Melanie McDonagh

Is sexism really stopping more women from becoming MPs?

Is sexism really stopping more women from becoming MPs?
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The reliably irritating Women and Equalities Select Committee under its unfailingly irritating chair, Maria Miller, has come up trumps again, with a proposal for increasing the number of women MPs. The committee initiated an inquiry in the summer of 2016 into gender representation in the Commons and it has now concluded that all political parties should set out how they intend to increase the proportion of women in Parliament by 2020. If they don’t, it says the Government should set a domestic target of 45 per cent of all representatives in Parliament and local government by 2030. The goal, it says, should be backed by law setting a statutory minimum proportion of female parliamentary candidates in general elections for each political party, with fines or other sanctions for those who fail to comply.

You can see how this would work, can't you: a version of David Cameron’s A-list, combined with the unlovely Labour approach of imposing all-women shortlists on reluctant constituencies – you already have a version of this imposed by the EU in Ireland, which is as patronising to well-qualified women as it is unjust to men displaced by less qualified women candidates.

It’s a blanket pink-and-blue approach to politics; at odds with all the stuff we’re hearing about the real inequalities in Britain, whereby white working-class boys are at the bottom of every pile, social and academic. I’d have thought myself, that if there’s a deficit in the representation of any one group, it would be the working class, especially those who haven’t been to university – the Labour party isn’t representing them; perhaps Ukip will. We don’t really need more privately educated lawyers in either house, of either gender.

Which isn’t to say that women often don’t have their work cut out getting beyond the candidates shortlist in Tory seats – I’ve got a friend who’s really nice and fabulously well qualified, but loses out every time to dud public schoolboys who’ve been in the army and who win over the women on the selection committee by the simple sentiment: 'I’ve served my country before; now I want to serve you!' Try replacing existing selection constituency panels with all male members and you might get more women selected. Seriously, the only non-discriminatory solution to the selection issue I can think of is the one favoured by the late Mo Mowlam – it was how she got her seat – which is to say that every shortlist must include a woman. It’s a world away from the fines and sanctions regime favoured by Maria Miller.

Actually, the whole notion that women are an underrepresented group in public and cultural life is ripe for demolition. All those women of the year awards, all those literary prizes for women writers, the special Oscars for women actors…they’re all premised on the notion that women are, as a gender, a subordinate group only prevented from taking their proper place in political, artistic and social life by wilful discrimination. It may be, is, true of other, more benighted parts of the world; over here, it’s palpably not. If women aren’t equally represented in the Commons – I fancy the Lords has its fair share of Shami Chakrabartis – then it may be that fewer women than men want to be MPs. Which is their choice, no?