Why are there still so few women in the cabinet?

July 27, 2018   By Vanessa Schneider, External Affairs Officer, NLGN

As Brexit rows continues to dominate the news, feminism may not be high on the agenda of the current Prime Minister, Theresa May. There are many competing interests the PM needs to satisfy, such as keeping the Cabinet balanced with MPs in favour of remaining in or leaving the EU. Nevertheless, she surely could have found female colleagues to fill at least one of those roles? Considering that Theresa May once spearheaded a campaign for the Tories to elect more female MPs, and herself is only the second female Prime Minister of the country, it’s strange that she seems to have forgotten her ambition to lift other women as her latest reshuffle yet again puts men into positions of power.

It’s a shame, seeing as women have a reputation for highly developed skills and behaviour that in these troubled times could be valued. Amongst others, negotiation, multitasking, consensual behaviour, were identified in a 2011 study for the Equality and Human Rights Commission. Women also bring different perspectives to politics, highlighting issues that are easily overlooked by male politicians, as case studies from this 2017 Fawcett Society study show. Coupled with working harder than male counterparts to beat the perception of being out of place, these skills could be useful in managing current problems: how to integrate health and social care; how to hold internet giants accountable; or how to develop and maintain positive post-Brexit relationships with other countries.

Looking at the G7 nations and their cabinets, the UK ranks in the lower half with only three cabinet positions filled by women (The Rt Hon Karen Bradley MP is Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the Rt Hon Penny Mordaunt MP is Secretary of State for International Development, and the Rt Hon Esther McVey MP leads the Department for Work and Pensions). The UK only bests the United States and Japan, with two females each, and is outclassed by Italy with five, Germany with six (another country with a female political leader), France with eight and Canada with thirteen. While Canada may have a far larger cabinet, their female ministers still make up almost half the numbers – the UK is nowhere near that.

Perhaps the problem lies in the fact that there are few female Ministers within the departments that became vacant in the first place. The Foreign Office only has one female minister, the Rt Hon Harriet Baldwin MP. Both the Department of Health and Social Care and the Department for Culture, Media and Sports have two female appointments. In both departments men outnumber women. This is a problem across Government – the Ministry of Defence has no female Ministers, junior or otherwise. Out of 25 Ministerial departments, 64% have only one female appointment, or none.

There is a lot that the Prime Minister can learn from local government on this issue. Local authorities may face their own difficulties in promoting women in leadership, as the Fawcett Society study from 2017 reveals that women comprise just 30 percent of cabinet members overall. However, the number of female cabinet members rises to 40 percent where the leader is a woman. In the same vein, appointing more female junior Ministers could lead to more female Secretaries of State. By normalising women in such positions of power, hopefully in the future it won’t be an exception for a major political party of the UK to have a female party leader.

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