Debate: Should half the cabinet be made up of women?

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Yes. Written by Catherine Moir. Edited by Vicky Shreeve. Additional Research by Marc Geddes.

A recent parliamentary briefing paper tells us that ‘Women make up 51% of the population, but only 22% of MPs are women’. Admittedly, this is the highest ever number and proportion of women in parliament to date, but women are still grossly under-represented in the Cabinet and the lower house in general. There are various structural reasons for this. It will come as no surprise that discrimination against women is widespread and persistent even in an apparently morally mature society like the British one, where ‘fairness’ and ‘equality’ have long been political buzzwords. Worldwide, women undoubtedly represent the largest single (although not homogenous) group to suffer discrimination in every aspect of life, from sexual violence to inequality in the workplace.

What is more, while women have won some phenomenally important battles in their struggle to emancipate the female sex, even in countries like ours where women can (at least in theory) choose who to have sex with, when or whether to have children, who to vote for, indeed to vote at all, the most cursory assessment of the situation tells us that it is still very much a man’s world.  From the patriarchal family model to the upper echelons of political power in the House of ‘Lords’ (with a ‘no Ladies, please!’ rule until 1958), power structures are still absolutely male-dominated in the UK today, a fact clearly illustrated by the statistics on women in parliament.

Efforts such as the Labour party’s use of all-women shortlists in elections and the last Labour government’s Sex Discrimination Act (Election Candidates) 2002, which exempts female electoral candidates from existing sex discrimination provisions, are examples of ‘positive action’: measures intended to increase the representation of women in areas from which they have traditionally been excluded, such as the Cabinet. Positive action is often confused with ‘positive discrimination’, which in this case would involve appointing a female minister to the Cabinet over a male one, assuming she were equally or better qualified. Positive discrimination is currently unlawful in the UK, but many still believe that positive action of this kind is in itself discriminatory against men. Now, discrimination is by nature a zero-sum game: if you give preferential treatment to one, the other loses out. That has been the fate of women in the political sphere since time immemorial and it is, quite simply, unfair. Any male cry of discrimination at having equal-sex representation in the Cabinet after the centuries of unfettered dominance men have enjoyed there would be tinged with, well, sexism.

The deliberate gender-equal composition of the Cabinet would not constitute discrimination – the fact that, without it, women are less likely to arrive there because of their gender, that’s discrimination. Women make up just over half of the British population, so why shouldn’t they make up half of our most senior governmental organ, the political body that makes many of the most significant decisions affecting women and men alike? The most common argument is that Cabinet members should be selected on a meritocratic basis: the best person should be chosen for the job. Sound logic on the face of it, although in a system where men pick the right person for the job and the candidates are mainly male, meritocracy only serves to perpetuate male-dominated power structures. Not to mention the fact that choosing Cabinet members is often as much a case of party politicking as it is meritocratic selection. After all, with the exception of the Chancellor, Secretaries of State do not have to be experts in their departmental field. As for why women are less likely to end up in the Cabinet, that is a complex question and it has to do with everything from societal pressure on women to reproduce, to the (not entirely unwarranted) perception that politics is a man’s game. In short, structural sexual discrimination pervades our society and our politics. Until we can overcome that, positive action is what is needed.

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No. Written by Claire Porthouse. Edited by Vicky Shreeve. Additional Research by Marc Geddes.

I would like to make my argument very clear from the outset: I am not arguing that the Cabinet should be male-dominated. I am arguing that to insist upon Cabinets wherein half the members are female would be a mistake.

There are several reasons for this. Firstly there are the problems we would encounter in trying to achieve this outcome, because I think we can all agree it is highly unlikely to happen by chance. Furthermore I would also challenge the implication that we need fifty percent of the Cabinet to be female in the first place, because this is not an assertion I believe to be true.

It seems fairly apparent that the Cabinet is not going to become fifty percent female any time soon, and not without some form of process. There are simply not enough women in high-level government to make this likely, even if the country was completely free of any kind of sexism. Therefore, to get a fifty percent female Cabinet, some kind of process would have to be involved.

Whatever the process actually is (a list to be voted on, or simply the Prime Minister selecting names), it would be a selection process. Such a process would be similar to the all-women shortlists first seen in use in 1997 by the Labour Party.

These shortlists ensured that at least some, if not all, of the candidates selected were female. In the Cabinet, this would take the form of at least half of the people the Prime Minister selected being female.

This by itself is not a problem. If half the people being considered are men and half are women, purely by coincidence, and because they were actually fit for the position, then a fifty percent female Cabinet would be a) a good thing and b) coincidental. As we have established this is unlikely, however, it becomes a problem.
Namely because the best person for the job would be unlikely to get it.

Often, there is that best candidate for the job. The person who is miles ahead of everyone else in expertise and qualifications and who, in a meritocracy, would have that job in a heartbeat.

But if we are selecting candidates to fulfil a quota, this meritocracy is destroyed. In this instance, all it takes is for there to be more men suited to the job than women. Then, men who would be excellent at it are overlooked in favour of women who are less good at it. The result? A Cabinet that is gender-equal, but not necessarily any good at what it is supposed to do.

This brings us neatly to the second problem of selection processes and quotas. They are inherently sexist.

One might argue that it is in order to reduce sexism by proving the competence of women in the Cabinet and thereby reducing future anti-female bias. Perhaps that is a point. But reducing sexism by using sexism does not seem to be the most coherent or sensible of strategies.
Some selection process to ensure fifty percent of the Cabinet was female would do two things:

  • It would exclude men from positions because they are men.
  • It would grant women positions because they are women.

The only way around this problem is for half the prospective candidates to already be female, and for all those candidates to be the best person for the job, and in a real world scenario, that is never going to happen. Therefore, to create a fifty percent female Cabinet is actively using sexism as a means to an end.

Moving on from the issue of engineering a fifty percent female Cabinet, I wish to ask why such a Cabinet is deemed necessary? I would argue that it is not necessary and, therefore, there is no need to demand that half of the Cabinet is made up of women.

Advocating a fifty percent female Cabinet suggests that the predominantly male Cabinets of the past have been somehow lacking, or that there is something fundamentally wrong with them.

I would challenge this idea. As much as feminists complain in the UK, women have a very good deal. We can vote, we can own property, we can marry and divorce who we like, we can get jobs and promotions, we can get an education, and it is illegal to discriminate against us.

As opposed to, say, Iraq.

Clearly, then, the British government is largely sympathetic towards women’s rights. Clearly, then, male-dominated Cabinet after male-dominated Cabinet has not sat around the table demanding that women get back in the kitchen.

So what exactly is the problem with male-dominated Cabinets?

Do people think that men cannot possibly represent women, and therefore more women need to be in power? This argument has an enormous backlash: it means that no representative in the world can actually represent anyone.

Consider Parliament as a whole. My MP in student accommodation was Nick Clegg, a heterosexual male from another part of the country. How could he, then, possibly represent me? How could my home MP, who is also a heterosexual male and decades older than I am? Yet likewise, how could Theresa May represent her male constituents?

Unless we wish to switch to direct democracy, we must accept that our representatives cannot faithfully reflect every single part of ourselves. Neither of my MPs is female, but both opposed the war. That will have to do.

Furthermore, that argument is once again sexist. It implies that man cannot possibly imagine what women’s concerns will be, and therefore cannot possibly make decisions on behalf of women. Perhaps it would be better to have female opinion loud and clear on, say, childbirth guidelines in hospitals. But I doubt very much that there was a fundamental male/female divide on the Cod Wars with Iceland.

I have argued that an insistence upon a fifty percent female Cabinet would be not only stupid, but sexist in itself, as would the processes needed to achieve it. There is not a significant problem with male-dominated Cabinets and they have included women in their plans for the country quite well over the last century.

Should a Cabinet one day be formed that is coincidentally fifty percent female, made up of the best people for the job, then that will be an achievement for feminism and politics alike. But to engineer such an occurrence would not.