Ask Her to Stand: What's stopping women becoming MPs?

By Lauren Turner
BBC News

media captionWomen MPs and peers read the Qualification of Women Act for Newsnight.

It's been 100 years since women first gained the right to stand for election to the House of Commons.

The very first female MP to take up her seat was Nancy Astor, after winning a by-election in December 1919. Labour MP Diane Abbott was the first black woman elected to Parliament in the UK.

In the past century, there have only been 491 female MPs - while 4,503 male MPs have been elected in that same time.

To try to redress the balance - and celebrate the centenary of the Qualification of Women Act - the 50:50 Parliament campaign brought hundreds of women to Westminster on Wednesday to give them a taste of political life.

image captionNancy Astor was the first woman to take up her seat as an MP

MPs asked female constituents to come to Westminster for the #AskHerToStand event, aimed at encouraging them to put themselves forward to become MPs.

But what are the barriers that stop women from wanting to do that? We spoke to three who took part.

'It's never felt relatable'

image source, Caroline Lucas

Elaine Ortiz, 33, originally from Manchester and living in Brighton, shadowed her MP, the Green Party's Caroline Lucas.

Ms Ortiz, director of refugee charity the Hummingbird Project, said: "Politics is something I'm really interested in personally but would have no idea how to get into. So events like this make it much more accessible.

"It's never felt very relatable to me, as a working-class woman from Manchester. It's felt like it's for highly-educated people from a higher class.

"And it's always felt very male-dominated, both the House of Commons and House of Lords."

She wants more education about getting women into politics.

"Even though I went to an all-girls' school, we didn't have anything on the curriculum about politics," she said. "Education from a young age is really important.

"Recently I've been looking to do a course. I'm not in a position to do a masters so I looked for a short course, but there's nothing."

She is five months pregnant, and has already named her daughter Emmeline, after suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst, who was also born in Manchester.

"I don't know how possible it would be with a child," she added. "So it might not be for me right now, but definitely further down the line."

'You have to be bolshie'

image source, Office of Graham Stuart
image captionConnie Walker: 'Politics is not an environment that would typically welcome women'

Connie Walker, a teacher from Beverley, East Yorkshire, shadowed her MP Graham Stuart, a Conservative for Beverley and Holderness, for the day.

"I'd say politics is something I've been considering," said the 28-year-old. "But it's not that easy to be able to access opportunities to get involved.

"It seems you have to dedicate your life to it to become an MP - it's all or nothing. Today has totally opened my eyes to the opportunities there are."

So what has stopped her finding out more before now?

"I think potentially the nature of the role," she said. "It seems you have to be quite forward, or bolshie - you have to have very thick skin. Women can have that, but perhaps not the same aggression men can have.

"It's not an environment that would typically welcome women and I think that's put us off.

"But things like today give us confidence we could do this, and that politics needs people like us. I didn't really know where to start before. It's difficult if you don't know someone already.

"It helps there's more awareness and there are networks being developed."

She's now thinking of standing as a councillor locally.

"I'd always thought it would be too time-consuming, having a full-time job as well," she said. "But there are ways you can balance it."

'You wouldn't run a business like that'

image source, Amanda Carpenter
image captionAmanda Carpenter says women want to work together

Amanda Carpenter, from Tonbridge in Kent, was invited by MP Tom Tugendhat, and said: "I have thought about standing but I've never been brave enough to take the plunge. Things have got in the way, like work and motherhood.

"But now I'm in my early 50s and I've got a bit of time, because I do feel it has a massive impact on your life and it's a huge commitment. Standing for election is a very time-consuming business."

Asked what else has put her off, she replied: "I think politics has become very divisive in the past couple of years and other women I've spoken to feel the same. We feel politically homeless. There's so much tribalism, but women want to work together.

"Watching PMQs earlier, it felt a really aggressive process with a lot of shouting. Women shout as much as the men, but I don't think it's very constructive."

image source, Uk Parliament/Jessica Taylor
image captionThe PM led women from both Houses in May to mark the centenary of the Representation of the People Act

"None of us would run a business like that and if you behaved like that in school you'd get sent out of class. It's not a good way to get work done," she adds.

"It puts women off, as they think 'I don't want to be part of the bear pit'. But if women don't get in to politics, we aren't able to change that - you have to fight from within."

Ms Carpenter, who runs a sustainability consultancy, also suggested bringing the political day more into line with regular business hours would make it work better for women, as she said the current system "alienates people".

She also said women could be put off by abuse, especially on social media.

"We're less kind to each other - and we need to bring that back to the political sphere," she said. "We need to take more responsibility for each other."

What are politicians saying about it?

  • Prime Minister Theresa May said: "I think we should send a very, very clear message, from everybody across this house, about the significance of the work that an individual Member of Parliament does and the change they can make for their community. It's a great job and I encourage all the women who are here today and thinking of standing to stand for Parliament, get elected, and make a difference."
  • Labour's shadow minister for women and equalities Dawn Butler said: "While there have been welcome steps forward - like turning one of the Parliamentary estate bars into a crèche - there are many obstacles standing in the way of women standing to become an MP." She said these include there being no formal parental leave arrangements and the fact that the threat of online abuse can discourage women and said these issues needed to be tackled now
  • Several senior politicians signed a letter urging the government to enact Section 106 of the Equality Act (2010), that would ensure parties reported their gender gap among election candidates.

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