I really want to commit, I swear I do. I really want to choose between smooth David, Mr. Right-Now-Nick, or rugged Gordon. They all make such incredible promises, offering me the world. But I just can’t seem to make up my mind. Something happens on the way to the altar: David suddenly seems phony, Nick inexperienced, and Gordon just plain tired.
It seems I am not alone in my conundrum. The British politicians have failed to woo the female electorate. The general election is just days away, but millions of British women remain undecided. Will it be the Conservative Party and David Cameron, the Liberal Democratic Party and Nick Clegg, or the Labour Party and Gordon Brown?
As recently as two weeks ago, a quarter of all women in the U.K. still remained unsure of whom they would vote for. The minister for women and equality, Harriet Harman, suggested that women were being “discerning.” Discerning indeed. Trying to discern what kind of role women have been given in this political race.
The main political parties all claim to champion gender equality. But where is the delivery?
The parties are fielding a record number of female candidates. But the most visible women in the national campaign are the leaders’ wives, who are largely relegated to style wars and Twitter talk. The lack of women strikes a contrast with the United States and our European neighbors, where women are powerfully present voices in both government and the media. No female British politician draws the national attention of Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, or, one might note, Sarah Palin. In France, the finance minister is a woman as is the defense minister in Spain. And in Germany, of course, there’s Chancellor Angela Merkel.
The pathetic number of women in the race reflects the woeful situation in British politics and society overall. There are five times as many men in parliament as there are women. And things are even worse at senior levels of the judiciary and in business. A little more than 10 percent of the high-court judges are women and there is only one woman on the 12-member supreme court. The top 100 companies in the country are also dominated by men—only 12 percent are headed by women, and women account for only 8 percent among the directors of major U.K. banks.
Nearly three quarters of all British women say the current system needs improvement, and as part of a new Equality Bill, Labour has suggested more use of “women-only shortlists,” which allow only women to be the party’s candidates in designated constituencies. After considerable flip-flopping, Cameron is now also friendly to this idea, whereas Clegg has rejected it, suggesting that a more female-friendly parliament, with better working hours and child care is the way forward. Nordic countries have successfully adopted the use of quotas to increase the number of women in parliament. But some Britons are still hostile to the idea, including women, who find all-female shortlists patronizing.
Despite progress under the Labour government, the continued existence of a gender pay gap in the U.K. is also a powerful reminder that much more needs to be done. The Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats favor “gender pay audits” for all but the smallest companies. The Conservatives suggest this should be limited to those companies found guilty of pay discrimination. It is not clear, however, that these measures would sufficiently address the underlying causes of inequality. Forty years after the Equal Pay Act was enacted, a tribunal recently found that women employees have been systematically underpaid and discriminated against by Birmingham City council, the largest in the U.K.
As more women enter the workforce, balancing career and family life has become a key issue. All three parties are in favor of greater flexibility in working arrangements and advocate more comprehensive maternity/paternity leave programs as well as free child care. But the biggest issue in the election is the economy. Britain’s budget deficit is now close to that of Greece, and all parties acknowledge that drastic cuts in public spending are needed. The burden of the cutbacks will inevitably fall more heavily on women—65 percent of workers in the public sector are women, and women rely more heavily on public services, partly because of their greater role as caregivers.
As women try to make up their minds about whether to go with David, Nick, or Gordon, all three politicians should bear in mind that women are not a homogeneous group and real women with real lives couldn’t care less if Sam Cam (as Samantha Cameron is gleefully referred to in the British press) and Sarah Brown are wearing Zara or Banana Republic. They worry about their children’s education and care for their elderly parents; they are troubled by climate change and the war in Afghanistan; they seek to balance careers with the demands of family life. And they want representation and equal opportunity for the best jobs across all areas of society and government.
The main political parties all claim to champion gender equality. But where is the delivery? Cameron has said that women are the drivers of political renewal and sustainable growth in the developing world. Female voters are desperate to see women recognized in the same way at home, too.
Thea Garland is a freelance writer based in London. She has reported for Sky News and contributed to various newspapers and magazines including CN Traveller, Harper’s Bazaar, Cosmopolitan and The Daily Mail.