from Ruth Davidson, Nicola Sturgeon, Caroline Lucas, Kezia Dugdale and Leanne Wood, must raise a complicated flicker of joy in the stoniest feminist heart, this fast paced movement at the very top masks stalled progress below. 2017 saw just a 3 per cent increase in the number of female MPs compared to 2015. At this rate it will take a further 9 parliaments – 45 years – to reach equality. A look back in history reveals just how shamefully slowly we’ve progressed compared to others – in 1999 we were 25th in the world.

Nor is progress, however incremental, impossible to reverse. In fact, one rung down, this is exactly what has happened. The replacement of Liz Truss and Andrea Leadsom with David Lidington and Michael Gove means that not only has the number of female cabinet ministers dropped, but Theresa May has appointed just one more woman than man called David to her new cabinet. In fact taken together, the Michaels (2) and Daves (4) make up 26 per cent of the cabinet (how do they tell each other apart?), while women (minus Theresa May herself) make up 22 per cent.

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Theresa May has also yet to buck the general global trend of appointing women to what are traditionally (arguably erroneously) seen as ‘soft issue’ portfolios. Britain has never had a female Chancellor of the Exchequer or Secretary of State for Defence, and the only previous female Foreign Secretary, Margaret Beckett, served for just a year.

Why is it that after decades of party leaders professing their commitment to improving the representation of women so little has changed? What is it that prevents women from reaching parliament in equal numbers to their male colleagues? Or, more precisely, what is it that prevents Conservative female MPs from reaching parliament in equal numbers? For while not yet at equality, the Parliamentary Labour Party is currently 45 per cent female, as against the Conservatives 21 per cent. Were Labour’s successes to be replicated across parliament then the UK would sail past Sweden to 6th in the world. A parliament reflecting the Conservatives’ gender balance would be languishing at 84th place, within spitting distance of Saudi Arabia. The problems lie not with the electorate but with the party – in the last election they fielded 29 per cent female candidates, and just 16 per cent of new candidates in marginals were women.

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UN Women and Inter-Parliamentary Union Women in Politics: 2017

According to former Conservative MP Matthew Parris, writing for the Times in 2014, the thing impeding Conservative womens’ political careers is swagger. He describes the process by which Conservative candidates are selected by local party members from a list put forward by CCHQ, at question and answer sessions at which he often acts as moderator. The local members, Parris writes…

“…would like to be impressed by a suitable woman would-be candidate, and are prepared to vote for such a person. Or think they are.

The problem is the template. Women don’t easily fit it. The problem is swagger. Women often lack it. Unconsciously, too many of us — Tories and non-Tories alike — have a subliminal idea of a leading and successful politician, and, let’s face it, he struts…

…Looking at her CV you will see that she can command, manage and decide, and has done: but her manner is not cocky. We need more such people in parliament and in government.”

Something like Parris’ swagger theory has been part of social psychological thought since at least the 1970s. In 1973, American academic Virginia Schein asked 400 managers what qualities they thought successful managers possessed, and whether those qualities were more commonly found in the typical man or woman. They unambiguously associated the same qualities with men and managers, leading her to coin the phrase ‘Think Manager, Think Male’. In the subsequent decades her results have been replicated in countries across the world.

Because of these stereotypes when we come across a woman in a typically male situation (like a parliamentary selection interview) it seems incongruous, and this incongruity leads us to make biased evaluations about their competence. Evidence for this abounds. When musicians are asked to audition behind a curtain female musician’s chances of being selected rise by 50 per cent. When 127 science academics were sent a CV applying for the position of lab manager they were far more inclined to hire John rather than Jennifer, despite their CVs being identical. Students rate online courses much higher when they think they are being taught by men rather than women.

If women do manage to make it into male-dominated professions they are punished far more harshly for their mistakes than male leaders. When asked to rate the competency of a police chief, an aerospace engineer, and a judge, who have made a mistake in the course of their job, people rate those with female names far lower than those with male names. This is something that Diane Abbott, torn to pieces for her disastrous interview with LBC on police figures, might have some sympathy with, especially given that some of her male colleagues have received rather more generous treatment for being less than truthful with their figures – even when printed on a bus. In any case it is clear that the biases described so far apply just as much to BAME candidates of both genders and doubly so for those who, like Dianne Abbott, face multiple intersecting biases.

Nor does it do much good for women to make like men and swagger. In fact there are a number of words for women who swagger, none of them nice. They are cold, unlikeable, nasty women. When two professors gave half their students the case study of a successful venture capitalist Howard, and the other half the case study of Heidi, Howard and Heidi were rated as equally competent, but while Howard was likeable, Heidi was seen as aggressive and unlikeable, despite the only difference between the two being their name. There will be at least two high profile female politicians who won’t be surprised that researchers at Harvard found that voters react negatively towards female (but not male) politicians who they perceive to be overly power-seeking – the ultimate form of swagger.

None of this is particularly controversial or new. When in 2015 David Cameron decried the fact that people with white sounding names were twice as likely to receive interview invitations as those with ethnic sounding names it was exactly this sort of bias that he was referring to. If you work for a university, for Google, for the civil service or any number of companies you’re likely to have undergone some form of ‘unconscious bias’ training course informed by this work, part of a billion dollar industry aimed at levelling the playing field. The problem? It doesn’t work. It turns out that simply telling people about their biases doesn’t stop them falling prey to them. That is why, despite many creditable steps taken by CCHQ to train and mentor female candidates ensuring they make it onto shortlists, the party has only come so far.

So, if this is the diagnosis what is the solution? According to Iris Bohnet, the eminent Harvard economist who has done so much to develop and popularise this sort of work, the only way to prevent biased choices is to eliminate the processes that produce them. In the next blog I’ll write about what we can do to move from Saudi Arabia’s neck of the woods to Sweden’s.

Laura Jones is a Research Assistant at the Policy Institute

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