All women shortlists: a step back for equality

Last month, the Equalities and Human Rights Commission ruled that using all-women shortlists to increase the number of women in the boardroom would constitute unlawful sex discrimination. However, EU law, puzzlingly, permits the use of all-women shortlists for political parties, as this is considered to fall outside the ambit of employment and occupation.

Currently, the Labour party is the only party to have implemented an all-women shortlist. This course of action was taken in the hope that its use would prompt an organic progression to a more gender-balanced Parliament. Consequently, the Labour Party boasts a number of women greater than all the other political parties put together, publishing that female candidates make up 58.8% of those selected for the next General Election so far.

All women shortlists contradict the principles of feminism

Despite these encouraging figures, and despite the legal stance that the use of all-women shortlists in Parliament is not a breach of anti-discrimination legislation, its legitimacy when considered next to principles of feminism and equality in general must be questioned. It would seem to me that boasting a figure of 58.8% means very little when we know that the pool has been meddled with in order to reflect such a statistic. This figure does not mean that the Labour Party isn’t sexist. In fact, I would submit that the use of such a scheme risks cultivating the very opposite.

My issue with all-women shortlists is not that I doubt the aptness of women to represent constituents in Parliament. My issue is that the use of such shortlists contradicts the principles of feminism that women, and indeed men, have for decades been trying to achieve. What does feminism – and indeed egalitarianism – stand for? Surely equality, respect, and freedom from degradation. The feminist movement has been made up of strong women, and men, who are proud to be fighting for equality. To have equal rights, despite gender. To be assessed purely on merit. To be treated the same.

Our MPs should be elected on the basis of merit and merit alone

All-women shortlists reek worryingly of tokenism, suggesting that women are not talented enough to succeed, that they are not talented enough to win over the electorate without a leg up. Women, like men, should have the privilege of fighting the same fight for every vote. The notion of all-women shortlists sounds patronising, because it is. Insult handed to us in the form of ‘equality’, while reinforcing the culture in which we are not considered equals at all. There’s no doubt in my mind that those advocating all-women shortlists do so in good faith. I won’t deny that its objective is sound. Yet the ‘bona fide’ aim will not withstand if the means by which it is attempted undermine and contradict its very objective. We want equality. How is equality achieved? Through respect. A scheme that fails to prioritise respect must be doomed from the start. All-women shortlists create a very real danger of further perpetrating an environment in which women in positions will be looked down upon. Despite being deserving of the position, women elected into positions through an all-women shortlist will inevitably, and even understandably, lack the same perceived credibility as that afforded to candidates selected using the orthodox method.

All women shortlists are insults handed to us in the form of equality

In 1997, 101 female members of Parliament were elected using all-women shortlists. These women, patronisingly labelled ‘Blair’s babes’ were the subject of much disrespect from even reputable media sources, with articles titled ‘Are Blair’s babes dumb?’ and ‘Blair’s babes hit puberty’. These women may well have been the ideal candidates for the job, without the interference of an all-female shortlist, but this is something that the women will never have the privilege of proving. Instead, the method of selection created doubt from the outset, and set an unfairly heightened standard for these women, these Members of Parliament, to uphold. Under this system, these parliamentarians are not simply Members of Parliament. They become Female Members of Parliament, defined and singled out by their gender – exactly what we should be trying to avoid. Women in positions of power have enough to contend with as it is, without the public being able to group them into a neat little sub-heading, exposing them to a barrage of disrespect and unfair scrutiny. Women don’t need another excuse to be singled out and targeted. We don’t need another reason to have our credibility and aptitude doubted. And to be completely honest, if a group – any group – is being given a leg up, I too would question and scrutinise its credibility.

These shortlists conceal the symptoms, but do little to address the underlying issues, and could, in fact, worsen the situation

The most important two principles to be upheld in Parliament are democracy and meritocracy. I want representatives elected on the basis of merit and merit alone. I want representatives who succeed, and who, in many cases, will inevitably fail, because of their own skills and judgement. I don’t want anyone to be able to say: ‘well, she did a terrible – or indeed brilliant – job in her role as home secretary, but then again, she was a woman’. If the appalling treatment of the female MPs working with Blair shows us anything, it is that this method of selection does little to afford women the respect they deserve – in fact, it facilitates disrespect.

Feminism demands women be treated the same. All women shortlists contradict that principle

The essence of the issue with all-women shortlists is simple: it is a ‘Band-Aid’ solution, and a poor one at that. It conceals the symptoms, yet does little to address the underlying issues, and could, in fact, worsen the situation. It’s time that women stopped being victimised and singled out, and it’s equally time that women stop allowing others to treat us as victims.

PHOTO/UK Parliament

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