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The Rise of Women in Politics

The Rise of Women in Politics

The creation, development and implementation of policy is something that effects everyone. However, throughout history, women have been underrepresented throughout a majority of the process. Before 1918, women weren’t allowed to take part in the democratic process which would decide who would govern the country. It was the Representation of People Act 1918 that originally gave women the suffrage they’d campaigned for and it later allowed them to run for parliamentary positions.

Great Britain’s parliament was formed in 1707 but it wasn’t until 1918 when a woman was first elected into the House of Commons as an MP. Another 50 years saw Britain welcome its first and only elected female Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher (Theresa May wasn’t elected in a General Election). However, despite huge gains over the past century, women are still suffering from a misrepresentation throughout politics.

In today’s government there are 192 female MPs, a 28% increase since 2010’s parliament. While this shows growth on 1979’s 19, it still means that female MPs only make up 29% of parliament.

The misrepresentation is clearly present, as women have become increasingly apathetic when it comes to turning up at the polls. A study carried out by the House of Commons library showed that 9.1 million female voters were absent from the 2010 general election compared to 8 million men (33%). In 1992, there were more female voters than men, but since then that number has seen in decline. This could be linked to a lack of representation and female voters could feel increasingly disenfranchised.

Commenting on the statistic Harriet Harman said:

“Politics is every bit as important and relevant to the lives of women as it is to men.”

“Politics is every bit as important and relevant to the lives of women as it is to men.”

Harriet Harman

The amount of missing female voters could indicate that a lack of local representation is driving women away from the polls. In the 2015 election, 26% of all candidates across the UK were female, this shows a staggering increase in the candidate pool especially since the 2010 figures were as low as 5%. While female candidates are still a minority, this increase to over a quarter of all candidates in just one term is a huge step in the right direction and could help drive female voters back to the polls. 

Females in Politics since 1918

Females in Politics since 1918

Figures are similar when broken down to a regional level with London having the highest amount of female candidates (30%) while eastern England had the lowest (21%). After the 2015 election, the UK was positioned in 36th place in global rankings for women’s representation. This position sees the UK lagging behind many European, African and South American countries, including current leaders Rwanda.

The causes for a deficit in women’s representation throughout the political sphere has been given a plethora of causes. In Meryl Kenny’s article she explains that some have suggested that the problem is one of supply and demand and others have suggested there may be an underlying discrimination towards particular types of candidates.

Supply and Demand

There are arguments to be made that the problem doesn’t lie with women being unwilling to engage within politics, but instead the central issue lies within the political parties. Meryl Kenny suggests that the lack of candidates could stem from the parties themselves:

“Party demand shapes supply.”

“Party demand shapes supply.”

Dr. Meryl Kenny,
Lecturer in Gender & Poliitics,
The University of Edinburgh

Formally there are no qualifications necessary to become an MP, however it’s no secret that parties usually look for informal qualifications such as: party service, resources and experience. With a smaller rate of engagement from women throughout politics, it could be harder for potential candidates to meet these requirements.

However, David Cameron’s resignation presented Conservative party’s Theresa May and Andrea Leadsom as potential leaders with opponents like Boris Johnson falling by the wayside. For the first time in the history of British politics, a party had to choose between two women for leadership of the party and therefore, Prime Minister.  

Unfortunately, women within the 4 ‘Great Offices of State’ are still a rarity that an archetype of the right winged women in power has been created in the form of Margaret Thatcher. May herself has proven to be a powerful role model for women with a long career that saw her move from the position of Minister for Women and Equalities to the Home Secretary before becoming the fourth women to ever hold one of the Great Offices of State. While she may have made some questionable decisions, she is the longest serving Home Secretary in over 60 years and has been referred to by Kenneth Clarke as a “Bloody difficult woman.”

Under Theresa May’s government, women have seen an increase in representation throughout parliament, the cabinet currently has 8 female ministers (including May) which makes up 33% of the secretarial roles. This is the highest number of women to occupy these positions at one time, equalling the figures from Tony Blair’s 2006 cabinet reshuffle.

Prime Minister Number of Women in Cabinet
Theresa May
David Cameron
Gordon Brown
Tony Blair
Margaret Thatcher

Within the Conservative party, the number of female MPs has seen a 423% increase throughout Theresa May’s career. When May first entered parliament in 1997, there were just 13 female MPs while the 2015 General Election saw this figure increase to 68. However, commenting on the representation of women throughout the Conservative party, Tory peer Baroness Jenkins suggesting more can be to done to encourage women into politics:

“We are bad at headhunting women, bad at supporting them and our associates are not good at picking them.”

“We are bad at headhunting women, bad at supporting them and our associates are not good at picking them.”

Baroness Jenkins

Theresa May has spent much of her career trying to help female candidates. In 2005, she helped set up Women2Win, which aims to increase the number of Conservative MPs in Parliament by identifying, training and mentoring political talent. Many of the women currently sat in May’s own cabinet, Amber Rudd, Justine Greening and Karen Bradley were all helped by the service in one way or another.

When it comes to increasing representation throughout Parliament, should political parties choose a female candidate over a male one? No, the party has a duty to itself and the electorate to put forward the best candidates for each constituency. While it is important to ensure that the candidacy is diverse and represents the diverse community of Britain, it is constituencies that will give parties a majority so they need to ensure that any candidates can win the seat they’re running for.

That being said there are talented female candidates across the political spectrum and with career driven role models occupying some of the most powerful positions throughout the country, there are plenty of role models to prove that women belong in politics.

Implementing Policy

Parliament isn’t the only way that women have been able to affect the policies and laws that affect the country, the policy industry is fast-paced by nature and those in the industry must be able to react to legislative changes as they happen.

Jessica Kavanagh

Jessica Kavanagh – Associate Director, Murray McIntosh

We spoke to Jessica Kavanagh, one of the associate directors at Murray McIntosh to gain an insight into how women are represented throughout the Policy industry.

Are women represented throughout every stage of the Policy industry?

The Policy industries have a healthy talent pool of women. However as with every other industry, despite being well represented at junior and mid-level positions, women are under-represented at the top echelons.

Is there is a lack of representation at the top levels, are the rates for progression equal?

It’s a tough question, the facts would say there’s not. However, from personal experience across my specific client base and interactions within the industry, I’d say the playing field is fairly well-balanced.

It’s hard to generalise throughout the industry in general because it varies with every organisation. Many membership bodies promote a work/life balance for employees, making it easier for women to carry on progressing through their careers after having children.

Are there any groups working to help increase female representation at the top levels?

Networking groups such as ‘Women in Public Affairs’ have helped provide a greater understanding of the wider issue. The group share experiences and offer advice to help increase the number of women in the top positions.

With more men in more senior positions, are certain roles more suitable for men?

My initial reaction is no and as a general rule I would stand by that answer. However, could certain policy areas be more suited? It would be interesting to gauge the market on this point; would certain stereotypes prevail?

How is the future of the Policy perceived in regards to the male to female ratio?

I believe it would be perceived as equal, especially since one of the main topics throughout all industries is about equal opportunities. It would be hypocritical if this wasn’t reflected in the organisations writing that policy.

How will the appointment of Theresa May increase the amount of women in the industry?

It is fantastic that we have our second female Prime Minister and in the short term this should increase interest and engagement in all industries relating to politics. She has also appointed more female members to the ‘top jobs’ in her cabinet than any Tory leader which can hopefully show that women can thrive in a career in politics.


Kate Shoesmith

Kate Shoesmith – Head of Policy, REC

Alongside Jessica, we also spoke to Kate Shoesmith, Head of Policy at REC the industry body for the Recruitment industry. With a career that places her with a unique look at how careers in the Policy industry can progress for men and women.

How would you look to encourage more women into political careers?     

One of the things that our members have noticed is that young people are not always prepared for the world of work. As a company, we have been working to address this by giving recruiters and our own employees the tools to lead careers advice and information sessions within schools, colleges and universities. I participate in this on a personal level too and volunteer to give talks to young people on my own career path and what my job involves.

What more can others be doing to encourage this?

Recruiter can sign up to the REC’s Youth Employment Charter to make more active contributions to the careers advice and guidance on offer to young people. People from all industries can also get involved in Inspiring the Future and Inspiring Women.

What may be discouraging women from working in this sector?

In my role, I come across a lot of women working in Policy and Public Affairs. Once you are in the industry, you can see the opportunities this type of career can bring. But when I was in school I didn’t know a job like mine even existed. I think one of the biggest barriers to break is ensuring young people have an awareness of the types of jobs in the Policy and Public Affairs sector.

Do you think Theresa May becoming a female Prime Minister will have any effect?

I grew up at a time when there was a female Prime Minister so perhaps that did influence some of my generation. Maybe Theresa May will influence a whole new generation as well, but I think the key is to ensure that we have diversity at all levels within the policy making process. That’s how to effect real change.


Lauren Alewood

Lauren Alewood – Senior Consultant, Murray McIntosh

Policy specialist, Lauren Alewood was able to give her unique perspective on women in the industry and the struggles that both Lauren and the women she works with face within the Policy sector.

Is there anything you think may be discouraging women from pursuing this line of work?

As with any other profession or sector that has faced the same question, women who do get to the top face more public exposure and therefore scrutiny. This should not be the case and the way we discuss women in public life needs to change.

What actions can we take to encourage more women into Policy?

Though some actions have already been taken, such as reforms around childcare, it is important that we continue to push for diversity and inclusion. As with the above question, perceptions need to change. If anything, this should encourage women into policy- who better to drive these changes than women themselves?


In 2015, more female MPs were elected than in 2010 so it’s clear that in terms of representation things are moving the right way. However, these MPs only make up 29% of parliament. There are plenty of talented women working throughout the entire Policy sector in both the private and public sector and while gender should not be the important factor, we need people from all walks of life helping shape policy and legislation to really represent the needs of our society and economy.


© 2016 Murray McIntosh.

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