Issues of Substantive Representation
The feminism scale is derived from responses to a rather general set of questions designed to elicit people's underlying attitudes towards gender relations, but what of the more specific issues on the agenda of current British politics? Do such issues reveal similar differences of opinion between the men and women that constitute the Conservative Party's grassroots? To judge from responses to a battery of questions on these issues, the answer generally would appear to be yes – at least, to a significant extent. Each of these indicators is designed to measure attitudes towards actual or potential reforms that are consistent with liberal feminist objectives on such matters as equal pay, tax status, parental leave rights, flexible working and state provision for childcare. Overall, cross-tabulations reveal statistically significant differences between men and women in the party over 11 out of 12 questions about which they were asked (see Tables 3 and 4), although these differences are not especially notable in most cases. A ‘percentage difference index’ (see note to Table 3 for an explanation of how this is constructed) serves as a simple measure of the extent to which sex differences exist on these questions. With a theoretical range running from 0 (no difference between men and women) to 200 (no overlap whatsoever between the views of men and women), we can see that this confirms both the existence of, and the limits to, sex differences. Table 3, however, also clearly reveals that the issue that most polarizes opinion is equal pay: women are much more likely than men (by 44 per cent to 18.5 per cent) to agree strongly that compulsory pay audits should be conducted on companies previously found guilty of unequal pay to see if they are paying men and women the same amount for the same work. Further, they are much more likely (by 38 per cent to 14 per cent) to feel that pay audits should take place in all companies, irrespective of whether they have a previous record of transgression. The implications of childcare also produce notable differences in the overall distribution of opinion between men and women (e.g. rights to flexible working arrangements, maternity leave and state financial support). Responses to these 12 questions on the substantive representation of women can be combined into a summary additive scale (alpha = 0.716), and this confirms that overall differences between Conservative men and women are significant, with the mean score of men being 2.85 (sd = 0.58), while that of women is 2.52 (sd = 0.59), where 1 represents high support for reform and 5 represents low support.20 These figures suggest that, on balance, both men and women in the Conservative Party are more opposed to than supportive of such reforms.
Table 3. Sex Differences on Current Gendered Political Issues
| ||Strongly agree||Tend to agree||Neither agree nor disagree||Tend to disagree||Strongly disagree||Total PDI||Cramer's v (sig.)|
|Tax allowances that can be transferred from one partner to another for married couples||8.2||−4.9||−3.7||0.3||0.2||17.3||0.094 (0.006)|
|Tax allowances that can be transferred from one partner to another for all couples (i.e. heterosexual and gay)||−1.4||−5.4||−4.2||0.8||10.2||22||0.134 (0.000)|
|Right to request flexible working for parents of children up to the age of 11||−9.3||−5.6||2.7||6.5||5.7||29.8||0.177 (0.000)|
|Right to request flexible working for parents of children up to the age of 18||−5.2||−6.1||−0.4||−0.9||13.4||26||0.187 (0.000)|
|Extension of maternity leave and pay to one year||−7.8||−7.1||−2.3||−0.3||16.9||34.4||0.223 (0.000)|
|Transformation of maternity leave and pay to shared parental (i.e. mother or father) leave and pay||−4.1||−1.6||−1.9||−0.4||7.9||15.9||0.106 (0.001)|
|Obligation on single parents to seek paid employment or lose benefits when their child is 5 years old||−1.9||4.6||1.7||−3.1||−1.4||12.7||0.065 (0.139) n.s.|
|Obligation on single parents to seek paid employment or lose benefits when their child is 11 years old||−0.9||3.3||−0.8||0.9||−2.5||8.4||0.062 (0.177) n.s.|
|Obligation on single parents to seek paid employment or lose benefits when their child is 16 years old||4.5||−4.4||−1.3||1.5||−0.5||12.2||0.067 (0.115) n.s.|
|Compulsory audits to check if men and women doing the same work are paid equally in companies previously found guilty of unequal pay||−25.4||−1.6||4.5||10.8||11.8||54.1||0.336 (0.000)|
|Compulsory audits of all companies to check if men and women doing the same work are paid equally||−24||−10.7||1.6||12.8||20.5||69.6||0.388 (0.000)|
|State provision of financial support for childcare, including care by grandparents||−11.4||−0.4||2.5||0.3||9||23.6||0.184 (0.000)|
Table 4. Sex Differences on Abortion Law, PDI Scores
|Should the legal time limit for abortion be increased to more than 24 weeks?||2.7|
|Should the legal time limit for abortion remain at 24 weeks?||7.4|
|Should the legal time limit for abortion be reduced to 22 weeks?||0.3|
|Should the legal time limit for abortion be reduced to 20 weeks?||−1.7|
|Should the legal time limit for abortion be reduced to less than 20 weeks?||−9.2|
|No legal abortions should be allowed except in cases of medical emergency||0.4|
One other issue that revealed an interesting sex difference among party members was abortion. This is a classic issue of concern to liberal feminists, who generally seek the legalization and extension of abortion rights, and aim to have reproductive rights recognized as human rights. In 2008, a series of amendments to the Human Embryology and Fertility Act were tabled as it proceeded through Parliament, each of which proposed changes to the current legal deadline of 24 weeks at which abortions can be conducted. Echoing these amendments, we asked our respondents whether they felt the current 24-week limit should be increased, left where it currently stands, reduced to 22 weeks, to 20 weeks, to less than 20 weeks, or outlawed altogether except in cases of medical emergency. The difference between men and women was either insignificant or modest with respect to most of these options, but women were notably more inclined (by 23.5 per cent to 14.3 per cent) to argue that the limit should be reduced to less than 20 weeks (see Table 4). To this extent, women in the Conservative Party might be regarded as more morally ‘conservative’ than men.
Attitudes Towards the Descriptive Representation of Women
How does the Conservative rank and file regard the descriptive representation of women in politics? In particular, how supportive is it of the reforms that David Cameron introduced in order to achieve a greater number of Conservative women MPs? It has long been of major concern to liberal feminists that more women should achieve positions that have traditionally been dominated by men, including elective political offices. Thus, the descriptive representation of women in Parliament is critical to the liberal feminist perspective and is perhaps the most obvious area in which Cameron has sought to take his party into liberal feminist territory.
It is important to note that our survey constitutes a second phase of data-gathering that followed a series of focus groups conducted with party members in 2008. This earlier phase of qualitative research was important in its own right and also helped to shape the survey questionnaire. The major findings of this stage of our work are reported elsewhere,21 but can be briefly summarized as follows. While Conservative Party members are generally willing to concede the principle of a more socially representative parliamentary party, they do not regard this as a high priority for the party, and they do not welcome all of the candidate selection reforms that have been introduced in recent years. This is partly because of an instinctive aversion to anything that smacks of political correctness or positive discrimination (even if Cameron's measures fall short of equality guarantees), and they are insistent on the need for strictly ‘meritocratic’ recruitment of prospective parliamentary candidates (PPCs). They specifically dislike the priority list and quotas for women on shortlists, but they are open to the promotion of women candidates through training and awareness-raising initiatives.22 This is broadly consistent with their feeling that the low number of women MPs in the party is mainly a result of the poor supply of women putting themselves forward to become candidates, although there is some perception of discrimination by selectorates, particularly by older women on the selection boards.
It seems likely that the process of debate about the reforms may even have served to strengthen antipathy towards them, at least in respect of the stronger forms of equality promotion. Although this summarizes the overall picture, a closer examination of the focus group discussion suggested a number of interesting nuances of opinion between the sexes and generations, which is consistent with the working hypothesis that the attempt to change the social and substantive representation of women in the party may generate tensions among different Conservative actors. These, then, were the key findings that we wished to confirm through a systematic quantitative analysis of survey data.
The first thing to note is that the majority of Conservative members agree that there are too few women in Parliament, a finding that mirrors an opinion that was frequently expressed in the focus groups.23 As Table 5 reveals, moreover, there is no significant difference of opinion between men and women on this point. Nearly 60 per cent of men and 65 per cent of women think Parliament should have more women MPs.
Table 5. Should Parliament Have More or Fewer Women MPs?
| ||Male (%)||Female (%)||Total (%)|
|A few more||44.1||43.8||44.0|
|Same as now||33.1||28.9||31.4|
|A few less||5.6||4.2||5.1|
Notwithstanding this, only a minority of party members (approximately one-fifth) regard the dearth of Conservative women in Parliament as something that actually discourages female voters from supporting the party, and there is no significant gap between men and women on this point (Table 6). Still, given that a clear majority do think there should be more women MPs, it would seem logical to suppose that they would approve of action directed towards the achievement of this end. Do they in fact do so?
Table 6. The Low Number of Conservative Female MPs Deters Women from Voting for the Party – Do You Agree or Disagree?
| ||Male (%)||Female (%)||Total (%)|
|Tend to agree||18.5||16.1||17.5|
|Neither agree nor disagree||22.4||24.9||23.4|
|Tend to disagree||40.9||37.7||39.7|
In order to investigate this, we asked the party members a number of relevant questions, some of them directly pertinent to the candidate selection reforms that Cameron introduced after 2005. Specifically, respondents were asked Likert-style questions to gauge how far they approved of the following measures: the creation of the party's ‘priority list’ of candidates; primaries in which candidates go through a series of public votes to win nomination; compulsory minimum numbers of women at the shortlisting stage; party training programmes for female, black and ethnic minority candidates; a compulsory minimum number of women selected as PPCs in winnable seats; the introduction of a Conservative Party ‘women's manifesto’ for the next election; and greater use of women MPs and candidates in prominent roles in election campaigns. Responses to these questions were coded from 1 to 5, with 1 representing strong support for these measures designed to enhance the presence of women in Parliament and election campaigns, and 5 representing opposition to them. When responses to the question about whether or not the low number of Conservative female MPs deters women from voting for the party were combined with data on these other seven questions, a reliable attitudinal scale (alpha = 0.783) was created, on which the overall sample mean was 3.28 (sd = 0.71) – a position slightly more opposed to than supportive of such measures. There is a modest but significant difference between men and women on the scale (which we call ‘selectreform’), with the latter more supportive of measures designed to give women greater prominence in Parliament and election campaigns – better descriptive representation, as it were. The mean position of women on the scale is 3.17 (sd = 0.70), while it is 3.35 for men (sd = 0.70), giving a two-tailed t-test significance level of 0.000 between the two means. A little more of the detail, including these sex differences, can be illustrated by closer examination of the individual scale items. Table 7 reports the overall percentages of men and women approving and disapproving of the various measures, and the relevant percentage difference index scores.
Table 7. Support for Individual Measures Designed to Enhance the Descriptive Representation of Women in the Conservative Party, by Sex
| || ||Men||Women||Total PDI||Cramer's v (sig.)|
|Creation of a ‘priority list’ of candidates||% approving||44||47.7||−3.7||0.131 (0.000)|
|% disapproving||36.5||25.9||10.6||n = 1,579|
|Primaries in which candidates go through a series of public votes to win nomination||% approving||74.2||74.8||−0.6||0.059 (0.227) n.s.|
|% disapproving||14.4||12.3||2.1||n = 1,621|
|Compulsory minimum numbers of women at the shortlisting stage||% approving||14.8||20.9||−6.1||0.207 (0.000)|
|% disapproving||69.8||52.4||17.4||n = 1,630|
|Party training programmes for female, black and ethnic minority candidates||% approving||31.8||30.2||1.6||0.092 (0.008)|
|% disapproving||45.4||43.4||2||n = 1,616|
|A compulsory minimum number of women selected as PPCs in winnable seats||% approving||8.7||20.7||−12||0.254 (0.000)|
|% disapproving||75.5||54.6||20.9||n = 1,623|
|The Conservative Party should produce a ‘women's manifesto’||% approving||13.9||20||−6.1||0.130 (0.000)|
|% disapproving||68||55.8||12.2||n = 1,564|
|More women MPs/candidates should be used to front election campaigns||% approving||37.4||39.7||−2.3||0.042 (0.587) n.s.|
|% disapproving||31.6||30.8||0.8||n = 1,570|
|Overall means||% approving||32.1||36.3||−4.2|| |
The first point to note here is that there is generally only limited support for the idea of institutional reform designed to result in the selection of more female candidates. Table 7 shows that the introduction of primary elections and a priority list of candidates (on which women are more heavily represented than in previous years) – both measures that the party leadership has actually introduced – have the support of both men and women members, overall. No other measure has this support. This is not especially surprising in respect of any sort of quota of women on selection shortlists or selected for winnable seats at Westminster, given that our focus group participants (and, indeed, party elite interviewees) repeatedly told us that they were opposed to these measures on the grounds that they smacked of positive discrimination. It is more surprising to see a preponderance of disapproval rather than approval for the idea of training programmes designed to help women, minority ethnicity and disabled people win candidacies, however, since the focus groups had seemed to generate a consensus in favour of this proposal. The second feature of note with regard to Table 7 is that it shows where sex differences exist: these are most evident in respect of quotas of women on shortlists and in winnable seats. This finding is consistent with our focus group findings, for – notwithstanding the general opposition that Conservative members evinced towards these measures – some women participants did voice limited support for them. Overall, we can conclude that support within the party membership for a liberal feminist position on action to achieve better descriptive representation is at best limited, and more likely to emanate from women than men.
There are two further points worthy of note in terms of candidate selection processes before we move on with our analysis. First, the rather lukewarm support for any idea of reforming the process may not only be about attitudes towards the descriptive representation of women; it is almost certainly also a reflection of a widespread resentment on the part of party members against anything perceived to constitute central party interference in the independence of local constituency associations. Selection of candidates for elective public office has always been one of the core functions of the local parties, and local autonomy tends to be jealously guarded in these matters, as we have already noted. A clear sense of this attitude emerged from the focus groups and receives some confirmation in our survey, as Table 8 reveals. More than a quarter of the sample felt that the leadership generally wielded too much influence over the candidate selection process, and men were significantly more likely to take this viewpoint.
Table 8. Do You Think that the Leadership Has Too Much, Not Enough or About the Right Amount of Influence in the Candidate Selection Process?
| ||Male (%)||Female (%)||Total (%)|
|Too much influence||29.7||20.8||26.4|
|Not enough influence||4.4||6.6||5.2|
Finally, we felt that we had to broach one particular issue that had come to the surface with remarkable frequency both in our focus groups of party members and in our interviews with party elites: that of selectorate discrimination against women. The outcome of particular political parties' selection processes is often understood in terms of the interaction between the supply of applicants wishing to pursue a political career and the demands of selectors who choose candidates on the basis of their preferences and perceptions of abilities, qualifications and electoral appeal.24 Supply-side factors likely to limit the overall level of women seeking selection include gendered socialization and the sexual division of labour. Women are, on average, likely to have fewer resources than men, whether that is the necessary free time to engage in politics, money to fund selection and election campaigns, and/or lower levels of political ambition, confidence and experience. On the demand side, women have been found to suffer from selectorate discrimination, that is, a lack of party demand for women candidates.25 This can take different forms. Direct discrimination refers to the positive or negative judgement of people on the basis of characteristics seen as common to their group, rather than as individuals; it reflects the attitudes of the selectors, and can be seen where gender discriminatory questions are posed during the selection process. Indirect discrimination refers to instances where the idea of what constitutes a ‘good MP’ counts against women – where, for example, party selectorates prefer candidates with resources primarily associated with men and masculinity. Imputed discrimination is where party members may be unwilling to choose a woman candidate because they are concerned that by so doing they would lose votes. In the UK there is increasing consensus – at least among gender and politics scholars – that the problem of women's descriptive representation at Westminster is one of party demand. This is not to say that efforts to increase both the overall numbers and diversity of women seeking parliamentary selection should not be undertaken (discrimination in the selection process is more of a problem at the local level). For Westminster, however, all the main parties have sufficient numbers of women seeking selection; it is just that too many are selected in parties' unwinnable seats.26
While the feedback we received from Conservative Party actors at all levels gave primary emphasis to the problem of short supply (i.e. too few women coming forward to apply for candidacies) rather than active bias on the part of party selectorates, many of our interlocutors nevertheless voiced concerns about the latter. We have, for instance, noted elsewhere the claims of an aspiring female PPC from Bristol who recounted having been asked ‘completely different questions’ to men, including how she would manage her childcare. She saw such discrimination as specific to the Conservative Party, which ‘does not accommodate’ women. She noted, too, that the ‘majority of the room is filled with older people . . . and older women don't like to see a woman in politics’.27 This latter claim has continually been repeated to us in our research: the problem for younger women aspiring to become PPCs is said to be the role played by older women activists in constituency associations who are, presumably, uncomfortable with the implications for the traditional model of family life of a woman having a demanding and public job such as being a member of Parliament. How widely is this view really shared across the membership? The answer provided by Table 9 is that a significant minority of both men and women hold to the view in roughly equal proportions. Of course, the mere perception of selectorate bias of this kind does not necessarily mean that it actually happens, but the relative prevalence of such a perception across all levels of the party certainly helps us to understand why a leadership determined to get more women into the parliamentary party would have taken the measures that David Cameron introduced after 2005.
Table 9. Conservative Women Members Are More Likely to Discriminate Against Women Seeking Selection as Parliamentary Candidates than Conservative Men Members
| ||Male (%)||Female (%)||Total (%)|
|Tend to agree||27.4||26.0||26.8|
|Neither agree nor disagree||38.3||36.5||37.6|
|Tend to disagree||25.3||27.1||26.0|
We tried a simple experiment in order to gauge if there was hidden grassroots bias against women candidates in our sample, the results of which are reported in Table 10. The sample was split in half, and each half was a given a description of three hypothetical would-be PPCs. Each respondent was asked to place the three in order of preference. The only thing that distinguished the candidate descriptions was their names, which implied that the candidates were of different sexes: thus, split-sample A was told that ‘Peter King is a barrister with a 10-year long record of party office as a local councillor and as an adviser to a shadow minister. He is seeking selection in a Greater London seat. He currently works and lives in central London but grew up in Yorkshire’, while split-sample B was given exactly the same profile – except that the candidate's name was changed to ‘Patricia King’. Similarly, split sample A was told that ‘John Harrison has extensive experience as a human resources professional; he has been a Conservative member for 15 years, a local councillor for 10 years and fought an unwinnable Conservative seat at the previous election, achieving a greater than average swing’, while split-sample B was told that this candidate was called ‘Jane Harrison’. Finally, a control was applied in that each split-sample was also told of a third candidate with a ‘gender-neutral’ name: ‘Leslie Green is 40 years old and has been a party member for two years, and was born and raised in the constituency. Educated to degree level and a small-business owner, Leslie has extensive links with the local community, especially with Black and Asian groups’. If there is latent bias against women we would expect that candidates with female names would garner less support than their male counterparts, while the two split-samples should be indistinguishable in terms of their support for ‘Leslie Green’. In fact, Table 10 reveals little or no overall difference between the two split samples, so that one cannot infer there is any bias against the selection of female candidates among Conservative members.28 In passing, it is interesting to note, however, that there may be some evidence of bias against BME candidates given the relative unpopularity of ‘Leslie Green’ (who has links with Black and Asian groups).
Table 10. Split-Sample Evidence of Latent Bias Against Women Candidates
| ||Peter King||Patricia King||John Harrison||Jane Harrison||Leslie Green ‘A’||Leslie Green ‘B’|