Editor-At-Large: Business as usual: very few women, far too many men

The simpering leaders' wives were given more column inches than any female candidate
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The Independent Online

Who was the biggest loser? As the results came in, most commentators concluded that the Lib Dems had run out steam as Clegg's telly magnetism failed to deliver at the ballot box. In truth, he's the ultimate winner, courted on both sides, the chap who holds the key to the next parliament. The real losers in this election are women, who will constitute only one in five of the new MPs. Throughout the election campaign we witnessed a weird phenomenon – the main parties courted female voters with mum-friendly policies and online chats with parenting websites and women's magazines, while they conducted day-to-day strategy in an almost wholly male environment.

Look at the front-liners who consistently spoke up on the media and conducted the hand-to-hand fighting: Team Cameron featured Osborne, Hague, Clarke, Fox and Pickles, and (rarely) Theresa May. In spite of a good performance on Question Time, swatting off Nick Griffin on the subject of immigration, Tory Baroness Warsi hardly made any impact. Team Brown consisted of Mandelson, Balls, Burnham, Johnson, Darling – and, very occasionally, when they managed to fight their way into a photo opportunity – Harriet Harman and Yvette Cooper. The Lib Dem attack unit consisted of Clegg, Cable and those well-seasoned media pundits of yesteryear, Ashdown and Sir Menzies Campbell. The simpering, unelected, leaders' wives managed to accumulate more column inches, more picture coverage and more interest than anything said by any female parliamentary candidate.

The debates were an all-male preening contest, show dogs parading without engaging with voters or each other. When I said on Question Time after the final one that women had been airbrushed out of the election, I had a massive number of emails and letters. From Mumsnet founder Justine Roberts to PR guru Lynne Franks, female voters and candidates agreed that although politicians love to talk up equality, they are not so keen to put it into practice.

Fact: women make up 65 per cent of the workforce, but in spite of all-female shortlists, fast-tracked candidates and "change", the number of female MPs will rise by a pathetic 2.5 per cent. Labour MPs have dropped from 94 women to 81. The Tories have 48, up from 18, and the number of Lib Dem women dropped from nine to seven. The Greens and other parties account for six, making a total of 142.

Overall, the situation is more or less as before. Where a female MP retired, very often another woman has taken their place, which hasn't resulted in an overall increase in numbers. All over the country, smart hard-working women fought other women in tightly contested seats: in Islington South, Lib Dem Bridget Fox failed to unseat Labour Emily Thornberry, largely because the Tory candidate, Antonia Cox, did pretty well and split the vote. In Brent Central, Lib Dem Sarah Teather took the seat from Labour's Dawn Butler. Lynne Featherstone held Hornsey for the Lib Dems against Labour's Karen Jennings. In Westminster North, Labour's Karen Buck fought off Tory Joanne Cash. But in spite of all the blather about promoting women, there were dozens of seats all over the country where all the main candidates were male.

Overall, a lot of female talent has been chucked on the scrap heap because of poor strategic planning by those same party leaders who told us they wanted to help us. Shockingly, we lag behind Afghanistan when it comes to female representation, and well behind the rest of the EU. At this rate of change, it's been estimated that it will take 40 general elections before we will achieve parity.

Some female commentators have railed against the idea of "women-friendly" policies. Yes, we are people, not a special category. But, given that surveys show 49 per cent of women feel politicians don't consider their views on key issues such as electoral reform and cutting the budget deficit, we need the right numbers of women shaping the legislation that will affect every aspect of our lives.

When the recession hit and the Government bailed out the banks and took the financial industry to task, they completely failed to force the City to treat women more fairly. The Government didn't insist that the companies receiving our money had an equal number of female directors. And Harriet Harman failed to force quotas onto boards in her Equalities Bill – businesses who employ more than 250 people will have to report on their gender pay gap by 2013.

Big deal! Women drive consumption at every level, and yet are nowhere to be seen at the top of the most successful companies. You'd think they'd want female input to target customers and appeal to more than just the male 49 per cent of the population. Not so, one in five of the FTSE 100 companies still has an all-male board, only 12 per cent of all their directors are female, and at the current rate of change it would take 73 years to achieve equality. Although Harriet Harman railed against all-male boards, she was told that to implement quotas would be against EU legislation. What a cop-out. Norway, which is not bound by such madness, imposed a quota system in 2008. In 2002, only 6 per cent of board directors were female. Six years later, the number had soared to 44 per cent, which proves rapid change is possible.

The financial services industry sees some shocking discrepancies in pay: female directors earn 18.6 per cent less than their male counterparts, whereas in the country overall, the figure is 16.6 per cent. Junior female staff in the city earn on average 18.8 per cent less than men, whereas the figure is only 9.5 per cent nationally.

It took until the last week of the election campaign for David Cameron to come out with his Big Plan to get more women represented at board level. It smacked of desperation, the latest big surprise to be whisked from the Tories' bran tub in their bid to prop up falling opinion polls, along with those embarrassing revelations about siestas and the cringe-making battlebus lovey-dovey photos. Cameron wants half the candidates on longlists for directorships to be female. Every directorship would be publicly advertised, to circumvent the old boy network and allow women to apply. Any board which has less than 30 per cent female directors would have to show in its annual report how they were planning to remedy the situation. These moves go much further than anything proposed by Labour and are long overdue. None, according to the Tories, fall foul of those damn EU laws.

Of course it's important to have family-friendly policies, and accommodate working women with flexible working and better childcare. But women are stuck on the back burner in the UK until they assume their rightful place in the boardroom and the Commons, shaping the way our country is run from its beating heart. The next government needs to realise that those two targets must be top of their agenda. Never mind Mr Clegg: half the electorate has been badly let down.