Diane Abbott's entering the Labour leadership race made me very happy.
She is adding diversity and an extra dimension to a tedious collection of white middle-class men. But she is just one out of five. In the Cabinet, there are more Lib Dems than women and the proportion of female MPs is shockingly low.
Many people don’t care. Libby Purves’s article in the Times had the crushing headline: “Too few women? Read my lips: I don’t care.”
When Daily Mail columnist Melanie Phillips was asked on BBC Question Time to stick up for the ‘sisterhood’, she laughed (“I’ve never been much of a sister”) and said: “Frankly, when has anyone who’s NOT male, white and public school-educated ever wanted to be a politician?”
(An Asian man promptly stood up and said: “I do.” I shouted at iplayer from my sofa: “I do.”)
Comments of nonchalance break my heart. Why do I care? I care very much that there aren’t more women in parliament and government. I care because I think it’s very important that our government represents the electorate, and we are half female. I care because there are many issues that affect women more than men, and these do not get the attention. I care because I know there are many outstanding and talented women who are just not getting a look in. And I know that women are equally as intelligent and capable of leadership as men and that no scientific research has conclusively shown otherwise.
The views of Purves and Phillips are unhelpful because they are expressed out of context, which is this: it is all very well stating that women have equal opportunities (they do) but, with the wrong sort of attitudes, the situation is not equal.
Attitudes come from both men and women. As I’ve mentioned here, two eminent female journalists do not care that women aren’t getting there. Cameron and Clegg have a limited choice if there are fewer women available in the party and all but one of the potential women have stepped out of the leadership race. The powerful men will be heavily criticised if they choose women who are perceived not to be up to the job (although this perception is biased against women – see later). I think the leaders should try harder to find good women, but they can’t be solely to blame.
So what’s going wrong?
What’s interesting is that Libby Purves alludes to part of the reason, but doesn’t seem to realise she’s hit on the answer. She mentions that more attention is paid to the fashion sense rather than the policies of female politicians. She refers to the ‘caricaturing of females as objects or witches’ but she fails make the crucial link.
And yet this is the nub of the issue.
Opportunities may exist for women, in theory. But in practice there are many obstacles, all of them subtle and often overlooked. If women talk about them, they are criticised (yet more) for seeing problems where they don’t exist and deliberately being belligerent. Or they are made to be guilty. Or they stand aside for their husbands, because that is what traditionally women have always done.
(For example, Ed Balls and his wife Yvette Cooper reportedly agreed that she should give way her leadership ambitions in favour of his - see Tinkety Tonk's blog. I seem to remember this also happened with Tony and Cherie Blair when they were deciding who should enter politics.)
So it’s not that women don’t want the top jobs – many women do. But if they do, they face a bumpy ride, and – as Pinkstinks also points out – many simply don’t want to go through with it. It’s easier not to – after all, that’s what society is pressurising us to do. Women are constantly told that men are naturally more aggressive, with the implication that men are innate leaders and women are not. If women are as assertive as men, they are often labeled ‘trouble makers’.
Successful women are also treated brutishly as sex objects – their dominant status triggers a deluge of abuse and bullying which comes from people determined to see them as things to be looked at, sexually used and – at worst – raped. If you can bear it, read these horrific comments about Victoria Coren, top poker player, for classic examples of the treatment that successful women face.
And it’s not just women at the top. It’s women at every step of the way, working their way up from the bottom. In one of my writing jobs soon after I gained my doctorate, my Dr title wasn't acknowledged on the articles that I wrote, and yet my male colleague's was. If this happened to me now, I would openly protest, but in those days I didn’t want to appear to be a ‘trouble maker’.
If a woman wants to stand for an MP, be selected for Cabinet and become Prime Minister, there is no law stopping her. But she faces more criticism, scrutiny and discouragement at every step of the way.
And there are very few women – indeed, very few human beings – who are willing to put themselves through that.