The best man for the job is a woman?

Written by: Linda Jack on 30 November, 2012
Filed under Democracy

“The most important thing is getting the best person for the job.” How often have you heard this mantra when the idea of positive discrimination of any kind is muted? OK then, if we always get the “best person” for the job, be that in politics or anywhere else – we can only draw one conclusion – women just aren’t as good as men. If we truly always get the “best person” for the job it must be our fault as women that we are so under represented in Westminster.

So, if we don’t accept that as women we are inferior, why are we where we are in terms of political representation? Of course, whether we like it or not, many women still take the lion’s share of caring responsibilities and will see that as a barrier to taking on the enormous challenge of becoming a parliamentarian, not least because of the expectations of time commitments for candidates seeking election. After all it wasn’t that long ago that Tory female applicants were asked what their husbands thought/would do, if they were elected. I also believe that as women we only tend to apply for jobs we know we can do – I don’t see many men with that impediment! And however effective equality legislation is we all know that there is a subconscious attraction to those who are like us or “look right” for the job. This is even more of a problem when parliamentary candidates are selected by party members who are not bound by equality legislation. The reality is that when most MPs are white middle class men, the white middle class man will always have the edge.

Many years ago I was asked to take over running a local Boys Club. The chair of the management committee, a local benefactor, was clearly put out that a woman had been sent in to help – his response to me “we had a lady leader once before, she was quite good (!) I think the boys looked on her as a mother”. Well, that kind of remark may remain unsaid today, but the attitudes that underpin it continue whether we like it or not. There is a subconscious acceptance of the status quo. I remember at a Lib Dem conference when I was called to speak in a debate following 14 men. I began by asking if conference noticed anything different about me – many of my male colleagues admitted to me afterwards that they hadn’t noticed.

For the Lib Dems, probably more so than for Labour or the Tories, getting more women in Parliament is a perennial challenge. Despite the work that has been done in terms of our Campaign for Gender Balance, by Women Liberal Democrats, or by Ethnic Minority Liberal Democrats – our parliamentary party, particularly in the Commons, remains embarrassingly male and pale.

And yet surely, if we want to represent effectively, we must be representative. While we draw our decision makers predominantly from middle class, white, Oxbridge educated men, we need to recognise the impact that has on the decisions that are made and the issues that are considered. No-one can deny that “Blair’s Babes” had an enormous impact on gender related legislation, yet we still have the nonsense of our legislators being largely unrepresentative of those they seek to represent. For many, the decisions they make on schooling, health, justice, just don’t touch them.

So what to do? Firstly, I think we need to reframe the debate and challenge what people mean by “best” – all too often that word is a smokescreen for people to hide behind. Isn’t it time, given the low esteem MPs are held in at the moment, that we talked a bit more about character as well as capability?

Secondly, continue to support and encourage women whoever and wherever they are and be prepared to share good practice cross party. And finally, I would say this wouldn’t I, but our current electoral system does not in any way lend itself to diversity – proportional representation would by its very nature improve diversity – you have only got to look at our elected MEPs to see that gender balance is far closer to 50/50 than in Westminster. After the debacle of the AV referendum it will be tempting to consign the idea to the bin, but, in the words of that old maxim – if we always do what we’ve always done, we’ll always get what we’ve always got……