Why are there still only 145 female MPs out of a total of 650 Members of Parliament? At 22.3% of the House that puts us level with Malawi, one of the world’s least developed countries with high infant mortality rates, a high prevalence of HIV and AIDS, and a low life expectancy. Whilst the present economic outlook for the UK could certainly be described as difficult, I don’t believe anyone would suggest that we have obstacles on the same scale as Malawi. Yet the UK has the same parliamentary gender imbalance as a country described by the UN Development Programme as "[performing] dismally" on reducing maternal mortality and promoting gender equality”. The list of the 63 countries that come in above the UK with a more equal gender balance in their lower or single house includes Rwanda, Cuba, Kazakhstan and the Philippines.
On Tuesday 10 July MHP Communications was delighted to be able to host the inaugural Women in Public Affairs (WiPA)Network reception, welcoming 100 up-and-coming women across the public affairs industry to come together to discuss, debate, and question the reasons for the ongoing imbalance in the industry. In 2012, almost a century after Emily Davison met her end at the feet of the King’s horse, women should not still be struggling to make their voices heard, particularly in an industry where its members are often judged on their ability to communicate some of the most important issues of the day. It was also a great opportunity to encourage aspiring women to access the advice and support of more senior women in the industry and tackle some of the issues that women often face in the journey to the top.
The Network kicked off its events programme with inspirational speeches from a number of women who hold some of the top posts in politics and public affairs, and who were kind enough to share their wisdom, practical advice and anecdotes from their own careers. Labour Peer Baroness Brenda Dean, Conservative MP Caroline Dinenage, as well as Alice Weightman, MD of Hanson Search and MHP’s own Director Kate Stephens shared some of the challenges – and successes – they have seen during their careers, from being left, literally, holding (someone else’s) baby on the sidelines at Wembley, to the best way of ensuring a good supply of Pimms at business meetings.
Baroness Dean, the first woman to head up a trade union, spoke passionately of her formative experiences of being a woman in a man’s world and urged that women in the industry to form a supportive network in what is still a male-dominated industry: “The Suffragettes were the first, not the last, step to gender equality”.
If women are to succeed in a man’s world, they should, if necessary, beat men at their own game. She urged confidence, determination, and a steely focus on our objectives, and as a woman who has faced down both Rupert Murdoch and Robert Maxwell, these are not empty words. Women seek to be equal to men, to be side by side in business and in politics. Women want to compete on a level playing field and must continue to champion this cause until we see a truly proportionate representation in the top roles across politics and public affairs. They do not want to have special dispensation for their sex and do not want to be tokens of their gender.
If we are to remember one thing, Baroness Dean advised, is that we should not forget the debt we owe to those who have helped us forge a career in public affairs or in the House, whoever they are.
Caroline Dinenage, the Conservative MP for Gosport, gave guests an insightful take on the industry which still appears unable to fully appreciate some of the obstacles faced by women trying to make it to the top in their professions. As a mother and a politician, these difficulties are understandable, but the two roles should certainly not be incompatible. Noting that PMQs – the public face of Parliament – is often nothing more than a “willy-waving contest” between protagonists, Caroline suggested that the lack of women in politics and public affairs is because of the fiercely macho facade of the Commons itself.
Elected as the youngest councillor in Winchester’s 1,000 year history, Caroline recounted stories of being continuously underestimated and called ‘flossy’ by the middle-aged men on the council, and how she dealt, with humour and Dolly Parton, with the obstacles that this often presented. She noted that whilst it is encouraging that the percentage of women on the boards of the UK’s largest companies has risen over the past year to a record 16%, this is still a woeful underrepresentation of women at the top-levels of their professions. Given the current economic situation, it is now more important than ever to encourage everyone in the workplace to reach their full potential.
It is precisely because women are outnumbered on the floor of the House and across the industry that we all have a duty to make our voices heard, she said. It’s not about talking louder, it’s about talking smarter. Caroline summed up the mood of the evening, saying: “If you want something said, ask a man, if you want something done, ask a woman.”
The WiPA Network will be holding a number of networking events and forums in the future. These are intended to suit all women in the workplace and to provide a supportive and advisory platform for public affairs practitioners. For more information on the WiPA network please contact the founders Ella Uziell-Hamilton – Ella.Uziell-Hamilton@lexcomm.co.uk or Laura Gilmore – firstname.lastname@example.org
You can also find WiPA on Facebook and LinkedIn.
Join the debate on Twitter at #WomenInPublicAffairs