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Women in Leadership: Is the Government embracing girl power?

Rhian Morgan

David Cameron made an election promise to boost the female numbers in Cabinet by a third. Now, with all the hue and cry in the media, has he come close to achieving that? And what are the facts for women in positions of ultimate power? Rhian Morgan examines the truth behind the headlines

Has Prime Minister Cameron suddenly become a feminist, you may cynically ask after perusing some of the headlines over the past few weeks?
The big news being shouted out is that Prime Minister David Cameron’s reshuffle of his Cabinet now includes more women MPs. And, on the face of it, it seems he looked at the polls, realised that at least half the population don’t like him, and thought the solution was to have a cull of 60-year-old white men, as one male MP reported: those who are “male, pale, and stale”.

This is a pretty strong accusation, culling people, not on their performance (perhaps, in my opinion apart from the dismally unpopular Gove) but due to their skin colour, sex, and age.

Yet the racist and age-related elements were played down by the media, which instead seized on the fact that the man often portrayed as a notorious misogynist was cynically trying to win back female voters. 

According to the papers, Mr Cameron fired the starting gun for the general election by sacking more than a dozen or moving (many more) Cabinet members to make way for a series of young women. 

Cameron has in recent years been damaged by claims he has a “women problem” and that he has surrounded himself with “privileged men”. So perhaps it is fairly obvious that he wants to create a younger cabinet that will appeal to female voters ahead of the general election. 

We certainly don’t really believe Cameron has had a complete about face, suddenly believing we need more female voices. According to a survey by ComRes, polling 2,054 readers of the Independent on Sunday and the Sunday Mirror, less than a quarter believe the women earned their positions on merit.

The survey found 24% believed Mr Cameron promotes women "purely on merit", with 41% disagreeing. And 56% believed the Prime Minister gives promotions to female ministers "mainly for presentational reasons", with 18% disagreeing.

Media and sexism

So what do the readers of other papers think? In typical fashion (excuse the pun), the Daily Mail was quick to believe their readers wanted the focus on appearance above talent. On their front page was the headline: ‘Thigh-flashing Esther and the battle of the Downing St catwalk’, rather ironically under a splash of a pullout of a 1914 edition of the Mail.

In the "heinously sexist" coverage, the Mail's Catherine Ostler gave her "style verdict" on the new appointments, which examined Employment Minister Esther McVey's "don't mess with me" lipstick and "turbo-charged hair", Environment Secretary Liz Truss's "patriotic" red, white and blue ensemble, and Claire Perry's wedges and "statement necklace".

Because, in 2014, women in positions of power can't possibly be appointed based on their intelligence or political views. Many responded with fury to the "belittling" style of reporting, branding it "everyday sexism" and accusing the paper of setting "female politics back years".

Male politicians took to social media to voice their opinions. Former Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott astutely remarked on Twitter, what if the same style of coverage was given to male politicians?

In a similar vein, Nick Clegg tweeted a picture of himself on the way to work in his usual suit and said: “What I wore to the office today. Fingers crossed the Mail approves. Hope I don’t look too '80s cabin attendant’.”

Appropriately, in the Times, ex-Home Secretary Jacqui Smith offered a "woman's guide to surviving in cabinet" - warning that the new female ministers "must be on their guard against sexism". 

She added: "Most irritatingly, your clothes and appearance will be commented on. Most of the time, you need to dismiss this as sexist nonsense."
So what does one of the female members of cabinet, Esther McVey, think of the media interest – especially as she was once part of the media herself, a breakfast TV presenter? 

Not wishing to upset the (male) status quo perhaps, she has this anodyne and tactful response: "All I can say is it's fantastic having women in powerful positions." 

So what is the truth behind the headlines? For a moment it looked as though there would be more women attending Cabinet than there had ever been previously during Cameron's term in office. 

Statistics from the Prime Minister’s press office show that the latest reshuffle has had no effect on the ethnic composition of cabinet members (94% - no change from the last reshuffle). The percentage of women has risen from 15% to 24% and the median age has fallen, from 53 to 47.

Yet if you look more closely, there are reasons for discomfort. Despite dominating the headlines, McVey could be forgiven for having been left rather underwhelmed by the reshuffle, as the former TV star was trumpeted for a much more august promotion.

McVey, who was merely given "attending cabinet" status but kept in position, had long been one of the phalanx of female Tory ministers trailed as set for promotion in Cameron's dramatic reshuffle.

And the leader of the Lords, Baroness Stowell, has been demoted to "attending" cabinet rather than being a full member. This means Cameron is now back to what he had at the start of his term in office, with five female voices around the table. It also now means she will be paid £22,147 less than the man who did the job before her, Jonathan Hill. (The Tories have rushed to say they'd make up the difference from their own funds.)

Despite the media uproar, the reshuffle has actually only added two extra women. There were 20 female Tory ministers in Government before the reshuffle, and now there are 22.

On the Continent, France and Germany have more women in their cabinets. The French Cabinet has eight women (47%) out of the 17 members. Meanwhile, Angela Merkel's German Government has six women out of the 16 members, at 37.5%.

Even some developing countries have better proportions of women in their cabinets. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's 23-strong cabinet has seven women, at a level of 30%. Meanwhile the Rwandan cabinet has nine female members out of 24, equating to 37.5%.

So all this fuss despite the fact that, in Cameron’s election promise, he announced that at least a third of his government would comprise women. So he looks to have more to do as less than a quarter of his ministers are women, despite all of the press hubbub.

If Cameron thought the country needed more women in the cabinet, why has it taken him four years to do it? Why has he made us put up with four years of people not fit for posts when he thought there were women who should be doing these jobs? But, at the end of the day, we all know it's because there is an election looming.

Analysis of the promotion prospects of Tory men rarely focuses on gender, but instead looks at politics (hard right or left leaning?), allegiances (Osbornites or Cameroons?), party management (loyalist or sop to the backbenchers?) and age (young buck or old guard?). 

The women in charge 

The wave of women MPs are just as diverse as the blokes. New to Cabinet Elizabeth Truss has been an effective education minister, steering through the Government’s childcare reforms. She is the youngest ever female Cabinet member, at 38. Known for her attention to detail and unflappable manner, she is also a mother (practically an endangered species in high-level politics as Women In Parliament report highlighted recently). 

Other newbie Nicky Morgan, and Amber Rudd, are members of the political Holy Grail – Osbornites who are also widely liked in the parliamentary party. They are both seen as loyalists who are a safe pair of hands, partly because they have done their time in the Whips Office. 

But Andrea Leadsome and Priti Patel are an altogether different breed of politician.  Leadsome – the Economic Secretary to the Treasury - is one of the elite group of MPs who has had a career outside Westminster. In contrast to her boss George Osborne (who did a PPE degree at Oxford before entering politics) she has a 25-year career in banking behind her, including a directorship at Barclays Bank. 

Independently minded and unpredictable, they have both rebelled against the Government in parliamentary votes. While this hasn’t made them friends in the Whips Office it has won them plenty of admiration from the backbenchers.

Esther McVey has shown herself to be a feisty and outspoken journalist with working-class roots. She is extremely well-qualified in various subjects. She was appointed in 2013 and, despite the fact she has dominated headlines, is now just attending cabinet. Formerly Minister of State for Employment, she was also Undersecretary of State for Disabled People in 2012, a role that must have courted controversy due to the Tories’ punitive stance on those claiming disability benefits. 

Baroness Warsi was the first Muslim women in Cabinet and has achieved great strides in promoting women and ethnic minorities in international politics. She has been quoted as saying that she wants government to be more egalitarian, with more Northerners, women, ethnic minorities, and the working class (however, her noble statements have been somewhat undermined by various controversies). 

Theresa May recently celebrated being the longest-serving Home Secretary since Rab Butler. But she’s vanishingly rare in having earned enough respect that her successes (and infrequent failures) are discussed not in terms of what they mean for women in politics, but simply for her own prospects. Plus, being a more mature woman, she is not subjected to a frenzy of attention over the hue of her lipstick, her latest hairstyle, and the length of her hemlines.

Cameron hasn’t just bumped up the level of oestrogen around the table. He will have gained a few more loyalists and some rebels, a couple of Osbornites and a Cameroon or two. There will be some with backgrounds in business and others who are confident broadcasters. 

Yes, there will be more women in the new-look Cabinet but their gender isn’t the only thing they will bring to the table. I’ll leave the last few words to McVey, who was quoted in the Telegraph: “We need to sell politics to more women but quotas are not the way forward. You set a quota, what is the right quota, what is the wrong quota?”


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