Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Celebrating International Women's Day at the House of Lords

Yesterday evening, I attended a panel event at the House of Lords, entitled "Achieving Equality in Parliament," sponsored by WAFE (Women worldwide Advancing Freedom and Equality). Chaired by Baroness Harris of Richmond, the panelists were Peter Facey, Director of Unlock Democracy; Monique Auguste of Canadian University College; Kate Growcutt, former Chair of the Young Fabians; and Julie Smith, Deputy Director of the Centre of International Studies, Department of Politics and International Studies, Cambridge University. Fittingly, the event took place on the 100th anniversary of International Women's Day to highlight the inequality of women's representation in Parliament.

Peter Facey spoke on democratic reform and women, stating that some people think the struggle for equality is over, but it continues since Parliament is still unrepresentative of society. Parties, which are declining in membership, have a tendency to replace one middle-aged white man with another middle-aged white man. Parliament needs to support candidates, and female MPs more - for example, there is no creche in Westminster and no maternity leave scheme.

Monique Auguste gave a presentation on gender equality in Canadian politics. As a Canadian, I was particularly interested in this presentation. Women are 52% of the population, so it would seem that women's representation in Parliament should be close to that percentage. But this is obviously not the case; the target is even much lower than this - set at 30% at the Beijing World Conference on Women. Canada is still well below 25%, as is the UK. The exception is Quebec, which is at 28%. Monique set out two main representations to achieve the 30% target - increasing budgets at all levels of the process and the creation of an observatory for equality of representation.

Kate Growcutt spoke about political representation in the UK. She brought up the Fawcett Society's 4 Cs (reasons why women are underrepresented) - culture, childcare, cash, and confidence. She strongly asserted that reform of Parliament is essential, and pointed out, like the other panelists, that it would be problematic if only rich women are able to become candidates.

And finally, Julie Smith asked the question "Why are there so many middle-class white men in Parliament?" She began by stating that gender is not the only underrepresented aspect of Parliament, but also age, ethnicity, sexual orientation, class, and disability. We need diversity of women, so not just rich women and not just women in their 20s who haven't yet had children and those in their 50s and 60s whose children are adults. She brought attention to an interesting phenomenon, the idea that when women are leaders in politics, they're considered to have male qualities (i.e. Margaret Thatcher) or to be playing men at their own game. Kate brought this up again during the Q & A, pointing out that women are accused of being "shrill" if they get passionate, which is why Thatcher trained her voice to be deeper. Julie also described how, around the world, female leaders are often either born into it (i.e. Queen Elizabeth II) or marry into it (i.e. their fathers or husbands are assassinated). So WHY do we favour people who look like those who came before? It is something that is difficult to overcome, but must be overcome.

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