Getting in on the political action
When women enter politics good things happen. Fact. Well, generally speaking, we’re going to ignore the Thatcher era for the sake of me being right.
My niece has finished her exams and is in the brief period between euphoria and the realisation that exams mean results…around 72 hours. As such, the conversation we had this Feminist Friday wasn’t easy. It was clearly seeped in remnants of red bull and adrenaline, as was evident from her stopping me half way through every sentence and asking “What did you just say?” or “OMG I have to tell you about something!” I presume both interruptions were related to a high-pitched buzzing noise in her head.
Regardless, even on her worst days, she’s good company. Today, she asked me about women in politics and why it’s talked about so much. Well, this is common sense; because not enough of them are in politics and when they do get there they are often scrutinised over their choice of clothing rather than their policies. When I told her this she rolled her eyes and shook her head. I like to think this is her exasperation at the unjust manner in which female politicians are treated. It could also have been the fact that I got caught up in the moment and shouted this very loudly and aggressively in a cafe and attracted attention. I think everyone around us got a side of feminist perspective on their plate along with their toasted Panini.
We continued talking about this for some time and she asked, what you would expect someone sensible to, how can this get better? How can women be encouraged to enter politics as a profession? Well, I stand strongly on my idea that attitudinal change is where it (and most things) start, but there are more practical solutions, for example, All Women Lists.
Now, upon describing this to my niece, she reacted by assuming this was an unfair advantage and that all women should be recognised by their capabilities – that’s equality. I can’t blame her for this, I thought like this once too. But after debating (arguing) with someone a fair while ago, I understood it better and conceded I was wrong – a rare occurrence (see, good things can happen from debate). I used to have a problem with what is essentially ‘positive discrimination’ as an Asian woman, on two fronts. But than I realised why I had a problem with it. I was speaking from privilege. Speaking as someone who has had access to some successful opportunities and had some support in overcoming race or gender barriers and, quite frankly, someone who hasn’t had to deal with it to such a painful level that it would end my ambition; which it absolutely has for countless women.
Here’s the reality; whenever you mention quotas you hear “women should get there on merit not special measures, I respect politics too much for that nonsense” what this actually says is that you don’t think much of women.
This sentence assumes that only 22% (see below) of women have the merit to be in parliament today, it ignores that there is institutionalised inequality preventing those with the merit and ambition reaching the place they deserve to be. If it was as simply as merit and capabilities- why aren’t more women there already?!
But are current (loose) measures even working? In a country where we have legislation on equality, we have mechanisms of support (albeit not used by all political parties) and we consider ourselves ‘progressive’; only 22% of MPs are female. That’s pretty poor. In fact, so poor that we come number 54 in the world classifications of women in parliament. If you can’t be bothered reading the list, I’ve put some highlights on the right. Read it. Done? Now read it again. By no means are we the worst, there are those countries such as Saudi Arabia, which, (unsurprisingly) have no women in parliament, but take a look at the countries ahead of us and you’ll be surprised at how much growing we need to do and how much preaching we should perhaps stop doing. (My niece especially liked this and apparently will now be quoting this to ‘look smart’, defeating the entire purpose of everything we are discussing. Bravo.)
I absolutely agree that mechanisms of positive action are needed, in fact more than the current “pick and choose” menu of measures is needed, but I do disagree with the assumption that they are doing the full job of equality. They are a band aid for a bigger and growing problem – an attitudinal problem that still exists in our workplaces, our streets, our colleges and universities and our parliament (the same attitudinal problem that doesn’t recognise that women face institutional barriers). This is a problem that legislation or tools of positive discrimination will not change. While we still need these mechanisms of positive discrimination they will continue to remind us of exactly how unequal our society is.
We need to combine them with campaigning, education, support for women leaders and challenging of attitudes.
But when women enter politics good things (on the whole) happen – equality gets further up the agenda, whether intentionally or not. This happens even when female MPs make the short-sighted decision to not discuss/debate ‘women’s issues’ or even equality generally, because they don’t want to be type cast. Well, isn’t that’s ideal, because the rest of Parliament, mainly white straight middle-class men, are of course, much better suited to discussing equality…
Coincidence? I think not. Amazing? I think so.
But it’s not just for the sake of debating equality. Women bring a different, often more inclusive, form of leadership, they change the way debate takes place and they bring a more diverse range of expertise and opinions to the table. For these and so many more reasons; 22% is just not good enough, not for women and not for politics.