Andrew Grice: Some politicians are still more equal than others

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Where have the women gone? They are a majority of the electorate but are in a very small minority when the parties hold a press conference or launch a policy – unless it is about families or childcare.

Thirty-one years after Margaret Thatcher became our first woman Prime Minister, we seem to have gone backwards in the long struggle by women politicians to get a permanent seat at the top table.

Most events in this election seem to be strictly men-only. Yvette Cooper, the Work and Pensions Secretary, was allowed out on Tuesday to launch Labour's "manifesto for families", but only alongside her husband, Ed Balls. It is assumed by (male-dominated) Westminster watchers that Mr Balls would be their household's candidate in a Labour leadership election with Ms Cooper on his campaign team. Ought the roles be reversed? some Labour insiders wonder aloud. Stranger things have happened.

Lord Mandelson, who heads the Labour campaign, chaired the press conference and spoke of the couple's lovely children. He has elbowed Harriet Harman, Labour's elected deputy leader, off the platform at most of his party's press conferences.

The women are also invisible in Toryland. There have been fleeting glimpses of Theresa May, Caroline Spelman and Baroness Sayeeda Warsi. Some (male) Tory candidates think Lady Warsi in particular is woefully under-used and that she proved she could play in the big league when she appeared on Question Time with the BNP leader, Nick Griffin. As for the Liberal Democrats, Sarah Teather sneaked on to the platform when the manifesto was launched but I haven't spotted her since.

Women politicians are privately appalled by their low profile but don't want to rock the boat during the heat of battle. One told me: "No comment – yet."

This was christened the "Mumsnet election" as politicians queued to take part in the group's webchats. But this now looks like a cynical piece of short-term box-ticking.

Equality campaigners believe the male-dominated party leaderships are stereotyping women and assuming they are interested only in issues such as child care. "There is a culture across all parties to view women predominantly as carers and mothers," said Ceri Goddard, chief executive of the Fawcett Society. "Sixty-five per cent of the users of public services are women. They are interested in other issues like the deficit too. The closer the polls get, the more politicians revert to type – a boys' club where only men can debate the issues."

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