Why are so few MPs women? Labour's female frontbench cannot hide the bigger inequality problem

We need more than positive discrimination on gender inequality

Towards the end of the 18th century, in a text called A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Mary Wollstonecraft made the case for gender equality in areas of public life.

Although she recognized that gender roles were deeply rooted in tradition and society, her theories have since been criticised for ignoring the fundamentally structural nature of oppression.

 Many a feminist thinker since Mary has argued that the equal participation of women in public spheres, such as the workplace, in education, and in parliament, does not necessarily weed out the reasons why women and other oppressed groups struggle to gain equal footing in the first place; or rather, why society struggles to pave the way.

300 years after Wollstonecraft’s polemic oeuvre was first published, the Labour Party adopted All-Women Shortlists for candidate elections, in a bid to improve the stark gender inequalities both within the party itself and in parliament. In 1992, just 9.2 per cent of all MPs in the United Kingdom were women.

While it is unlikely that Labour’s adoption of All-Women Shortlists was directly influenced by A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, the method echoes at least a few of the text’s core theories – and indeed appears to ignore the criticisms of it; that ensuring equal representation of men and women in parliament does not root out the underlying causes of inequality. Even if the high number of women on Labour’s front bench during Prime Minister’s Questions today represented the usual order of things – which it does not - their presence alone cannot cure structural inequalities. Positive discrimination is no panacea.

Today, barely a quarter of all MPs are women. It may have taken Labour a few centuries to get to grips with 18-Century ideas, but the other mainstream parties have made even slower progress. In 2010, only 30 per cent of Labour’s candidates were women, but over three quarters of Tory candidates were not. As for the number of female MPs that were actually voted in during the General Election, Labour scraped 31 per cent, while the Tories managed just 16 per cent. Most shockingly of all, only 12 per cent of Lib Dem MPs were women. Perhaps, Ed Miliband was right to accuse Cameron of running the government like “an old boys’ network” in parliament today.

In the 21st century, unlike during Wollstonecraft’s era, the notion that women and men should be equal is widely accepted; racism, homophobia, ableism and class-based discrimination are prevalent, but those who argue that these groups should not participate in political public life are in the minority. Which begs the question; why are there so few female MP candidates? Why don’t we vote for women? Why are so few MPs people of colour? Why are so many of them graduates of Eton? Why, in 2013, was there just one transgender MP in the whole world? In essence, what is it about our society that makes us prefer authority in the form of rich, white cis-men to a truly representative democracy? What is it about our culture that pits these characteristics above everything else?

These are the answers we need to find before we can dream of a political system in which everyone has an equal chance to participate.

Some argue that it is the political system itself which needs changing; that the process favours a type of candidate. The Electoral Reform Society notes that because First Past The Post limits a constituency’s choice of candidates, representation of minorities and women suffers from ‘most broadly acceptable candidate syndrome’. In parliament itself, women still face discrimination – there is no maternity leave, for example. Allegations of sexual harassment are not unheard of, and even the shocking Lord Rennard case rages on. Members of political parties have pointed out that local groups can be directly discriminatory towards women. The institution is anything but female-friendly, it seems.

There is, of course, the argument that gender parity in parliament, in the boardroom and in every position of authority can be empowering for those of us beneath who can see other women on the higher rungs. Perhaps there is a degree of truth in this. But while this same culture and its media continue to level ever greater scrutiny against female politicians – or leave them out of coverage all together – it is difficult to tell.

There is no denying that Labour has taken the path to fairer gender representation in parliament, even if it has come 300 years after the birth of “liberal feminism”. All-Women Shortlists ensure that we have some women in politics. Because we would want our democracy to represent us, by its very nature, this can only be a good thing. About half of us are women, after all.

But positive discrimination alone does not challenge the reasons why it is deemed necessary in the first place. This argument is at least half a century old already. Let’s hope that parliament listens to it before the year 2300.