It has been over 100 years since the monumental day where the Parliament (Qualification of Women Act) was passed allowing women to stand as equals next to their male peers and be elected a seat as an MP. Yet the lack of representation of women today within the UK Parliament implies that the imbalance in power remains persistent in our political institutions. With only 491 female MPs having sat in the last 100 years compared to the 441 male MPs sat in Westminster today, are we still hanging on to the orthodox association of masculinity with power?
The explanation as to why there remains a continuing democratic deficit of women’s representation in UK politics is one of much contention. Many scholars associate lower numbers of female candidates to that of issues of supply, advocating that the reason why there are so few female MPs is simply that the number of female applicants aspiring to have a career in politics is far fewer compared to male applicants. This justification is often made by many political parties in an attempt to escape the criticisms surrounding inequality in representation. By claiming the reason as to why there isn’t gender inequality in Parliament is due to a lack of women coming forward allows political parties to scapegoat the issue onto women and avoid accountability for the failure of the parties themselves. If the issue truly lied in a lack of supply then surely certain equality promotion measures would be able to eradicate the issue and grant women with the confidence they need to stand as a candidate.
Instead, the real issue lies with the demand for women, not the supply. The succession of gender social norms appear to be so deeply entrenched within society that they pose a serious threat to women’s careers, not only in politics but in all positions of power. In the private sphere women generally take on the role as the main caretaker by carrying out the majority of housework whilst men are traditionally considered the “breadwinner” tasked with earning the money for the families needs. Such expectations facilitate prejudice against female candidates as they are seen as a contradiction to the traditional masculine role of a leader. With these structural barriers already preconceived many women choose to drop out of the selection process as they assume they are already destined for failure. The lack of demand causes a lack of supply.
The negative connotations that have stemmed from these stereotypes have enabled discrimination against powerful women to become the norm. A UN report found that around 50% of the global population viewed men to be better suited to becoming political leaders than women. If these are the outlooks we have in the 21st century what hope do we have of achieving a parliament that effectively represents both men and women?
Whilst many may presume that the impacts from such a disproportionate representation are insignificant considering the issue has been the societal norm for as long as society has existed, the truth is the effects are far more detrimental than we realise. Our assumptions on the masculinity of power are so profoundly embedded within society that even children as young as 4 years old identify powerful positions with men whilst assuming women take on gentler roles. A survey conducted by Charafeddine’s team asked 148 preschoolers to identify which character they viewed as powerful and which one was seen as weaker. The result saw that 75% of preschoolers corresponded a male figure to the powerful character. The ramifications of this are usually dismissed on an individual basis but as a collective what it leads to is a future in which young girls automatically dismiss certain career prospects not only because of what society has taught them but also because they have so few female role models in these positions to inspire them.
The concerns of a male-led Parliament are not just limited to career prospects but also extend to issues regarding the law. When the majority of laws being made with regards to women and their rights are debated by men, are they truly addressing the needs and wants of women today? Often it is the case that in order to make an informed decision about what the best step forward is you need to have experienced the issue yourself. Experiencing the issue allows you to understand what the struggles are and how you can overcome them, but when you have not encountered them you are left ignorant to the realities of the issue.
Knowing that these masculine associations with power are harming our society in more ways than one it is time we begin to change the way we perceive power. And this change needs to start as young as preschool where we encourage children to challenge traditional gender roles in order to defeat gender-based inequality. Whilst our perceptions of gender and power extend to workplace issues and beyond it is unlikely for us to see change overnight. But by allowing children to understand the roots of our beliefs we can pave the way towards a future where there is an equal stance in positions of power for both men and women.
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