Equity, Diversity and Inclusion

This UK campaign is working to close the politics gender gap

People attending the official unveiling gather around the statue of suffragist Millicent Fawcett on Parliament Square

The UK has a long history of women's suffrage. Image: REUTERS/Hannah McKay

Kate Whiting
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
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Education, Gender and Work

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This article was first published in May 2021 and updated in July 2022.

  • It will take 155 years to attain gender parity in politics globally, according to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap 2022 report.
  • In the UK, there are almost twice as many male as female Members of Parliament.
  • Frances Scott launched the cross-party campaign 50:50 Parliament to call for gender equality in UK politics.
  • Here, she explains why we need more women in politics everywhere – and how to encourage more women to stand.

On the green benches inside London’s historic landmark, the Houses of Parliament, sit almost twice as many men as women - 35% female Members of Parliament to 65% male MPs.

“At the rate we’re going, it will take another 40 years before we have gender balance in our elected body, which is shocking,” says Frances Scott, the Founder and Director of 50:50 Parliament, a British cross-party campaign calling for gender equality in politics.

The situation is far from unique to the UK. Political Empowerment remains the biggest of four gender gaps globally, with only 22% closed so far, according to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2022, with no improvement since 2021.

The state of gender gaps, by subindex
The political empowerment gender gap remains the biggest one to close. Image: World Economic Forum/Global Gender Gap Report 2022

Why do we need more women in politics?

More women in political leadership "tends to create a powerful role model effect as well as decisions that represent broader parts of the population," according to the Global Gender Gap Report 2022, which is echoed by Scott, who set up 50:50 Parliament in 2013, when women were outnumbered 3:1.

"Representation shapes policy,” she says. “Diversity leads to better decision-making, and, as Christine Lagarde said, it leads to less risky decision-making. In her opinion, there might not have been a financial crisis if we'd had more women on boards.”

Women need to have equal say, Scott continues, on issues from pandemics to climate change. “We are facing some of the biggest challenges that humanity has had to deal with, and half of humanity are women – we need to be involved in planning the future.”

Getting women involved benefits everyone, as UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka has said: “No country prospers without the engagement of women. We need women’s representation that reflects all women and girls in all their diversity and abilities, and across all cultural, social, economic, and political situations.”

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Fair COVID-19 recovery

The economic impact of the pandemic has disproportionately affected women. Oxfam estimated the COVID-19 crisis has cost women globally at least $800 billion in lost income – the equivalent to the combined wealth of 98 countries.

Gabriela Bucher, Executive Director of Oxfam International, called for governments to build more equal, more inclusive economies: “They must invest in a gender, racial and climate-just economic recovery that prioritizes public services, social protection, fair taxation, and ensure everyone everywhere has access to a free vaccine.”

Having a greater gender balance in government would help to ensure a fair recovery for all, believes Scott.

“We live in a world that has been designed by men for men, including our democratic structures. More women die in car crashes than men because seatbelts have been designed with the average man in mind, not the average woman,” she says.

“We've got to change our design strategy – and make sure that we're including women as part of the picture. And when you're trying to deal with a pandemic, when you have to address climate change, having women on board is really important.”

Getting more women into politics

There is some progress. The Global Gender Gap Report 2022 found the global average share of women in ministerial positions nearly doubled between 2006 and 2022, increasing from 9.9% to 16.1%. Similarly, the global average share of women in parliament rose from 14.9% to 22.9%.

Since Scott set up 50:50 Parliament, there are now more than 70 additional women at Westminster, she says. But there's still a way to go to reach full parity.

Proportion of women MPs, general elections
How the number of women MPs in the UK has grown over a century. Image: Institute for Government

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) published suggested guidelines for political parties for including more women in 2012. These range from adopting internal quotas and allocating women with safe seats to providing training and greater media exposure to women.

But it’s also simply about just encouraging women to put themselves forward, says Scott, who runs an annual #AskHerToStand campaign.

“There's evidence that women need to be asked three times before they will consider standing, whereas men who are politically engaged don't even need to be asked. It all has something to do with imposter syndrome because it looks like an old boys’ club, that women don't necessarily feel it's their right to participate in.”

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Women who join the 50:50 Parliament network in the UK are given support, including from a ‘buddy’ who can share experiences of campaigning and dealing with online trolls. They can also attend weekly online meetings where they can get expert advice from women who have progressed in politics.

Men have a key role to play in levelling the playing field too, says Scott. “We need male allies, because men are the gatekeepers to many of these positions, so we need men to open the doors and help women win seats. It's actually about building a better democracy for everyone.”

In the UK, there are also signs of progress for MPs who become parents, with proxy voting now possible. But Scott says it’s as much about modernizing attitudes as it is about modernizing parliament.

“For example, in Norway, which has better gender balance, they've legislated concerning parenting leave. When men become fathers, they get paid parenting leave, but if they choose not to take it, they don't get the pay. And the result is that men have taken it, which has led to a huge improvement in family relationships, and a greater understanding about the needs of childcare.

“So a little bit like the suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst said, we are trying to empower one half of the human race in order to free up the other half of the human race. It's about working together to build a better democracy, that's fit for purpose for the 21st century.”

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