Designing a new parliament with women in mind

Following the appointment of the UK’s second female Prime Minister, Jennifer Thomson assesses progress on gender equality in British politics. In particular, she considers how a restored and renewed Palace of Westminster could introduce changes to both the physical environment and political norms which could help address historical underrepresentation of women in Parliament.

Jun Scottish Parliament

Credit: Jun CC BY-SA 2.0

With a new female Prime Minister, and female First Ministers in Scotland and Northern Ireland, you might be forgiven for thinking that the problem of women’s representation in British politics had been solved.

You’d be wrong – women’s representation in Westminster hit a high in the 2015 General Election of 29%, but this only ranks the UK 48th in the world. In 356 constituencies, a woman has never been elected. Despite rumours of a feminised front bench in Theresa May’s new cabinet, only 7 out of 22 positions have gone to women.

The Palace of Westminster, as we know, is falling down. As we move in the coming decades towards fundamental changes in the architecture and everyday layout of the Houses of Parliament, this dearth of women in formal politics is important to consider. There is much evidence to suggest that the design and procedural style of the national Parliament play a key role in British politics being so male dominated. Feminist academic work can help to understand the problems that women in formal politics face, and how a national parliament might be designed differently to better accommodate them.

The developing field of feminist institutional theory argues that the moment of creating new institutions often allows for greater consideration of women and gender. It can allow for the chance to add key mechanisms within institutions so as to combat gender inequality from the outset. Thinking about Westminster specifically, the style of national British politics has long been decried as bullishly masculine, with the combative style of PMQs and the cross-chamber put-downs (of which Cameron’s “Calm down, dear” remains perhaps the most (in)famous) especially so. By contrast, the Chamber of the Scottish Parliament was pointedly designed in the round, so as to encourage a less aggressive style of debate. Feminist institutional work on the newly devolved bodies in Scotland and Wales suggests bodies that are less overtly dominated by the style of masculine debate as seen in Westminster. Writing of the Scottish Parliament in 2006, Fiona Mackay notes an “apparent ‘regendering’ of political norms” and “a culture of civility and mutual respect and has largely avoided the ‘yah boo’ adversarial practices of Westminster”. The conscious effort to think about gender in the design of the newly devolved institutions appears to be bearing fruit – with the exception of Northern Ireland, women’s representation has been far higher in Cardiff and Edinburgh (at one point reaching 50% of Welsh AMs) than London.

Beyond the style of rhetoric in Parliament, multiple other features of the institution make working life as an MP difficult, not just for women, but for anyone with caring responsibilities outside of their professional existence. Voting practices rely on the understanding that MPs are available at the drop of a hat and can work late into the evening for most of the year. As the BBC documentary series Inside the Commons showed when it followed Liberal Democrat MP Jenny Willot, this type of working practice is especially difficult for MPs with young children and might be easily rectified with the introduction of electronic voting in the new design. No wonder, perhaps, that the number of mothers in the House of Commons is significantly below the national average.

As the movement towards whatever replaces or updates the Palace of Westminster begins, this is a key moment to consider how the design and practices of our Parliament might be made friendlier, not just to women, but to those more generally who are currently under-represented. As long as the above practices and style of working remain, Parliament looks set to retain its white, male, middle-aged unrepresentative make-up (with any deviations from this norm likely to be the continued subject of disparaging comments and media sexism). Although outside of the physical design of the new parliament, the process of beginning to consider new architecture also opens an opportunity to address other ways of tackling this underrepresentation (such as job-sharing for MPs or quotas).

Now is also the time for key women’s lobbying groups (such as the Fawcett Society and 50:50 Parliament) to come together to advocate for greater attentiveness to women and gender in the consideration of how to update/change the Palace of Westminster – much as women’s groups in Scotland did prior to devolution, to considerable success. Thinking anew about our House of Parliament provides an important chance to ask fundamental questions about how representative our democracy really is, and how we might do better.

Note: this post originally appeared on the Crick Centre blog as part of their series Designing for Democracy. It represents the views of the author and not those of Democratic Audit or the LSE. Please read our comments policy before posting.

Jennifer Thomson is finishing her ESRC funded doctoral research on gender and post-conflict Northern Irish politics at the School of Politics and International Relations, Queen Mary University of London. Her work has been published in British Politics, Politics and the British Journal of Politics and International Relations.

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