Speaker's Conference (on Parliamentary Representation) Contents

Submission from the National Federation of Women's Institutes (SC-4)


  The National Federation of Women's Institutes (NFWI) is an educational, social, non-party political and non-sectarian organisation. It was established to ensure that women are able to take an effective part in their community, to learn together, widen their horizons, improve and develop the quality of their lives and those of their communities and together influence local, national and international affairs. The WI (Women's Institute) has an unrivalled reputation as a voice of reason, integrity and intelligence on issues that matter to women and their communities.

  The ideals of the WI of truth, justice, tolerance and fellowship are as strong and important now in the 21st century as they were at the birth of the WI in 1915. Equality and human rights are issues which have always been at the forefront of the organisation. In 1943 the NFWI passed the following resolution: "That men and women should receive equal pay for equal work" and in 1975: "The NFWI believes in the principle of equality of opportunity and of equal status for men and women and pledges itself to work to achieve this". In addition the NFWI has over 6 resolutions calling for equality with regards to older people and people with disabilities. Many of these mandates have as much relevance today as when they were discussed and campaigned on by the organisation and its membership.

  NFWI has some 200,000 members in 7,500 Women's Institutes across England, Wales and the Islands.

Are problems caused by the unbalanced representation in the House of Commons of different groups in society? If so, what are those problems?

  Less legitimacy. Without accurate representation of all groups in society, parliament will not reflect the diversity of views in the population and will thus lack legitimacy. More effective policy is also created if it's informed by diverse opinions. Better representation confers legitimacy, promotes ownership, and should result in better decisions and therefore better government.

  Loss of faith in the political process—leading to lower voter turnout. Voters are put off by political discourse being run entirely by middle aged, middle class white men. Low voter turnout in recent years reflects this.

  Barriers to cultural equality. Equality laws are vital in dismantling the barriers to greater involvement of women in all areas of public life. However, much of the remaining discrimination is cultural. Normalising the concept of women holding public office alongside men will act to change cultural attitudes towards the role of women.

  Policy making not accurately reflecting the needs of the whole of society. An increase in the number of women elected would lead to higher quality of decision-making would reflect the greater diversity of experience of those making the decisions. It is arguable that the far greater number of women MPs post 1997 contributed to significant break throughs in policy areas such as equal pay and child care.

Is there a relationship between these levels of representation and voter attitudes to Parliament?

  More women parliamentarians are also crucial if we are to combat widespread political apathy. The old-fashioned, macho, aggressive way of doing business is simply alienating the electorate. While women, especially young women are put off by politics because they feel it just does not represent them.

  Electoral Commission research has shown that women are far more likely to turn out and vote if they are represented by a woman. They are also far more likely to become involved in a political campaign if they are working with a female candidate.

What are the reasons why more women, people from ethnic minorities and disabled people do not become Members of Parliament:

  Barriers are both practical and cultural.

  Qualitative research conducted in March 2006 by the NFWI Women Making a Difference Project with groups of women in Bridgend, Neath Port Talbot, Blaenau Gwent Anglesey & Wrexham identified a number of barriers—or limiting considerations—which were preventing women in Wales taking a more active part in "Public Life".

  1.  Lack of confidence was the main reason why women taking part in the research said they would not stand for any position in public life—especially

    — to stand up and speak in front of a large group to speak

    — in meetings—particularly in front of men.

    — if they are currently outside the workforce, for example taking a career break to bring up children—or if they work in a part time low skilled/paid capacity.

  2.  Many of the women were simply unaware of the opportunities to serve on public bodies—or that there are targets to fill them. They perceived Boards, Trusts etc., as closed (recruited on the golf course) or politically biased. Even if the women were aware of public appointments and realise they may be eligible, they did not generally know where they were advertised or how to apply for them.

  3.  Women were not always clear about what positions in public life would entail. For many of the women who would want to take up a public appointment—a duty which she must add to her regular employment, and often to running a household and looking after children and/or elderly relatives—they felt that the role must be attractive to them and worthwhile.

  4.  The women appeared to be less attracted by the desire to acquire power and influence and more by the desire to make a tangible difference. National level roles seem to be less attractive to women than local roles. This may be because women are more familiar with local issues and so they feel they could "make a difference" in these situations.

  5.  The perceived culture of public bodies as being "old boys networks" were identified by almost all of the groups of women as being a barrier which was preventing many of them from wanting to become involved in public life.

  6.  Many of the women were already combining their career with child and/or elder care. This was thought to be a barrier both in terms of time away conflicting with caring responsibilities and also the costs and/or availability of child or elder care during these absences.

  Women Making a Difference has tried to address these barriers by educating and empowering women who might not otherwise see themselves in public appointment roles—equipping them with the skills and confidence to apply, and successfully compete on merit against other applicants, for positions in public life—any level; locally, regionally and nationally. More details below.

  There may also be some residual sexism within local political parties, when it comes to making up shortlists for selection. This is a cultural barrier that needs to be overcome if parties are not to use quotas.

  The type of electoral system has long been regarded as an important factor; many studies have demonstrated that far more women are commonly elected under proportional party lists than via majoritarian single-member constituencies (our FPT system).

  Why don't more from these groups consider standing for election?

  Or, if they do,

    1. Why aren't more of them selected? Or, if they are,

    2. Why aren't more of them elected?

  See above for answer to part one.

  1.  Barriers to selection arise from very closed party selection systems, which often do not actively encourage and even discriminate against them. An exception was the introduction of all-women short-lists in target seats by the British Labour Party, leading towards the proportion of women at Westminster doubling from 1992-97. However, many parties dislike the idea of all women shortlists and many women themselves see them as eroding the principle of equity.

  Winning the support of the local party means investing a lot of time in local party work, which may be a problem for women with family responsibilities.

  2.  Barriers to election can again arise from the lack of time available to many women to devote to the endless campaigning and canvassing required to become a known face to the local electorate. PPCs often start their pre-election campaigning a year before an election—with local visits, press releases and by setting up campaigns to save local services. This requires a considerable time commitment.

  There is also a financial angle to campaigning. The pre-election low level campaign period will need a lot of disposable income—while campaigning during a general election is a full time job and requires many candidates to take sabbaticals or simply resign from their jobs. A financial cushion during that period is less available to women than it is to many men. Employers also need to be sympathetic and flexible on this issue.

What are the problems and practical difficulties encountered—at any point in the process of selection and election—by members of these underrepresented groups who are looking to become MPs?

  Please see the above answer.

What actions could be taken by the Government, political parties and interest groups to address disparities in representation?

  The NFWI believes that the primary unaddressed barrier lies in women's feelings of representation on every level in society. The challenge should be to make women's voices heard at the most local level as a first step, to open the possibility to them that positions of office are achievable. Mentoring schemes would then open the door to elected office.

Encouraging community activisim—women as "agents of change"

  WI experience over the years has shown that individual women thrive when they are able to contribute to their community in a way that is meaningful to them. WI actions in recent years have centred on the unique role of women as "agendas of change" in their community. This is a unique way of creating change in society and one that believes women are well placed to do as they are primarily responsible for day to day decisions in their household. It believes that change cannot be imposed from above but should be the result of the collective behaviour of the grass roots. This example will then spread to the rest of the community.

  In recent years, WI members have set up such projects in the areas of food sustainability and environmentalism.

  With the recently completed Love Food project, 11 WI members acted as group leader to 11 groups around the country involving 81 households, which met once a month over four months to discuss key behaviours that contribute to the amount of food waste produced in the home. The groups successfully cut their food waste by half over a four month period and all commented that the group support had been key to helping them achieve it.

  Through their action in eco teams, WI members have shown that individuals and community groups can make a huge positive impact on the environment and can lead the way towards a more sustainable future in their everyday lives. The WI's eco teams were designed for 6-8 households to come together once a month to discuss their household habits and then make changes enabling them to reduce their impact on our environment.

  Another example of a project where WI members are acting as "agents of change" is the Lets Cook scheme. Trained members show young parents from disadvantaged backgrounds the benefits of healthy eating by teaching cooking skills and knowledge of the benefits of healthy eating. The idea is that they would then pass on healthy life skills onto the next generation and break a tradition of relying on convenience over nutrition. The project which will now run until end of March 2010 continues to thrive 539 parents have successfully completed the course.

  We believe that the Government needs to do more to harness the potential of voluntary groups—by providing them with the infrastructure and support to promote behaviour change in their community. It's important that the government does not simply delegate areas of essential work to voluntary groups with no financial or other support. Voluntary groups have a role to play but must not replace essential core services, which public authorities must still provide.

  The Government is often guilty of providing funds and support for voluntary groups to set up pilot projects and then expecting them to continue afterwards without any support or guidance about how to be self-sustainable.

Opening the door to elected office

  We believe that the key to this lies in bringing the often closed world of politics closer to women via education and practical mentoring schemes—such as the Women Making a Difference project run by NFWI Wales.

  We do not support special quotas as they may compromise quality. Equity should not be achieved at the expense of merit, and the responsiveness of parties will be reflected in their popular vote.

  Having more women in elected political posts will provide role models for girls to aspire to and promote a popular perception that women are equal to men.

  Women Making a Difference—an NFWI Wales project: In an attempt to encourage and support more women to get involved in public life, NFWI-Wales in partnership with Women's Voice and Oxfam UK Poverty Programme established the Women Making a Difference Project in 2005.

  Women Making a Difference training programme delivered through NFWI-Wales' Project, encourages women from hard to reach communities to "get onto the decision making ladder" by taking up key positions within their local communities—which will give them the skills, knowledge and confidence to become more involved in public life at a regional and national level. Skills training, mentoring and role shadowing are considered key to successfully encouraging more public appointment applications from underrepresented groups.

  The priority groups for the Women Making a Difference programme of training are women who are currently underrepresented in public life because of race, disability, language or because they live in socially deprived areas. Over 150 women from a wide range of backgrounds have taken part in Engendering Change training across Wales. All these women want to make a "difference" in their communities—where they are very often carrying out key volunteering roles but don't have the confidence to become the "decision makers" themselves.

  Courses held to date have been a great success—and approx. 70 women have gone on to the second stage of the programme "Women into Public Life" which encourages the women to work with personal mentors who support them on their journey into public life, as well as taking part in "role shadowing" so that they have an understanding of the commitment and expectation of the position in public life that they are aiming to take up.

  Evidence to date has shown that many of the women taking part in the programme have been given the confidence and skills to make a difference and have been actively using these within their community and in public life. Employment has also been secured by at least three women following increased confidence.

  Government and interest groups could also do more to overcome the negative attitude that many women have towards elected office by raising awareness about ways to get involved at a younger age. Schools could devote learning time to understanding the process and could invite female politicians to speak to students.

  Breaking down barriers in political parties involves moving away from a very closed and male-dominated culture. Aside from the use of all-women shortlists, women looking to be selected for seats need ongoing advice and support from fellow local party members. This would open up the often hidden local party system.

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