Female Representation in Parliament: Research into the Conservative Party

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Female representation in parliament and the Conservative Party and how they engage with women’s issues.

Through a recent gendered analysis of the Conservative Party, it has come to fruition that women are still being underrepresented in politics and women’s issues are not being heard. Such research has demonstrated that this may be due to the selection process being biased and political office remaining a masculine field. Women are still representing ‘fewer than one in five MP’s in the UK’ (Russell et al, 2000 :17) and make up just 21.8% of the world’s parliamentarians (Forke & Rickne, 2016). The female absence from politics has suggested that society might be getting its leaders from an excessively narrow area of human talent and that female preferences are underrepresented in political judgments’ (Murray, 2014). Due to this lack of female representation, a number issues such as childcare, women’s pensions and care of the elderly are not being properly addressed.

At present, there is a distinct limit in the amount of of research conducted into gender in the conservative party and the House of Commons but a fair portion of the preexisting literature surrounding it all points to gendered inequalities based on old forms of gender norms in parliament. In the following research report I will explain why females are so under represented in parliament and the gender inequality that comes with it as well as explaining what effects the male built establishment in the party has on governmental policies such as childcare.

Methodology

This analysis uses secondary data that has been collected from the UK data service. The data was originally used by Paul Webb and Sarah Childs (See Webb & Childs, 2009) for ‘an extensive gendered analysis of the contemporary UK Conservative Party’ (Webb & Childs, 2009). The data was collected over the duration of three years in order to assess how far the Conservative Party was assimilating women and their concerns and if women’s issues were being taken seriously (Webb & Childs, 2009). The full dataset consists of 27 face –to- face semi-structured interviews with Conservative Peers and 19 Conservative MP’s. Focus groups were also conducted with 7 groups of floating and unbiased individuals and then six groups of party members.

Through the analysis of secondary data I will be assessing the accounts given by several members and nonmembers of the parliamentary group through the dissection of qualitative interviews of two male and female Conservative peers and two male and female Conservative MP’s. Qualitative interviews are particularly useful as a form of research because they ‘access individual’s attitudes and values- things that cannot necessarily be observed in a formal questionnaire’ (Silverman, 2004, 182). In using 4 female and 4 male interview transcripts I was able to access the difference of opinion of why they believe females are being under represented in the Conservative party and the House of Commons and how they think women’s issues could be better dealt with.

I also analysed four focus groups, two of which are Conservative Party sympathisers and two of which are groups of party members. Focus groups are particularly useful as a form of secondary research because ‘in focus groups participants are able to bring to the fore issues in relation to a topic that they deem to be important and significant […] because the moderator has to relinquish a certain amount of control to the participants, the issues that concern them can surface’ (Bryman, 2012, 338). I have used focus group data because the data that occurs from the participants interacting with one another can be useful in determining the specific issues related to the topic in question (Bryman, 2012).

However, there are certain limitations to this type of research, focus groups produce an extensive amount of data, which can sometimes be difficult to analyse on top of being excessively time consuming. Therefore, developing a strategy to analyse the data which incorporated both what people say and their pattern of interaction can prove to be quite problematic (Bryman, 2012).  Another limitation of focus groups is that sometimes the poor quality of recordings causes them to become inaudible, which affects the transcription and therefore subsequently the data produced, rendering it unreliable (Bryman, 2012). There are also certain limitations to qualitative interviews as interviews do not tell us ‘directly about peoples experiences’ and ‘few researchers believe that in the course of the interview, you are able to get into someone’s head’ (Silverman, 2015, 83).

The following report uses thematic analysis from the study of qualitative interviews and focus groups and explores the under representation of women in the Conservative Party and political office, with reference to gender equality in the conservative party and also seeks to explain why women’s exclusion from politics may be due to particular women’s issues such as childcare and care of the elderly which has not been properly addressed by the government.

Findings

Under representation of women in the Conservative Party

Through my analysis of the research data, it came to attention that it has generally been thought that women are severely underrepresented in parliament and in the Conservative party (Russel et al, 2000). Many of the interviewee’s agreed upon the fact that the selection process is still deemed ‘prejudiced and sexist’ and is still run by middle- aged men which makes it harder for females to maneuver. (Russell et al, 2000). For example, women now only represent 9% of the parliamentary party and out of 48 candidates that applied to the Conservative Party, it was found that only seven women out of those candidates were interviewed by the selection panel. This is due, as one male Conservative MP claimed, to the selection panels having certain bigoted views towards females:

“The selection panels are based of white older men who consist of pig headed old guys who turn up wearing Second World War underpants with the attitude that goes with it’. (Male Conservative MP)

This can be backed up by Theresa May, a female member of the Conservative party, who in a party conference said ‘looking at its elected representatives you will see a predominantly white male party. Given that we now see an ethnically diverse society, where women play a major role, the conservative party doesn’t look like the people its claiming to represent’. (Theresa May, Party Conference, 2002). This can be further shown when the male MP expressed his amazement at the lack of females in parliament and claimed that even in countries like Rwanda and Pakistan, which are notoriously patriarchal societies, they have more women representatives in their government than Britain does.

It has been accepted that in order to get more votes, the Conservative Party needs to obtain more women into the party and therefore makes the selection process more accessible. However, one female conservative peer claims:

“It’s still harder for women to get selected even in spite of the party saying ‘we’d like a woman’”.  (Female Conservative Peer)

Females were often subjected to criticism for their personal lives, if they were example said to be divorced. One female MP claimed that women therefore had to ‘cuddle up’ to the selection committee;

“Whose instinct is to prefer a pinstripe identikit candidate with who they wish to spend Friday evenings” (Female Conservative MP)

In other literature, it has been suggested that some women have been made to feel uncomfortable and unwelcome in the House of Commons due to the masculine feel of it (Russel et al, 2000). This is further shown in the data studied as a male Conservative MP talks about the aggressive nature of politics and women who feel uncomfortable in the House of Commons are so because women are generally less confrontational than men. The House of Commons is thus seen as less feminized and an unattractive place for women to work in. One Male MP even admitted to the party being unable to change itself and if women weren’t happy with the way things were, then they would have to adapt and change themselves in order to fit in.

Gender Equality in the Conservative Party and House of Commons

Through the analysis of the focus groups, the theme of equality was an issue that was raised often. Interestingly, both the men and the females agreed upon the fact that:

I think for any women wanting to get ahead on her own abilities she’s got to be probably twice as qualified as a lot of men” (Focus Group, Male Conservative Member)

The participants generally felt that in order for a woman to get ahead they would have to be very self- assured and confident if they wanted to ascertain positions they wanted. In most of the female focus groups it was widely discussed that women were bullied in the House of Commons and that they had to put up with a lot of ‘sexist rubbish’, claiming that the men were always likely to back each other up, but constantly looking for a way to put down the women.

The theme of equality is an issue that has been raised in previous literature, as Dillard (2005) claimed that ‘women experience some disadvantage based on their sex or gender roles’ (page number) and Krook & Childs (2010) also claimed that due to inequality, women therefore ‘rarely assume leadership roles and now make up a minority of all top party officials’ (Krook & Childs, 2010, 6). It was also discussed on one floating voter focus group how politicians are out of touch with things like gender equality with one male in the group claiming that he is disappointed by the progress that women have made in terms of equality, and said:

Politicians often point to a rare example of two successful female politicians to prove that its possible, but in reality it isn’t as easy as that” (Male, Floating Voter Focus Group).

When asked what the Conservative Party and the house of Commons should do to get more support of female voters and get more women into parliament, one woman from the floating voter focus group claimed that even if the party did attempt to appeal more to women, it wouldn’t matter because the female voters would know that it was insincere;

Interviewer : “ Do you think theres anything the conservative party should be doing to appeal more to women?”

Female Respondent: “If they do we know it’s a lip service. That’s the problem. They think its like we need to speak to women to do whatever it takes, but they shouldn’t even be asking this it should be innate” (Female, Floating Voter Focus Group).

Many of the females from the focus groups seemed to think that the ‘glass ceiling’ effect was still in play, with one woman from the floating voter focus group claiming;

People are saying theres no more sexism but if you actually examine the percentage of people in the highly paid, powerful jobs, the glass ceiling is there and in fact its getting worse”( Female, Floating Voter Focus Group).

This is further shown in the literature, in the written report by Webb and Childs after they concluded their research analysis where they found that while ‘42% of women strongly agree that government should make sure that women have an equal chance to succeed, onlu 25% of men do” (Webb & Childs, 2011, 17). Showing that gender inequality is still prevalent in some political parties.

How the Conservative Party and the House of Commons engages with womens issues of childcare and the care of the elderly.

Through analysing the data, an important theme present was how the Conservative Party engages with women’s issues such as childcare. It was widely discussed how politics is an inhospitable environment for woman who have children and other responsibilities.

“The way politics works often puts off quite a lot of women. Its not very friendly to somebody who has obligations to the family” (Male Conservative MP).

This can be seen in reports from other literature of meetings taking place in the House of Commons until very late at night, subsequently making it difficult for women to be there due to family commitments (Russel et al, 2000). Some of the female interviewees all claimed that the unwelcoming environment made it difficult for younger women to get into politics because they are heavily burdened with the responsibility of a full on job and looking after their children.

It was discussed how woman are finding it increasingly difficult to juggle both their careers and their personal life, with some interviewees suggesting that the reason why female candidates weren’t selected into the party was due to women being perceived as unable to fully commit to their careers like their male counterparts, one female peer claimed;

the reason why you end up with middle class white males is because they have previously run a business but women have to think about children” (Female Conservative Peer).

This is recognized in other literature as Hymowitz (2005) argues that there has been the general perception that if a woman has a child then she cant be devoted to her job as she could be. Bryson and Heppell (2010) claim that the party has been previously criticized for assuming that women can continue with their roles at home and at work which has put them under huge strain and they have been unable to perform to the best of their ability. They further claim that ‘instead of having it all as liberal feminism seemed to promise, women are instead doing it all” (Bryson & Heppell, 2010, 46).

Some female interviewees also complained of being asked how they could cope in the party if they were to have children. Through gender norms it has been believed that the care of the child is up to the mother, but many of the female interviewees expressed their outrage at this policy as one member of the Conservative Party member focus group said:

women should be able to have the choice to go out to work or staying and rearing children

Female Conservative Party Member, Focus Group.

In terms of how the government is concerned with the issue of childcare, many of the female interviewees claimed that the state isn’t putting enough funding into childcare so woman are unable to juggle both their careers and their personal life. One female of the floating voter focus group claimed;

The child care facilities in London are shocking, they are far too expensive and you need to earn 30,000 to breakeven with childcare”. (Female, Floating Voter Focus Group.)

This has meant that many single mothers have had to go onto benefits, because even if they were to secure employment, they still wouldn’t be able to support themselves because of the expensive rate of childcare facilities. There was a strong agreement that childcare shouldn’t be down to the responsibility of the woman, with one woman from the floating voter focus group claiming:

“it shouldn’t be seen as solely the womans responsibility because two people have a child so its both their responsibility and that’s when the whole equality thing sort of breaks down and womens issue become an issue”. (Female, Floating Voter Focus Group.)

One floating voter focus group interviewee claimed that womens pensions have subsequently been affected by childcare which is an area that the government has not paid much attention to, claiming that:

“Women are digging in and out of employment in a way much more often than men because your busy with family responsibilities” (Female, Floating Voter Focus Group)

As well as the responsibility of the children being put onto women, it is also believed that the care of the elderly is invariably part of their domain too. One female MP claimed that;

An awful lot of women are tearing their hair out and trying to balance everything, doing two jobs, looking after their children, their home, their elderly relatives. If all those women were actually working to the full extent of their capabilities then the boost to the economy would be significant, statistically significant” (Female Conservative MP).

Thus meaning that due to women being under represented in government, there are few voices out there to help put forward the issues that women are facing, such as balancing their careers with their responsibility to their children and other family relatives.

Although it was agreed upon that there would be many benefits of having more females in parliament and in the Conservative party as one male MP claimed that woman would have a better understanding of child care policies which could be put in place. The action has not been put in place which leaves women in a very vulnerable position, especially as there is not enough women to defend them on these grounds.

Conclusion

Overall this research report has demonstrated clearly that both female representation within the Conservative Party and the party’s lack of progressive engagement with women’s issues are clear demonstrations of how unrepresentative British government’s make-up and enforcement currently is. The thematic analysis of Webb and Childs data has allowed an exploration into key political issues that have arguably not been given due academic and political research. It has been shown to be apparent that members of both genders within the Conservative Party acknowledge the inherent unrepresentative nature of the party and that there is little more than plain acceptance of the cultural norms in place to main its patriarchic contour.

Given women have often come to feel uncomfortable within the Conservative party, this has transcended into female political participation generally and leaves many holding little desire to engage with politics due to the scarce attention and impact devoted to women’s issues. The above in combination leaves the Conservative party to continue to be perceived as archaic in its views and this in turn prevents women from seeing positive political change or even seeking to lead such change themselves.  

Bibliography

Transcripts used:

M2 Conservative Peer

M7 Conservative Peer

M8 Conservative MP

M9 Conservative MP

W5 Conservative Peer

W6 Conservative Peer

W8 Conservative MP

W9 Conservative MP

Focus Group 1. Conservative Members

Focus Group 2 Conservative Members

Floating Voter Focus Group 1

Floating Voter Focus Group 2

Bryman, A. (2012) Social research methods. 4th edn. New York: Oxford University Press

Bryson V & Heppell  T. (2010) ‘Conservatism and Feminism; The Case of the British Conservative Party’. Journal of Political Ideologies.

Campbell, S, Childs S & Lovenduski J. (2006)  ‘Womens Equality Guarantees and the Conservative Party’. The Political Quarterly.

Childs S, Krook M. (2010). ‘Women, Gender and Politics. A reader’ Oxford University Press.

Childs S, Webb P. (2012). ‘Sex, Gender and the Conservative Party. From Iron Lady to Kitten Heels’. Palgrave Macmillan.

Chiu & Monroe (2010). Gender Equality in the Academy, the pipeline problem. Cambridge University Press.Volume 43, issue 2.

Dillard, A. (2005) ‘Adventures in Conservative Feminism’ Society, March/April

Forke & Rickne (2016). The Glass Ceiling in Politics; Formalisation and Empirical Tests. Comparative Political studies.

Hymowitz, C ( 2005). Women Internalize Stereotypes of Themselves as Weaker Leaders. The Wall Street Journal Online. Accessed online, 2nd  May http://www.careerjournal.com

May, T. (2002). Conservative Party Conference Speech. Accessed online, 4th May. https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2002/oct/07/conservatives2002.conservatives1

Murray, R. (2014). Quotas for men: Reframing gender quotas as a means of improving representation for all. American Political Science Review, 108, 520-532

Russel, M. Lovenduski, J, Stephenson M. (2000). ‘Womens Political Participation in the UK’. The British Council, The Constitution Unit. Accessed online, 1st May . http://www.ucl.ac.uk/political-science/publications/unit-publications/89.pdf

Silverman, D. (2015).  Interpreting Qualitative Data. Fifth Edition. Sage Publications.

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