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Women Must Be Part of a Better Future

Submitted by on 26 Jul 2011 – 11:32

Baroness Mary T. GoudieBaroness Mary T. Goudie

Women comprise 51 percent of Britain’s population, but only 22 percent of each house of Parliament. Women are central to Britain’s economy and future. Two-thirds of Britain’s mothers work outside the home, while caring for children, but still earn less than men. Women live longer and often must care for ailing parents and spouses.

Given the scope and nature of the challenges faced by Britain, we need more women in Parliament and in government. Research done around the world shows that women decision makers make a difference. Of course, women elected officials do not all share the same views. However, more than 90 percent of respondents in a survey of women Parliamentarians done by the Inter Parliamentary Union said that women legislators bring different views and perspectives to the policy making process, and that they bring women’s concerns and perspectives to that process.

This is not to say that women have a better perspective – but bring a different one based on life experiences, roles and responsibilities – and we need to take all of these perspectives into account as we consider and enact policies. Globally, research shows that women in Parliaments have been at the forefront of efforts to combat gender-based violence and have been instrumental in ensuring that issues such as parental leave and childcare, pensions and gender-equality laws are part of the policy debate.

The difference women make is quantifiable. An important research study focused on legislative actions across 19 OECD countries – including the UK – found that the greater the number of women in a country’s Parliament, the more that country spends on education as percentage of GDP and per capita.  Education is critical for developing competitive businesses and ensuring that women and men have the skills needed to help ensure Britain’s role as a global power house economically.

Given this evidence, what are the barriers women face here in Britain, and what can be done to address those barriers? Let us be clear: there are many women who do the work of our political parties but get little of the credit and reward. Like in many countries, the main stumbling block is to get our political parties to put women on party short lists and then for them to be selected by the local party and associations. While my party, the Labour Party has been a leader in promoting women’s participation, there is still a lot that all of our parties can do to increase women’s representation. In fact while Labour’s numbers are high – 31 percent of Labour members of the Commons are women and 28 percent of the Lords, this is not enough.

I am a member of the Parliamentary All Party Group (APG), which is working toward greater representation. We need to develop mechanisms, some of which can be short terms mechanisms to help parties identify women and for women to gain the confidence to take the next step and seek office. Here are a few:

1)      Run offs and primaries: Our party conferences are small and made up of party activists. For many women, and men, who are from different walks of life and bring much to the table but have not been active in politics, these conferences can be a barrier. Primaries can be a way to give voters more candidate choices.

2)      All women short lists: These can be used in the final phases of the candidate selection process, whereby the short list only contains women from which to choose for certain seats. The Labour Party has used all-women short lists to select candidates since the 1997 general election.

3)      Similarly, some parties have used all-women primaries in certain seats to ensure that their party’s nominee is a woman. This was used, for example, by the National Democratic Party of British Columbia in districts where the incumbent NDP member was not seeking re-election.

4)      Mentoring: Finally, we are all role models and need to work to build strong mentoring programs for younger women coming up the ranks behind us.

Women’s participation is critical to ensure that we are able to make decisions that best reflect the realities of everyone’s lives. We have much work to do.