What policies would Constance Markievicz and Margaret Haig Thomas have enacted to help women? Countess Markievicz was the first female MP elected to the House of Commons, but as a member of Sinn Fein did not take up her seat. Haig Thomas, the second Viscountess Rhondda, inherited a peerage from her father, but was not permitted to take her seat. She campaigned tirelessly, but died three months before the first women took their seats as life peers in the Lords in October 1958.
In the year that marks 100 years since the Representation of the People Act 1918, which paved the way to universal suffrage in the UK, and the centenary, in November, of the Act passed the same year that permitted women over the age of 21 to stand for election as an MP – as well as the 60th anniversary, in April, of the Act that enabled women to sit in the House of Lords for the first time – it’s a good time to ask how women’s involvement in making policy and scrutinising legislation can actually improve government policy.
While considerable attention has rightly been paid to increasing the number of women at all levels of the civil service, there’s been less focus on the impact of having more women at the heart of policy decisions, or the impact of government policies on women, even though it’s been a legal obligation since 2010 to consider the latter.
That’s partly because those things are harder to measure. We do know something about the effect the government’s austerity programme has had on women, through research by the Institute for Fiscal Studies and the House of Commons library, which found that 86% of savings to the Treasury from tax and benefit changes since 2010 had come from women. To bring that home, women in the UK are worse off to the tune of £79bn since 2010, compared to £13bn for men.
Given that kind of impact on women as a direct result of UK government policy, it is striking that there is no mention of gender in the recent government report on the first five years of the What Works centres, which assess the impact of policies in areas of public spending worth more than £200bn, including policing, education, and health and social care. In all these areas, there are very real differences in men’s and women’s experiences. Professor Francesca Gains, of the University of Manchester’s School of Social Sciences, has pointed out, for instance, that crime has very gendered patterns with city centre violence being suffered predominantly by young men, while most victims of domestic violence are women.
Changing policymaking to take gender impact into account would be a fascinating process, at all levels of government. Professor Gains wrote an in-depth consideration last year of what that could mean.
For elected metro mayors using their newly devolved powers and budgets in local and regional government, she said, it will be crucial to take gender into account when allocating resources in areas like crime, policing, housing and transport.
In central government, how would taking gender into account affect trade negotiations or environmental policy? What if Philip Hammond‘s budget were analysed by the Office for Budgetary Responsibility to see how it might affect gender equality? That is what happens in Sweden, where the annual government budget is checked by the Swedish Women’s Lobby to see how resources are being allocated between men and women.
Gender parity in government policy-making is an issue the influential OECD has also been considering for at least eight years. The organisation says that despite OECD countries adhering to the idea of inclusive growth, “significant gender disparaties and biases nevertheless remain in educational and occupational choices; earning levels and working conditions; career progression; representation in decision-making positions; in public life; in the uptake of paid and unpaid work; in entrepreneurial activities; in access to finance for entrepreneurs; and in financial literacy and financial empowerment”.
That is a long and depressing list.
But the OECD has also put together a list of ways in which countries are tackling the challenges, including Canada and Mexico, which has made it mandatory for all planning, fiscal and budgeting legislation to consider gender.
Government policy is not neutral. Those early pioneers to get women into parliament, into the law, into the civil service, and into local government were doing it for a reason: to make a difference.
We need far more evidence about what actually changes when women have a real say in policymaking.