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.