Hermione is Chair of Birmingham University Liberal Democrats.
The 2019 election saw the most gender diverse parliament ever returned to Westminster. However, getting into leadership and positions of power, no matter what party MPs happen to be in, has not been easy for women. There have been only two female Prime Ministers and leaders of the Conservative Party, one female first minister and leader of the Scottish National Party, one female leader of the Liberal Democrats (who lost her seat after less than 5 months in the job) and as of yet no female leader of the Labour Party. Even when women make it to the top, barriers do not suddenly fall for good.
As Jo Swinson said in her last speech as leader of the Liberal Democrats ‘one of the realities of smashing glass ceilings is that a lot of broken glass comes down on your head’.
The reasons for this kind of gender inequality are complex. There is no single blame one can point to. As a Liberal, I also strongly believe in people being judged by their individual merits. It is wrong to simply blame one’s gender as the reason for one’s lack of success when all men and women have reasons shared for triumph and defeat. However, a notable case I have found with women in leadership positions is that they must prove to be impeccable and more professional than their male colleagues. This is noticeably the case as parties have adopted a culture of all women’s’ shortlists and ‘ticking boxes’ for gender equality. After all, these men have essentially given up their space of representation for these women, the latter might as well prove they are worth it.
If one believes internal party polling for the 2019 Liberal Democrat leadership contest, Swinson was doing markedly well amongst young men. Indeed, many men (as well as women like myself) felt it was time for a young ambitious woman to be leader. Swinson has only been the second woman to run for leadership of the Liberal Democrats. However, after a rather battering performance on question time, the party failed to rally around her.
Neither Jeremy Corbyn nor Boris Johnson particularly stood out in the debates. However, the Conservatives rallied around Johnson and, while Corbyn had his critics, Labour still stood the line. Yet the Liberals went rogue with Swinson. Former party leader Vince Cable said the Prime Ministerial aspect of the campaign was too ambitious for Swinson.
Local parties tried to defy the leadership saying they wanted to stand down for the Labour party, accusing her of being undemocratic by making sure Liberal Democrat candidates were in place. While one may have agreed with their points (and I do with Cable’s) this eager disloyalty towards the leader during the campaign weakened her and therefore the party.
From a personal perspective, I know men from the party – who were so keen to have a woman leader – begin to agree with opposition propaganda. They had ticked their box for having a female leader, but she was not what they wanted a female leader to be.
To give an example from another party, Theresa May faced similar problems during the 2017 campaign. When the Labour campaign began to strengthen, the Conservatives did not rally around May in time. Many went on to criticise her at the most crucial moments of the campaign.
While the Conservatives were still the largest party, their majority was lost, with May’s ‘robotic’ and ‘stiff’ performance, as the critics said, being seen to play a part. Notably, when Johnson encountered blatant gaffes and performances described consistently as mediocre, the party stuck to the line ‘Back Boris to get Brexit done’ more than ever.
But what about the exceptions? Nicola Sturgeon is the perfect example here. She has managed to appear not entirely controversial in accordance to her party’s values, sticking to the strong nationalist line of independence. The party back her, have always stayed loyal, and her power remains. However, she has never been perceptibly involved in any major scandal, unlike Corbyn or Johnson. The smallest of slip-ups can end your chances at power, but even more so for a woman politician. Sturgeon has not made any significant gaffes…yet.
Female leaders are respected by men until they make the mistakes that men regularly get away with.
In a political culture where parties are being encouraged to tick boxes for gender equality, men are essentially being asked to give up their representation for women.
Women must prove to these men that them stepping aside was worth it. Any mistake made is seen as a case against this. Women should not be leaders because they are somehow a more progressive alternative to men. A woman leader should have the loyalty commanded by a man because that’s how parties win elections.
Women are not a homogenous group. We are individuals who can be angry, annoying, and aggressive just as men can be. There will be more women leaders when political society lets go of fantasised ideas of the perfect woman politician, and when expectations are the same across all genders.
Women do not deserve representation in political leadership because they are somehow better or more progressive than men; we are not. We deserve a fair chance at leadership because we harbour the exact same personality traits, talents and flaws that men do. The platform can only be equal when the expectations are.
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