Women in Politics: Positions of Leadership

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Dr Meghan Campbell

Dr Meghan Campbell

Senior lecturer in Law, Birmingham University

Dr Meghan Campbell is a senior lecturer in Law at the University of Birmingham. Her research explores how the international human rights system can best respond to gender inequality and poverty. She is also the Deputy Director of the Oxford Human Rights Hub.

Dr Meryl Kenny

Dr Meryl Kenny

Senior Lecturer in Gender and Politics at the University of Edinburgh

Dr Meryl Kenny is Senior Lecturer in Gender and Politics at the University of Edinburgh. She tweets @merylkenny.

Iysha Arun

Research Fellow, Dialogue Society

Prof Rosie Campbell

Director of the Global Institute for Women's Leadership KCL

Women in the UK remain underrepresented in all levels of politics despite the Representation of People Act in 1918, allowing women to vote and seeing the first female MP Nancy Astor in 1919. Although the House of Commons currently is at its all-time high at 32% female representation, there remain issues around female representation in politics such as the underrepresentation of ethnic minority women, mothers, and those who have declared a disability.

A multiplicity of factors contribute to the underrepresentation of women in positions of leadership which hinder their participation in politics. This panel will discuss the obstacles to female leadership, the challenges faced by women in politics, gender equality and women’s empowerment in politics.

Women in Politics: Positions of Leadership


Professor Rosie Campbell, who is the Director of the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership at King’s College London – as a professor of politics she has written extensively on barriers to the participation of politics, and recently on gendered patterns of support for the populist radical right – and her research interests include the politics of diversity and political recruitment.

Professor Campbell starts her speech with data to inform the audience about the conversation. The data shows women and men elected to House of Commons from 1918 to 2019. Although the number of women elected gets considerably better after the election of new Labour in 1997, the gap remains. In 2019, the number of elected women in House of Commons was 34%. This is by no means an inevitable progression, Campbell states. Comparing the percentage of women MP’s from 2005 to 2019, there is a significant difference in party breakdown of the proportion of women MPs. In 2019, for the first time, both the Labour party and the Liberal Democrat party had a higher proportion of women MP’s than man MP’s in the House of Commons. This is an incredible transformation, according to Professor Campbell. It is also clear that the Conservative party had increased the representation of women on their benches from 9% in 2005 to 24% in 2019. It is a considerable improvement, but it is a long way off from the Labour party’s percentage. Rosie Campbell believes that this is as a result of the Conservative party’s more meritocratic recruitment processes.

When it comes to representation of ethnic minority women MP’s, there are 36 women MPs from ethnic minority backgrounds in the House of Commons, Professor Campbell states. Ethnic minority MP’s now make up one in ten members of the House of Commons and 36 of those MPs out of 65 are women. So, according to Professor Campbell, this is significant progress and a reason for optimism. However, there is still a long way to go, Campbell says.

Professor Rose Campbell continues her words with the barriers to getting an equal representation in politics. Firstly, Rosie Campbell thinks that we need positive discrimination measures such as women’s shortlist. The systematic bias in the constituency must be identified and acknowledged. Another barrier to equal representation in politics is the harassment and intimidation of candidates. In 2017, Representative Audit of Britain held a survey for MP’s asking about harassment. According to the study, women were more likely to say that they had experienced harassment. Women were also more likely to report that they were fearful as a result of this harassment. Furthermore, studies show that minority ethnic women MP’s are much more likely to be the target of online abuse and harassment than white women MP’s. Professor Campbell believes this is an area where we see nota progression but deterioration and an area where we need to take action to have equal representation in politics.

Lastly, to finish off on an optimistic note, Rosie Campbell mentioned a study she completed in 2013 to identify what proportion of MPs had or did not have children. According to the findings of the survey in 2013, 45% of women MP’s did not have children compared to 28% of men MP’s. This showed that, although there were more women entering politics, those women were less typical of women and men in society, and they were less likely to have children. Professor Campbell states that this is not a shocking data considering that parliament has a considerably inhospitable place for people with caring responsibilities. In 2017, Rosie Campbell re-ran the study and found out that the gap had narrowed. In 2017, 39% of women MP’s compared to 30% of men had no children. This should give us a cause for optimism, Professor Campbell says. Some of the barriers to parents who are active carers becoming politicians seem to be declining. To summarise, Rosie Campbell believes although there is a long way to go to have equal representation, there are positive notes to be looked at.

Dr Meryl Kenny, a senior lecturer at the University of Edinburgh. she also convenes the Gender Politics Research Group. She is a member of the cross-party women 50-50 campaign for legal gender quotas in Scotland. Her research interest areas lay in gender and politics -specifically in political recruitment. Dr Kenny focused her talk on gender and political leadership dynamics drawing on to her recent piece of work.

Meryl Kenny stated that Women in Politics is a very timely discussion to have especially during the Covid-19 pandemic where we had a lot of media and headline attention devoted to the question of whether women leaders have been handling the pandemic more effectively. This attention belies the underlying fact that globally, women political leaders are few and far between. As of 1 January 2020, only twenty countries had women heads of state or government. We also had two recent and pivotal leadership contests which were initially very positive in terms of gender representation: the 2020 UK Labour leadership election and the 2020 US Democratic presidential primary. Although these leadership contests started positively for gender representation, in the end, women were eliminated, and white men were left standing in both contests.

In terms of obstacles of gender equality and leadership, we often talk about the metaphors like glass cliff, where women take on the role of the leader during a time of crisis to ‘clean up the mess’, Meryl Kenny states. Additionally, Dr Kenny believes that ideas as who can be a leader are highly gendered. They intersect with race, class, sexuality, disability and other structures of power. Political leadership contests have historically been struggling over masculinity; with ‘leadership’ and power often described in masculine terms and associated with masculinised policy concerns. Therefore, Dr Kenny claims, when women do decide to run for elections, they need to contend with these gendered, racialised, and classed perceptions about who is fit to lead. Dr Kenny argues that for female candidates, it very hard to be considered both competent and likeable as they face a double-bind, and they are frequently under pressure. In the recent Democratic presidential contest, it was seen that women have a much higher bar to cross. Women leaders have to demonstrate merit, experience and competence, whereas male candidates can exhibit potential, Dr Kenny states.

Dr Kenny continues her talk with the question of why it matters and why does it matter right now about the equal representation in politics. She states that these are difficult and turbulent times. It is more crucial than ever that women voices are included at the top table, Meryl Kenny says. We can see that the current pandemic has exacerbated gender and intersectional inequalities, racial disparities, women of colour are disproportionality concentrated in front line health care and low wage jobs, there is an increased report of domestic violence, and many more factors make this discussion significant for today’s world.

Dr Kenny finalises her words by arguing that we need to be careful not to overstate the impact of women political leaders. They can have significant effects, but we should not fall into essentialist arguments that women are naturally more ‘compassionate’ or more ‘collaborative’. Dr Meryl Kenny states that we have to continue to question these inequalities because we are a long way from seeing equal representation in politics.

Dr Meghan Campbell joins the discussion from the University of Birmingham. She holds a position as a lecturer within the Law department. Her research area is in the field of human rights, gender equality and public law. She has also provided written evidence to the Joint Committee on Human Rights and Women and Equalities Committee on Brexit and human rights.

Dr Meghan Campbell began her words by analysing what does it mean to have women’s equality rights within parliament and what happens once they are in these institutions. These institutions have been built upon, modelled after and mirrored men’s life patterns and men’s life choices. Unfortunately, we structured society to work well for certain privileged identity groups and not so well for other identity groups, Dr Campbell says. Equality law aims to dismantle these structures and transform them into structures that more fair for everybody, reflecting a multitude of life patterns and choices. Dr Campbell believes that the equality law is taking us towards a gender-sensitive parliament.

Then, Dr Campbell goes on to explain what it means to have a gender-sensitive parliament and what does it mean to create a legislative body that is fair and not just accommodates but valorises different life choices and patterns. Dr Campbell believes that there are two things to keep in mind when it comes to thinking about what a gender-sensitive parliament looks like. We need to keep in mind that it is a legislative body, so, the parliament needs to reflect political legitimacy for more than one type of voice. But it also a workplace with a range of people employed in parliament. This parliament has to be equal for all kinds of women- younger, older, disabled, women of colour, women with caring responsibilities, women with high & low incomes, Dr Campbell argues.

Dr Campbell starts giving her remarks on how to make the parliament an equal place for everybody who works within it and starts with caring roles. Dr Meghan Campbell states that members of the parliament are not legally entitled to paid maternity leave. One of the simple ways to make sure that women in parliament are treated equally within the institution is to make sure that they have maternity rights. Additionally, when thinking of women as mothers or women with caring roles in parliament, we need to consider when they are at maternity leave, they are also still MPs. There should be a system developed for proxy voting, so when critical bills come to the floor, they can still participate at their maternity leave, Dr Campbell says. When returning to the parliament, women need to have safe spaces to express and safely store breastmilk, and they should be able to bring in their young children. Dr Meghan believes we should recognise that people have identities that are not fractured as professional life and family life. Furthermore, women disproportionately perform unpaid care work. Therefore, we need to be developing policies that are bringing men into the picture of caring and distributing the work on both the government and men not just on women.

The second thing we can be active on is gender-sensitive language, Dr Campbell states. The environment within the parliament is very much a gentleman’s club. It’s very elite and dominated by male voices and practices. Therefore, the language used has to change to be gender inclusive. Dr Campbell argues that we need to avoid subsuming women within male terms such as chairman. We need to use gender-neutral pronouns and acknowledge that gender is a spectrum. We can also avoid referring to people with a title that references their marital status. By using the language, we can convey the message that parliament is a space welcoming for women as language is a powerful tool to shape and influence attitudes and behaviours.

Lastly, Dr Meghan Campbell touched upon the harassment at the workspace for women in parliament. Unfortunately, studies show that parliament is a workspace where sexual abuse, bullying and harassment occur. Therefore, it is imperative that parliament would take the lead to develop laws and policies that address sexual harassment as an issue of women’s equality rights, Dr Campbell insists. Dr Campbell argues that immunity from sexual harassment within parliament perpetuates the idea that political representatives are above the law. Additionally, the system developed to have accountability for sexual harassment at work has to be careful and attentive to the profound power imbalances so that it is usable for the people who’ve experienced sexual harassment. Furthermore, it is also vital that sexual harassment be conceptualised as a breach of women’s human rights. Dr Campbell argues that sexual harassment is a violation of women’s rights to be treated equally and it needs to be treated equally and spoken as such because it brings gravity to the situation that it currently often does not have.

Dr Campbell continues her presentation with one of the positive steps that parliament can take to address sexual harassment at work, to clarify and even pass specific legislation that condemns sexual harassment within parliament or to extend the current legislation to clarify that it applies to parliament. As MP’s are elected, not employed, they are not covered by the equality act that prohibits discrimination at the workplace. Therefore, the most important thing for the parliament is to develop robust internal accountability procedures, Dr Campbell believes. The procedures must encourage individuals who’ve experienced sexual harassment, no matter where they work or whoever harassed them, to feel safe in coming forward and reporting harassment. These procedures need to protect an individual’s privacy, confidentiality and protect them from backlash as a result of the power imbalances. All these pro

By protecting the rights of women with caring responsibilities, by paying attention to the language spoken and by eliminating sexual harassment in parliament, we can make sure that parliament is not just for men. Still, it is a workplace that is welcoming and valorises women’s lived experiences, Dr Meghan Campbell concludes.