Despite gains in May's General Election, women remain heavily under-represented in British politics. Meryl Kenny examines the evidence and asks if the time has come for gender quotas to deliver real change.


In many ways the 2015 General Election was a return to the norm: a one-party government led by Conservatives. The results for women, however, were historic. An unprecedented high of 191 women MPs (29 per cent) were elected to the House of Commons on 7 May, an increase of 48 from the immediate post-2010 election results. At one stage during the summer, five of Britain's main political parties were led by women – including interim party leaders Harriet Harman (Labour) and Sal Brinton (Liberal Democrats).

But while the gains made in women's representation at Westminster are to be welcomed, women continue to be under-represented at all levels of British politics. Women are more than half of the population, but less than a third of MPs, 41 per cent of UK MEPs, 34 per cent of MSPs, 42 per cent of AMs, and 19 per cent of MLAs. The 2015 election results put the UK in only 36th place worldwide for women's representation, lagging behind several of its European counterparts, as well as many African and Latin American countries – including the world leader, Rwanda (which has 64 per cent women in its Chamber of Deputies).

This article evaluates the lessons learned from the 2015 Election, as well as the future prospects and actions needed for further progress on women's political representation in British politics. It argues that despite the gains made in 2015, there is a still significant distance to travel before we reach equal representation in Britain, and that further increases are unlikely without greater commitment by all of the parties and without the use of strong equality measures.


The ‘Problem’ of Women's Under-Representation

What explains the continuing democratic deficit of women's representation in UK politics? The causes have been well-studied, with some scholars attributing women's low election rates to problems of supply, focusing on the question of who decides to run for office, while others highlight issues of party demand, focusing on whether parties discriminate against particular types of candidates (Norris and Lovenduski2005). Those who advocate supply-side explanations suggest that the social bias evident in most legislatures simply reflects the supply of applicants aspiring to a political career – with women less likely to run for office than men. This line of argument is frequently used by political parties, who often claim that they would like to select more women, but that not enough are coming forward. The underlying implication here is that the ‘problem’ lies with women – women have to decide to run – and ‘softer’ equality promotion measures such as training sessions or financial assistance should theoretically encourage them to do so in greater numbers.

In Britain, however, research overwhelmingly demonstrates that the central issue is one of demand rather than supply – in other words, women aren't the problem, parties are. Several studies have found evidence of well-entrenched gender bias in British party politics, including widespread incidences of direct and indirect discrimination by party selectors towards women candidates, ranging from gendered assumptions regarding women's traditional roles to explicit sexual harassment (see for example Lovenduski 2005). This is not to suggest that supply-side factors aren't still important in explaining women's political under-representation, but rather to highlight, first, that party demand shapes supply. While there are no standard or universally recognised qualifications to be selected as a candidate, formal and informal requirements such as party service, resources, and experience influence who decides to run for office and shape the supply of candidates along gendered lines (which may also result in women ‘self-selecting’ themselves out of the process due to anticipated failure or perceived discrimination). And, second, even if there are gender imbalances in the eligibility pool for public office, there are generally sufficient numbers of women candidates to be selected for winnable seats if parties chose to do so. Indeed, when parties are required to select women – through measures such as gender quotas – they usually manage to find that they had women who'd been willing to stand all along. Both Wales and Scotland, for example, managed to find women to stand for election to the new devolved institutions, achieving record levels of women's representation in 1999 and 2003. Problems of supply are, therefore, easier to overcome when party demand increases.


The 2015 General Election: Cracks in the Glass Ceiling?

In the UK, the use of voluntary gender quotas by the Labour party in the form of all-women shortlists (AWS) for Westminster elections from 1997 onwards has had a clear impact on headline figures (see figure 1). With regards to the 2015 General Election, all three of the largest political parties in the new House of Commons – the Conservatives, Labour, and the SNP – saw increases in the number and proportion of women MPs elected. Labour continues to lead on women's representation at Westminster, with 99 women elected in 2015 (43 per cent of the parliamentary party), due in large part to the continuing use of all-women shortlists. For gender quotas to work effectively, they must not only stipulate that more women be selected, but must also ensure that parties are running them in seats that they actually have a chance of winning. In the case of Labour, only 34 per cent of its candidates overall were women, but the party ran the majority of these candidates (53 per cent) in winnable seats. This meant that the party was able to increase its number of female MPs despite a poor performance at the polls. In contrast, the Conservatives only ran 26 per cent women candidates UK-wide, and were much less likely to run these women in winnable seats than Labour. While the Tories saw more women elected to their benches than in 2010 – rising from 49 to 68 – these women are still only 21 per cent of their parliamentary party.

Figure 1. Number of female MPs 1945–2015, by party (click on image to enlarge)


Women are also 20 of the 56-strong SNP group in the House of Commons (36 per cent), a significant increase from 2010 when the party had only one woman MP. This increase is largely the result of the SNP electoral surge – the party selected 21 women out of 59 candidates in 2015 (36 per cent), and all but one of these women were elected (SNP candidate Emma Harper lost to the lone Scottish Conservative MP David Mundell). But the increase in the proportion of SNP women candidates and MPs also reflects a potential step-change in a party that has traditionally been seen to have a ‘problem’ with women. Some of this change has been driven from the top-down, with First Minister and SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon making powerful symbolic statements on women's representation, including her appointment of a 50/50 cabinet, and her support for the Scottish campaign group Women 50:50. But there also significant changes within the party coming from the bottom-up, including a huge growth in membership and the entrance of grassroots activists from groups like Women for Independence into parliamentary politics.

In terms of the remaining parties, after an electoral wipe-out, there are no women Liberal Democrat MPs remaining, nor does the DUP have any women MPs. The one Green MP elected is a woman (Caroline Lucas), and, in Wales, Plaid Cymru elected its first woman MP (Liz Saville Roberts). The remaining two women MPs were elected in Northern Ireland: Margaret Ritchie (SDLP) and Sylvia Hermon (Independent).


Following the Evidence: The Case for Gender Quotas in British Politics

Does the 2015 General Election represent a breakthrough for women in British politics? The new House of Commons looks significantly different than it did in 2010, with substantially more women on the benches, as well as a record number of black and minority ethnic MPs. But, there is little room for complacency – women's representation at Westminster continues to fall well short of parity and without active intervention by all of the parties, gains in women's representation will likely continue to be slow and incremental. Globally, the UK has been overtaken on women's representation by countries using ‘fast track’ equality measures – usually in the form of legal or constitutional gender quotas. And while Labour continues to prop up the numbers, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats still lag behind on women's representation, repeatedly raising the possibility of introducing gender quotas only to not follow through. There have been some recent promising developments in the SNP around women's representation – including the Party Conference's backing of the ability to set all-women shortlists – though plans to implement these measures are already facing backlash from some members in the run-up to the 2016 Scottish Parliament elections.


All of this suggests that the prospect of equal representation in British politics cannot rest solely on political will and individual party champions. Stronger equality measures are needed. Yet, the debate over quotas in the UK continues to be marginal – in that it has largely taken place within the parties and until recently, only to any effect within Labour – and parochial and non-scientific – in that it has refused to follow the global evidence. Quotas also remain controversial – surveys have repeatedly demonstrated that voters are opposed to gender quotas (including all-women shortlists), while quota opponents usually advance a set of well-worn criticisms against their use (they are un-democratic, they discriminate against men, they promote ‘unqualified’ women politicians, and so on). Such claims are usually un-founded – there is no evidence, for example, to support the assumption that men are ‘naturally’ better at politics than women. Indeed, analysis of Labour's AWS candidates indicates that while voters may dislike quotas, they do not punish quota women at the ballot box; quota women are as equally qualified for political office as their colleagues; and quota women MPs have equally successful career trajectories (Allen et al2014). It is time, then, for political parties to engage with this evidence and lead, rather than follow, public opinion on the issue.

This is not to suggest that quotas are a ‘cure-all’ for women's under-representation; as already highlighted, they need to be appropriately designed and effectively implemented and enforced in order to make a difference, otherwise parties will find ways to get around them. They also don't in themselves remove all obstacles to women's political participation; they need to be situated within a wider strategy aimed at reforming recruitment and selection practices, targeting sexist attitudes, and changing institutional cultures and processes. But, the continuing exclusion of women from British politics is a serious democratic deficit that demands action – the time has come to consider legislative quotas for women in order to deliver real change.



Suggested Reading

  • Allen, PeterCutts, David, and Rosie Campbell (2014) ‘Measuring the Quality of Politicians Elected by Gender Quotas – Are They Any Different?’, Political Studies.
  • Dahlerup, Drude (ed) (2006Women, Quotas and PoliticsLondon: Routledge.
  • Lovenduski, Joni (2005Feminizing PoliticsCambridge: Polity Press.
  • Norris, Pippa and Joni Lovenduski (1995Political Recruitment: Gender, Race and Class in the British ParliamentCambridge: Cambridge University Press.