London -- Thursday October 5, 2006
Our macho political system excludes half the population
Rampant male chauvinism thwarts the Westminster ambitions of many women, says Dr Katherine Rake
Mrs Pritchard is a supermarket manager turned prime minister, talking commonsense politics to a country weary of Westminster. The trouble is, The Amazing Mrs Pritchard is a piece of BBC fiction, not UK politics. Martin Kettle uses Mrs Pritchard (The amazing gender gap, October 3) to raise an important question: "Why, nearly a century after women got the vote and were able to stand for parliament, do so few women get to the very top?" While the question is a good one, Kettle's answer is troubling.
He says there are two possibilities: either the system is preventing good women coming through or women are not up to the job. He dismisses the first by making only the briefest of references to the possibility of prejudice in politics. After all, he argues, a number of women have broken through the glass ceiling. Thatcher and Merkel did, Ségolène Royal might yet become the president of France, and Mrs Pritchard shows that, in fiction at least, the British are ready for another female political leader. On the basis of these four cases (one of whom is a TV character) he asserts that "the political system is wide open for effective women politicians to succeed at the highest level". So, the only possible conclusion is that we don't have women politicians of the right calibre to rise to the top. Kettle covers his back: "I'm not arguing that men are better at political leadership than women." But his judgment on the women who have made it to cabinet is damning: "remarkably few ... could credibly be described as potential party leaders or prime ministers."
However, the political system is not wide open. Of course there are exceptional cases of women who make it to the top, but there is also a huge body of evidence showing how women's political ambitions are thwarted. Sexual harassment and discrimination are sadly not a thing of the past and, although they are now trying to put their houses in order, political parties have been serious offenders. The Fawcett Society continues to hear hair-raising stories from women attempting to get selected, which have ranged from seemingly innocent, but nevertheless deeply prejudicial, inquiries into childcare arrangements to the blunt question: "If you were elected to Westminster, what would your husband do for sex during the week?" Such attitudes are mirrored in the macho culture of Westminster, which women in particular perceive to be about point-scoring and shouting rather than getting the job done.
No surprise then that many able, charismatic women choose to play roles at a local level or outside formal politics, where they can see their efforts have a more direct impact. Add to this the fact that women have less money and more family and caring commitments, which prejudice their involvement in a system that demands time and financial freedom to run for office. Then there are the more subtle barriers that lie in gender stereotypes. That is what is troubling in Kettle's piece - he underscores these very stereotypes by questioning whether women are, after all, up to the job.
· Dr Katherine Rake is director of the