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Why is Westminster still a rich man's world?
Although the number of women in Westminster is at a record high, women are still outnumbered by men by more than two to one. Many reasons have been put forward for this imbalance. Some blame a lack of supply, claiming there aren’t enough high quality women who are willing to do the job. This smacks a bit of victim-blaming, but also acknowledges that women shoulder a disproportionate burden of caring responsibilities while men receive more opportunity and encouragement to engage in public life. Meanwhile, plenty of scholarly research indicates that the bigger problem lies with demand – access to politics is controlled by men in safe seats and their (male) cronies who are groomed as their successors.
Less attention is placed upon the actual costs of running, and how these may be gendered. But the bottom line is that, in many cases, it is more costly for women than men to run for office; they are less likely to be rewarded at the end with a seat in parliament; and the barriers are more likely to prove insurmountable.
The first of these costs is money. Here I am not referring to official election expenses, which are declared and reimbursed. Rather, there are many hidden costs associated with being a candidate. These costs include travel to and within the constituency, accommodation costs, clothes, meals, drinks, tickets to events, raffle tickets, phone calls, leaflets for selections, attending conference, campaigning for the party in by-elections etc. The longer the time from selection to election, the higher the cost, yet some parties are already selecting their candidates for the next election, scheduled more than four years away. As women typically have less disposable income than men, these costs are harder for women to meet.
Perhaps the biggest financial cost of all comes in the form of lost earnings. Candidates have to devote considerable time to working a constituency just to get selected, and are then expected to campaign at least part-time (and often full-time) from the moment of selection. It becomes impossible to combine being a candidate with paid employment. Candidates rely on private wealth, savings and debt to see them through. The less money they have to begin with, the more daunting a prospect this becomes.
Related to this is the cost of sacrificing an alternative career, because running for parliament is all-consuming and prevents progression in any other career. If you win a safe seat, you are handsomely compensated for this sacrifice. But most women are contesting marginal or unwinnable seats where they risk paying all the costs of a broken career with little or no return on their investment. This is particularly penalising if they also need to take career breaks to raise children. For many candidates, the only solution is to pursue a politics-related career (resulting in career politicians), or a form of self-employment that pays well. This results in a plethora of barristers and a shortage of people drawn from outside the “Westminster bubble”.
Alongside the more monetary costs, running for office also has a huge impact on family life. In my interviews so far with candidates, the responses on this issue have been very gendered. Men might regret the impact on their wives and speak of their wives’ reluctance or sacrifice, but usually only when prompted, and the cost is seen as necessary and accepted. Being absent from children is likewise regretted, but only fleetingly. Conversely, women are much more concerned about the impact on their partners and especially on their children. Some spoke of the constant guilt about being away from their kids; some spoke of the worry about the impact on their children of having a parent in the public eye and the risk of repercussions for their children; some spoke of the discrimination they faced from within the party when they could not make themselves available 24/7 due to childcare responsibilities. Childcare costs were also a bigger factor for women, as they were less likely to have a partner who was the primary caregiver.
Motherhood also seems to be the biggest source of discrimination against female candidates. Young women have faced (illegal) questions about whether they were planning to have children; women who did have children were punished for doing so; women (but not men) faced questions about childcare during selection panels; single mothers had a particular struggle. Some women waited until their children were older and then felt that they had left it too late. But for those who pursued politics and did not have children, there was a stigma attached to being childless. These problems have been central themes for many of the women that I have interviewed, while they barely registered on most men’s radar.
Another issue that appears to affect women much more than men is abuse on social media. Partisan-related abuse affects candidates of both sexes, but only women have to deal with misogynistic abuse and rape threats. In the wake of the murder of Jo Cox, it is impossible to ignore threats of violence, and these can cause real anxiety and distress to women candidates. Sadly, this is a problem that only gets worse for women who succeed in getting elected.
The battles faced by any woman running for office are significant. They are all the greater for women who also face hurdles based on their ethnicity, (dis)ability, sexual orientation and/or gender identity. Parties speak enthusiastically about wanting to increase diversity and be more representative of society, but they struggle to tackle the huge barriers faced by candidates who do not reproduce the status quo. So they encourage people from diverse backgrounds to run, but then leave them high and dry when the money or opportunities run out. Many candidates are left bankrupt. Yet it is seen as problematic to give candidates financial support. The public don’t want to foot the bill as they are unaware of the financial barriers to running for office; there is a stigma attached to financial need that deters candidates from asking for help; and there is an expectation that if you are good enough for the job, you will be able to mobilise the resources that you need. There is a certain mentality that “if you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen” that creates a real barrier for those who don’t come from privilege. But unless we can fix the problem of access to politics, it will remain primarily the preserve of wealthy male career politicians without caring responsibilities. And that can’t be good for representation.
Rainbow Murray is Professor of Politics at Queen Mary University of London. She tweets @RainbowMurray.
Image: Felix Garcia Vila CC BY-NC-ND