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Invisible women - the missing X factor

Emily Georghiou on joining the political X and Y chromosomes

The 2010 General Election was an election of firsts:

  • First televised leaders debates featuring Messrs Brown, Cameron and Clegg
  • First hung parliament since 1974 delivered under First Past The Post (FPTP) defended because it prevents such results
  • First peace time coalition in living memory

Despite record numbers of new MPs and bold promises by political parties to the historic Speaker's Conference on Parliamentary Representation, this was an election more memorable for the absence of women - except the political equivalent of WAGs, the leaders' wives - than the number of women returned to Parliament, up only 16 to 142.

After 150 years of arguments for women's representation, the suffragettes and suffragists, just over one fifth of the Commons, 22 per cent, are women. Our 'mother of parliaments' has made progress, due to Cameron's A list and Harriet Harman's relentless pressure for change, with 190 Labour women contesting seats (Conservatives 152, LibDem 134).

The UK lags embarrassingly behind in the number of women in its Parliament, ranking joint 50th in the world, behind Rwanda, South Africa and Afghanistan. There are only four women in the Cabinet, including the second ever woman Home Secretary. The Coalition's Programme for Government is committed to gender equality on boards of listed companies, promotes equal pay and an end to discrimination in the workplace, 40 years on from the Equal Pay Act. Cameron and Clegg must be more radical on gender equality by involving women in policy development at every level and following up the Speaker's Conference cross party recommendations as a minimum requirement.

The media comment more on what women in politics wear than what they say. Women are more likely to stand in or represent those key marginals which under First Past the Post are where elections are won and lost. Because Labour All Women Short Lists before 1997 were in marginals, when Labour lost seats, Labour women lost out disproportionately. Labour seized the opportunity to promote women when male MPs stood down, and few non incumbents won outside safe seats. The North East elected the highest proportion of women MPs, 10 out of 29, with the lowest in the East of England, 9 out of 58 MPs.

We now have 81 Labour women MPs, 31% of Labour MPs, Conservatives have 48, up from 18, 16%, with Liberal Democrats with seven, down two women with two in government, Lynne Featherstone as Equalities Minister and Sarah Teather, Education. Of the increase of ethnic minority MPs, only eight out of 26 are women.

The Women 'Now' and 'Then' plays at London's Tricycle Theatre remind us merit and talent are not enough. Plays include Joy Wilkinson's 'Acting Leader' about Margaret Beckett, Sue Townsend's commentary on the class/gender overlap and Zinnie Harris's 'The Panel' where an all male appointments committee finds even the dream woman candidate "a bit too good to be true".

The coalition negotiations were male dominated, despite new politics being natural female territory. Media fears of hung parliaments producing indecisive government were overcome in order to get the job done, something many women and currently switched off male voters would prefer: greater negotiation, working together, consensus seeking and 'doing what's right for the country'. We need to solve problems in an inclusive way which does not rely on a false overall majority, based on a minority vote in the country, care of FPTP. The negotiations missed a trick by excluding women from this process, with 'group think' based not on deliberate exclusion of women but simply they were not in the conversation.

Plans to hold a referendum on the Alternative Vote (AV) do not automatically lend themselves to greater women's representation. Most AV elections are more proportional so they will better reflect the electorate. The culture of politics may change if the electorate continues to deny any one party overall control. Voters will have more choice in their single member constituency and could choose to give preferences to women. AV challenges the status quo and gives parties and candidates an incentive to appeal to a wider audience to attract second preferences. This may encourage local parties to put up more women candidates. In multimember or top up systems there are more mechanisms for improving women's representation. Labour's determination to move forward on gender equality in Wales was done by 'twinning' single member constituencies.

We cannot wait 200 years to address the current gender inequality in the UK Parliament. New suffragettes, as women members of LCER call themselves, want to work with people of any gender, ethnicity, disability, age, class, sexual orientation, religion or belief who believe it is unjust, inefficient and illegitimate not to have proper representation of the majority of our population in parliament. It's time to join up the X and Y chromosomes as nature intended!