Monday, 28 January 2013

Balance of the sexes in public life

Rosemary Butler, the Welsh Assembly's presiding officer, has written to the leaders of the four parties represented in Cardiff Bay. She seems to think that a decline from 52% to 44% female representation is somehow a failure and that top-down action is necessary to bring the figure back up again.

The first thing to be said is that the numbers are relatively small, compared with Westminster or even the Scottish Parliament. It needs only a couple of the 60 AMs to change sex (through the electoral process, of course) for the headline percentage to change dramatically. My own party, with only six AMs at the outset, went from an ideal 50-50 representation in 2000 to a period before the last election when there was a 17%-83% male-female split!

As party leader Kirsty Williams points out, "the Welsh Liberal Democrats have a strong and proud record on female representation. As well as being the first party to elect a female leader, we also have a female President, a female vice-President and, until recently, a female chief executive." Writing as the secretary of a local party which has a woman in the chair and a woman treasurer, I also feel that the Liberal Democrats must have been doing something right.

From the foundation of the party in the 1980s, anti-discrimination was built in to the articles of the Liberal Democrats. Candidate selection, right up to the final short-list, had to have gender balance. This continues, and is not widely enough publicised. The other Westminster parties took time to catch up and, in my opinion, sometimes over-corrected. Positive discrimination produced one or two inadequate representatives in safe seats.

But we cannot be complacent. As Kirsty also said, "there is more that can be done on this issue [and] we will continue to work to ensure that we increase female representation in the party". One of the difficulties we have is in persuading women to put themselves forward in the first place. It is surely significant that, in the UK as a whole, we have better representation of women at a local and regional level than we do at Westminster. We must find the reasons for this and counteract them.

It would help if public bodies in Wales set a better example. The Welsh Government has done reasonably well: the first permanent secretary (head of the civil service) was a woman, and so is the current incumbent. June Milligan is the director-general of local government and communities and the chief veterinary officer is Dr Christianne Glossop.

Where, however, are the female local council chief executives or directors of finance - or female council leaders, come to that? It cannot be said that male-dominated Welsh local government has covered itself in glory.


Anonymous said...

Wouldn't the best example be to employ the best candidate for the job, irrespective of gender, race academic background? That way, progress is more or less guaranteed.

Discrimination, whether positive or negative is not a healthy status quo.

Frank H Little said...

I agree, but selection has to be a level playing-field. In my experience, prejudice has prevented some able women advancing both in the elected and appointed fields.