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Best-ever election for women gives Britain a more balanced cabinet

Women in the front row after cabinet reshuffle. Stefan Rousseau/PA

After all the speculation, we now know how all the parties fared in the general election. But what about women? Was this a good outcome for them? The answer is a qualified yes.

Women comprised a record number of candidates in the election, with 1,033 standing for election. Now no one can credibly argue that women don’t come forward or don’t want to stand for office. The candidates are there. And a record number of them won in 2015, taking the total number of women MPs from 147 (22.6%) to 191 (29.4%). While this means women have yet to breach the 30% (never mind 50%) threshold, it is at least a step in the right direction.

This average conceals stark disparities between the parties. Labour improved on 2010 levels (33.7%) to reach 42.7% women. As in 2010, Labour is a minority party within parliament but have an absolute majority of women MPs (99 out of 191). The SNP has 35.7% women, also a significant improvement from 2010 (fuelled in part by their spectacular success under their dynamic female leader). The Conservatives come in rather lower, at 20.5% women, but this is also a rise from the 2010 level (15.9%).

In fact, the only party to go backwards is the Liberal Democrats, which now has exactly zero women MPs. While some of the explanation for this disaster lies in their overall catastrophic election result, the party was only set to have one woman MP even when it looked like it was going to get 20-odd seats. The women who wore “I am not a token woman” t-shirts when the party rejected quotas may now be regretting the fact that the parliamentary party has no women, token or otherwise, among its ranks.

Given the large differences in women elected by party, we can infer that the proportion of women elected was influenced by the balance of power between the parties. The seats lost by the Lib Dems to the Conservatives helped to boost the overall proportion of women, while the seats lost by Labour to the SNP and especially to the Conservatives had the opposite effect. These effects largely cancelled each other out, meaning that the final total of women was only one shorter than the number predicted by the Electoral Reform Society, who forecast 192 women MPs.

Women in cabinet

One consequence of having more women on the government backbenches is that David Cameron had a better choice of female candidates for his new government. (He was also no longer constrained by an all-male Lib Dem front bench, which always brought down the total percentage of women in government.) The new cabinet is 31% women; seven women cabinet ministers out of 22, plus two out of seven ministers who also attend cabinet. That’s the good news, and it’s not to be sniffed at.

Cameron has finally (more or less) fulfilled his 2008 pledge to have one third women in the cabinet. He avoided promoting women “too fast”, to refute claims from disgruntled backbenchers that he was giving inexperienced women promotions on the basis of gender rather than merit.

The cream of the 2010 crop had started to rise by 2014, and they are now continuing to work their way up the ranks. While 31% is still a far cry from gender equality, it should be noted that this compares favourably to the proportion of women in the parliamentary party (20%), indicating that Cameron is striving to present a more representative image for his party. This is also indicated by the strategic placement of women in the photo of the 2015 cohort of Tory MPs.

The women promoted to the government in 2014 and 2015 now form a pipeline ready to rise to the top jobs in the future. This is as well, because the bad news is that there are still very few women in those top jobs. The BBC’s list of new cabinet members, which is near enough in order of seniority, has nine men in the top ten positions – only Theresa May, who retains her position as home secretary, holds a senior post. The other women are concentrated in the lower ranks of the cabinet. But at least they are there, ready to continue rising in the future.

Will the increased presence of women in cabinet help to resolve Cameron’s so-called “women problem”? Symbolically, it sends out a good message to women voters. Substantively, it remains to be seen.

The previous government was criticised for making decisions that negatively affected women, in part due to women’s absence from the decision-making process. The Tory party manifesto promises more cuts to benefits which are likely to have a particularly negative effect on women. The key question is whether having more women at the table will stop the government from making decisions that could damage their reputation – and destroy women’s lives.

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