Friday, August 6, 2010

Women in party politics

Recently I’ve been thinking about that thorny old question of how to get more women involved in party politics. It’s in my mind for the best possible reason. The party I have reluctantly re-joined has a real commitment to the issue, but like others is still struggling to increase numbers.

Of course we can all be involved in ‘politics’ in other ways, but there seems to be a particular difficulty in getting women to join political parties and then to become active members. I don’t think it’s as simple as saying politics is sexist - so is society as a whole. I’m also sceptical about some of the structural reasons put forward, for example problems with evening meetings and childcare. At various times in my life I have attended evening classes full of women, some of whom were mothers, who made the effort to come to something that interested them.

I think there are three reasons why meaningful involvement remains difficult for women. They are: the potential time demands once we are in; the requirement to speak in public; and the failure of men (and some other women) to listen to what we say and to value our contribution. All these issues are easier to deal with if we have the support of others. In some cases that support will come from women, and if there’s a critical mass of women members who can do this, then fine.

First, the time factor. I’ve said that I think women will make time for what matters to them. Unfortunately, there’s a problem with that once you sign up to a party with a reserved places system. Before you know it are on every committee going, simply because you are female. If women are in a minority in a particular constituency or ward party, but party rules insist that, say, half the officer places must go to women, then there is pressure to do more. Even without a formal system of reserved places, political parties are aware nowadays of the appeal to the electorate of a good woman party speaker or candidate. Ironically, putting limits on your time becomes harder for women. Some get around this problem by dropping out altogether. Or it’s easy to start getting ‘token woman-itis’ and feeling you are just there to make up the numbers. You have to learn to say no sometimes.

Second is the question of public speaking. I don’t know when the difference between men and women on this one actually starts. Is it in childhood, perhaps in school where the boys are praised for being boisterous and the girls for being quiet? Or maybe in adolescence, when ‘bad girls’ are loud and draw attention to themselves? In any case, the result is the interminable meeting where men drone on and on, by no means all in an eloquent fashion, and the few women present are silent. There’s no getting away from this one – public speaking is an essential political skill and if any political party wants women to develop real influence in their ranks, they should prioritise training and support in this area.

The third issue is about not being listened to and, over a longer period, not being valued by men and sometimes also by other women. Having got a baby-sitter, found the meeting, walked in and had no-one say hello, overcome nerves and actually said something, it would be nice to feel that it mattered to someone. But how can this problem be addressed? There are times when a lack of response needs to be challenged and in other cases it’s best to let it go and toughen up a bit. In some cases, a bit of humility is in order – women mess up too on occasions. My own view is that the best way to tackle this one is to keep on making contributions until they get used to you, men being creatures of habit. The question of not being valued long term is more serious. The best question is whether you feel comfortable doing what you are doing - as in any situation, if someone feels they are being used, then they should walk away.

So involve us on the basis of what we can do rather than who we are, support hesitant initial attempts at public speaking, listen to us and value our contributions. It shouldn't be difficult. Such a cultural change is good for all of us.


Peter Johnson said...


Great article, you should submit that one to the Belfast Telegraph too!

I have no real sense of why, but I have an interest in the issue of women in politics. I'd need to think more about the why; to be honest my interest in politics only resurfaced as a result of the Tories being re-elected to office in May.

I'll likely withdraw to the shadows once they are again despatched to opposition where their appalling brand of politics belong. In the meantime, this interest has developed.

As a Twitter user, I have found myself following, with a mixture of enthusiasm and admiration, up to 5 female Labour MP's who are new to the Commons.

They are, in general, though not exclusively, more engaging than their male
colleagues, have much more modern methods of thinking when it comes to running political campaigns in their constituencies and are more likely to advertise their daily activities for all to read.

Their emphasis during the last GE was attracting the youth vote and getting
young,Labour members campaigning on the streets with them.

Their use of more economical methods of communicating their ideas other than simply firing money at advertisers (many Labour candidates didn't have any money for their campaigns for a start) by employing social media, email and blogging, was also very interesting.

They have, effectively, taken the traditional 'macho' out of campaigning and replaced it with real thought about how to make a big impact and have in consequence highlighted their creativity and intelligence.

So, I couldn't disagree with you more on the 'women are not being listened to' issue. Personally I find it hard not to listen and to be engaged simply because I'm learning from these wonder-women of the left and it puts a wry smile on my face.

However, I would certainly agree with your point in relation to the politics of Northern Ireland which remain stilted, loyal to outdated thinking and male dominated.

Even here though women are making themselves heard; Dawn Purvis, Naomi Long, Margaret Ritchie, Caitríona Ruane, Sylvia Hermon, Arlene Foster and.... Irene
Robinson (whoops!)

I tried to go through all Labour members in Northern Ireland on Labour
Membersnet last week to discover how many women we have of the 300 or so members. For some reason I couldn't access all the members but noticed only 7 of 30 were women on the first page I looked at. If this was to be repeated throughout our membership you're looking at less than a third....quite depressing.

But it is up to all of us to change that and I'm up for helping that to happen in any way I can so long as it's a constructive process.

Jenny Muir said...

Peter, your description of the new women MPs is really interesting. Sounds like they are a lot more connected with their voters - but where will they be in 5 years time? You personally are listening to these women but I wonder whether the Labour leadership realises what an asset they are?

Try an experiment for me at our next Labour meeting - IF we have any female speakers (at least we'll have officer reports), observe the reactions to them and whether any of their points are taken up.

I agree we have some really strong women politicians here, who have got there by force of personality and political nous rather than by reserved places and being patronised. Interesting that the two weakest links in your list are Ruane (SF is good on tokenism) and Robinson who was married to a politician and it seems clear now was promoted beyond her ablity as cover for him.

Doesn't surprise me at all that we have a small number of women members in NI but I think there may be hope to promote Labour as a party in which women will feel comfortable, especially if we can get some working groups going so that people can contribute to whatever they have an interest in. I personally have been pleased and not a little surprised at the welcome I've received.

Gem said...


Very interesting article. I would agree that the day to day responsibilities of many women such as child and adult caring commitments do impact on a womens ability to fully participate in politics as it does in the workplace. Whilst there is a duty on employers to put policies in place to address issues like these under legislation this does not appear to carry over to political life.

Your second point re public speaking I agree with to a point as I believe this to be a generational issue, bad girls are now all the rage.

I am a member of an NI political party. I am also a member of a trade union and indeed I am a trade union activist. The mechanisms of a trade union and of a political party are greatly similar which is why I raise the point.

Trade unions have worked hard to tackle under representation of females as well as other equality groups, by providing dedicated training and support, womens networks and forums and equality policies. Now there are vast numbers of key women activists in trade unions across the country, with many women holding top positions.

So my advice would be join a trade union and seek suport from Labour Party members who are trade union activists.

Alternatively if the Labour Party does not have one, why not start your own Labour Party Women's Network?

Best wishes

Jenny Muir said...

Welcome, Gem! Actually, I wasn't saying that I thought caring commitments were an important reason for women's lack of involvement, although I'm sure they play a part. My point was rather that many women make time for what they want to do, and if politics becomes more appealing for women then more will manage to find a way to participate.

However, I'm very interested in what you say about unions. I am of course a union member (UCU) although not an active one. I'm very impressed with the number of Labour people in NI who are TU activists though.

Also, although women should support each other in politics, not least because there are so few of us, I'm wary of women only groups because my experience of them has not been very positive (see my post a few months ago on the WLM). I'd rather be involved in discussions with both women and men about how to increase women's involvement, along with other underrepresented groups.

Jenny Muir said...

And PS Gem, the training and support you mention being available from the unions is absolutely the way to go.

goodhardrant said...

It seems people are noticing the lack of women in politics. This article flags up the representational issue in NI especially:

I think Gem is right about Union participation, though it can depend on local branches whether they're receptive to women activist.

Jenny Muir said...

Yes, I saw that article. I suppose it's significant given that selection of council and Assembly candidates must be going on. And that there's another training source. It'll be interesting to see if there are any improvements in 2011.