By Christine Chapman
As the tenth anniversary of devolution approaches it is a good time to evaluate where we are in terms of the representation of women within the Welsh Assembly following the dramatic breakthrough in 1999.
The Welsh Assembly is a leader amongst legislatures in terms of its gender balance, not just in the UK, or in Europe but across the world. When the first Assembly was elected in 1999, 24 of the 60 members were women. At the 2003 election the record was even better with equal numbers of men and women being elected, and a 2006 by-election led to a simple majority. All Welsh Assembly Government Cabinets have had excellent ratios of women to men. In December 2008, Kirsty Williams was elected as the first female leader of a Welsh political party. As a comparison, women make up just under 20% of MPs at Westminster.
But in what ways does politics in a gender-balanced legislature differ? Does it make a difference? One of the reasons for establishing the All Party Women and Democracy Group, the Assembly group which I chair, was to mark the achievement of having so many women now in crucial positions to affect policy making in Wales. However, the group – which is open to men and women AMs – also debates emerging academic research on the subject. It also acts as a focal point for the worldwide interest Wales is attracting in terms of its National Assembly. The Assembly has hosted many visits from women parliamentarians from across the globe. During these visits it has been great to share common experiences. Although the cultures and geography may be different, the similarities can unite us.
A recent meeting of the group, Assembly Members and staff, with Laura McAllister, Professor of Governance at the University of Liverpool, reflected on the last ten years of gender representation. We noted a significant finding from the book written by Laura, Cardiff University academic, Paul Chaney and Edinburgh University’s Fiona Mackay which analysed specific, themed contributions by Assembly Members during plenary and committee debates. This research showed that the majority of all contributions on equal pay, domestic abuse and the need for better childcare were by women Assembly Members. Of course these are often dismissed as “women’s issues”, but they are problems that affect men and women in every community the length and breadth of Wales.
Equality of representation is vital, not simply for numerical reasons, but because the involvement of women within the political process can lead to better politics and governance even in what is often regarded as traditionally “male” areas such as the economy. Support for this comes from some unlikely quarters. The centre-right Industry Minister of the Norwegian Government introduced a quota to ensure that a minimum of 40% of the membership boards of all private companies were women, arguing that quotas make sound economic sense. The investment company Goldman Sachs published a paper in 2007 arguing that the reduction of gender inequality would increase economic growth. The World Bank suggests that poverty cannot be eradicated unless parity of gender is achieved.
The Assembly was born from the Government of Wales Act 1998, which contains an equality clause bestowing a duty on government to take a proactive stance and promote equality for all persons and in respect of all government functions. We need political structures that are truly reflective. For governments and political institutions to be credible and representative and to help bridge the gap between politicians and voters, they need to be drawn from all of the population, regardless of gender, disability, sexuality or race. Political structures also need to be reflective of the people so that they can make appropriate policy. People need to be able to identify with those who represent them.
Unfortunately we cannot rest on past success. Laura McAllister argued not so long ago that although there was cause to celebrate the gender balance in the Welsh Assembly, it was nevertheless still a very “fragile” situation. At the 2007 elections, the percentage of female Assembly Members slipped to 47%. It should be remembered that the success in Wales did not just “happen”. It came about after great effort and indeed angst within the political parties.
For example, Labour’s policy of “twinning” led to the excellent gender parity that followed the 1999 election. Plaid adopted a policy of “zipping” for the 2007 elections, whereby women automatically received first place on the regional lists. But this policy will undergo some modification for the next election, and women will no longer automatically be allocated the top slot. Liberal Democrats and Conservatives have yet to adopt a policy of guaranteeing female candidates, and only one of the twelve Conservative AMs is a woman. It is recognised from other countries that positive action such as quotas and all-women shortlists are the only effective method in the medium term of ensuring gender balance.
Local councils in Wales (whose services most closely affect communities) also show a stubborn resistance to becoming more balanced in terms of gender. Marginal increases in some areas are mitigated by a total lack of progress in others. For example, just two councillors out of the 33 who compose Merthyr Tydfil Council are women. Women are also dramatically under-represented amongst council leaders. Anecdotal evidence suggests women politicians still face greater hostility and more damningly personal criticism by elements in the media than their male counterparts, which could serve as a powerful deterrent to aspiring female politicians.
Is the future female? Not unless all parties make a deliberate, conscious effort to continue the excellent progress recently made, and to encourage women to take their rightful places as candidates, elected members and law-makers. Diversity is vital, as it leads to the confluence of different viewpoints and the challenging of preconceived attitudes. Diversity is also a process. As boundaries shift to include one group within the political community, it becomes more difficult to justify the exclusion of other groups. It is also about fairness. The Welsh Assembly, can, and should, reflect this.