Does the UK’s voting system keep women out? by Women’s Views on the News

cross-posted from Women’s Views on the News

orig. published April. 30/15

Why women are less likely to be the “first past the post”.

Has anyone else noticed, and been disturbed by, the tendency of journalists to discuss whether party leaders “look like a prime minister” during public debates and speeches?

In fact, much as we like to think otherwise, this ability to “look like a leader” is actually one of the main drivers behind voting decisions – as various studies have shown.

What does a leader look like? This varies over time and culture, but overall – again, as plenty of studies have illustrated – the “leadership look” aligns much more closely with men.

This in itself goes a long way to explaining why female candidates often face a tougher challenge when it comes to convincing voters of their competency – and why the UK parliament remains so far from achieving equal gender representation.

But there’s more to it than this.

Our “first past the post” (FPTP) voting system may actually be limiting the pace of progress.

As The Fawcett Society has argued, plurality-majority systems such as FPTP are less likely to support progress towards gender equality than multi-member proportional representation.

The Fawcett Society’s report released in 2013, The Impact of Electoral Systems on Women’s Political Representation, referred to research suggesting parties were more likely to choose male candidates when there is just one seat per constituency.

The report explained that: “This is because female candidates must compete directly against a male candidate, which often implies more risk for the party as in nominating a woman, a party must deny the selection of an often established, recognisable man in the same constituency.”

More recently, the Electoral Reform Society put forward a similar argument, claiming that FPTP is “the world’s worst system for achieving gender balance.”

In its Women in Westminster report published in March this year, the Electoral Reform Society predicted that using FPTP, the upcoming election could see the number of female MPs increase from 148 to 192.

This would raise female representation in parliament to just under 30 per cent, compared to the less than 23 per cent today, bringing the UK to 36th out of 190 countries ranked on this measure, from its current 57th.

But while this is certainly a (potential) move in the right direction, the Electoral Reform Society argued that retaining FPTP is holding progress back, because of its tendency to maintain the mostly male-dominated status quo.

In a recent post published on the LSE blog, Electoral Reform Society research officer Chris Terry pointed out that many MPs in the UK serve long terms because of the high number of “safe seats”, a result of what he views as the country’s “archaic voting system”.

This means that new candidates, who are more likely to be female, often have to wait for incumbents to retire, or for huge new gains in terms of votes to be made by their party.

As a result, the pace of change among MPs flags significantly behind the actual rate of change among potential candidates.

This theory is supported by the Women in Westminster report, which showed that longer-serving MPs were more likely to be male.

Proportional representation, advocates say, not only tends to result in a greater overall turnover of MPs, but also prompts parties to select more diverse candidate lists. This is because they are incentivised to appeal to a broader range of voters, rather than simply trying to provide the best match for a preconceived notion of what an MP/leader looks like.

Unfortunately, next week’s election will not provide an opportunity for these theories to be put to the test. But at least there seem to be signs the coming years could see increased analysis and awareness of the ways in which our current system shapes and restricts the results we get.

If “first past the post” is skewed towards maintaining the predominantly male status quo, then this is just one more strong reason, in my view, to rethink the way we run our elections.


Women’s Views on the News (WVoN): is a women’s news, opinions and current affairs site, and our management team, writers and editors all work on a voluntary basis. Our aim is to redress the gender imbalance in global news reporting by telling the stories that the mainstream press ignores, while at the same time encouraging more feminist writers to become news reporters and editors. If you interested in volunteering for us as an editor or writer please contact: [email protected]