Attendees at the women's march in Manchester

Data, words and deeds: diversity in politics

by Helen Pankhurst

Published: 08 Mar 2019

Each year, International Women’s Day provides us with an opportunity to celebrate progress towards gender equality throughout the world and to reflect on how far we’ve come.

Last year we marked 100 years since some women won the right to vote - and the right to stand as a Member of Parliament.

The centenary provided a chance to celebrate both the words and deeds of the suffragettes and suffragists who secured that historic victory.

But despite great change, on International Women’s Day 2019 we are still a long way off achieving equality in politics.

"My great grandmother, Emmeline Pankhurst ... would not be impressed by the representation gap that remains in politics"

Although women make up 51% of the population of Britain, they only make up 32% of MPs and 29% of Peers in Westminster.

At the current rate of progress, it could take at least another 40 years to achieve equal representation.

My great grandmother, Emmeline Pankhurst, and the thousands of other women who campaigned to get us the vote might well be encouraged by some of the changes in the lives of women in the 21st Century, but they would not be impressed by the representation gap that remains in politics.

Since 1918 there have been just 491 women MPs, and 100 years on from the centenary of women’s right to stand as a Member of Parliament, we still lag behind 37 countries when it comes to gender equality in politics. 

The UK Government needs to ask itself, what are the roadblocks? Why are parties failing to select women? What can we all do to achieve equal representation?

"We simply don’t have good enough data"

New research from the Equality and Human Rights Commission on the diversity of elected officials in Great Britain shows us just how significant the problem is. In particular, it exposes serious shortcomings in the way that diversity data is collected, collated and reported.

To put it bluntly, we simply don’t have good enough data. It’s not systematically gathered and so there is no consistency in data collection processes, leaving us with a fragmented picture. 

This begs the question, if we don’t know where we stand in terms of candidate diversity, how are we going to make further progress on eliminating the diversity deficit; how are we going to make sure that the MPs representing us truly reflect Britain’s people?

Gender pay gap reporting in April last year rocketed equality to the top of many employers’ agendas. Knowing that the information would be made public and that they would be compared to other companies encouraged employers to address inequalities in their organisations. 

Collecting diversity data in parliament could have the same effect. The spotlight – showing clearly who is encouraged into the pipeline of politics and who is not, would lead not just to improvements in the representation of women, but also of other under-represented groups, based on ethnicity, sexuality, disability etc.

"It’s up to this generation, this parliament, to act"

That’s why the Equality and Human Rights Commission, the Centenary Action Group and others are asking for section 106 of the Equality Act to be brought into force.

If brought into force it would demand of political parties that they publish information, including data, about the protected characteristics of candidates; information that can then be used to inform practical, meaningful action to improve the diversity of our elected representatives.

It’s up to this generation, this parliament, to act.

Bringing into force section 106 would immediately radically transform the context. It would promote a political landscape that fosters transparency and therefore promotes equal representation in politics.

The time is now.

Helen Pankhurst

Helen Pankhurst CBE is an international development and women's rights activist and writer. 

She is the great granddaughter of Emmeline Pankhurst and granddaughter of Sylvia Pankhurst, who were both leaders in the British suffragette movement.