Gender and MP retirements: are too many women leaving politics?

By Charlotte Adamson, Senior Account Manager

As we head into the General Election campaigning period, MPs who have decided that their time in Parliament is over have been announcing that they are standing down. A variety of reasons are cited, including the desire to spend more time with family, opposition to their respective party’s direction of travel or time to move on and handover to the next generation.

While the current tally of MPs standing down may not be unprecedented – according to politics Professor Philip Cowley, an average of 86 MPs have stood down before each General Election between 1979 and 2015 – there is certainly an exodus of talent, and in particular of female talent.

Of the 61 MPs that have so far announced they are standing down, 18 are women. Given than the previous Parliament was made up of 439 men to 211 women – a ratio of just over 2:1 – the proportion of women standing down therefore roughly aligns with the proportion of women in Parliament, suggesting both male and female MPs are standing down at the same rate. So what’s the problem?

These figures overlook the fact that of the women standing down, a significant number are doing so relatively early on in their parliamentary career, in comparison to older men who are leaving at (or over) the age of retirement. Of the 18 women leaving Parliament, 9 have served as MPs for 10 years or less (or 50%), and 3 for under 5 years (17%). By way of comparison, 11 of the male MPs standing down have served for 10 years or under (26%) and 3 for under 5 years (7%).

Several of the female MPs standing down – including Heidi Allen, Nicky Morgan, and Caroline Spelman – have cited the abuse received as a factor in their decision, and anecdotally it seems that for many more this played a significant part. Abuse of politicians is not a new phenomenon, but the unprecedented levels and the violent and misogynistic nature of that abuse, is clearly having an impact.

At the last election, the first ever black female MP to be elected – Diane Abbott – received half of the 25,000 abusive tweets directed to women MPs, according to research undertaken by Amnesty UK. Horror stories of the threats made to others also abound: both Allen and Morgan faced death threats from men that were subsequently jailed, whilst The Independent Group’s Anna Soubry’s mother and partner were threated in letters and Labour MP Jess Philips received 600 rape threats in just one night. While Abbott has said she feels stepping down as a result of the abuse would allow them to ‘win’, it is no surprise that others are choosing to leave politics.

This is a problem we should all be worried about, regardless of our gender. Just like in business, diversity among our elected representatives leads to better decision making and more informed policy making.

If women are leaving Parliament earlier on in their careers, then they are less likely to reach top-level Cabinet or leadership positions. These positions have been historically dominated by men: the last Cabinet only had seven female members, or 30%, with the highest proportion of women in Cabinet at 36% between 2006 and 2007. So we need to see positive progress in this regard rather than backwards steps.

And more broadly there is still progress to be made in terms of gender balance across all MPs. While the proportion of men and women standing down on this occasion is the same, there is still a job to do in increasing women’s representation in Parliament. At the last election, only 17 extra women were elected than in 2015 and the proportion of female candidates only rose from 26% to 29%. If we keep moving at this rate – let alone going backwards – it will be many years before we see full gender equality.

It’s too early to tell whether the levels of abuse received by current MPs will put off the next generation of female MPs, but we all need to hope that it does not or our Parliament will be a poorer place for it.

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Charlotte Adamson

Senior Account Manager

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