Apparently, it's not women that need fixing....phew!

Tipped off by Blunt & Disorderly, I read this great article from the Guardian ….someone somewhere has done some research on why women don’t demand the same salaries as men and come up with the conclusion that it’s not just a case of fixing women and making them more confident…that there might be something wrong with the environment itself.

I’ve been conscious of the fact that women are earning less and not getting promoted because they tend not to negotiate or demand as much as men for some time. This feminine habit of ours comes from a long socialisation that suggests to women that it is not pleasant behaviour in a woman to be too demanding…in any number of spheres. So, over the last few years, buoyed on by my professional and financial success even when I haven’t been that demanding I have been ‘coaching’ myself to start negotiating on my own behalf. The fact that it is on my own behalf is important because I have never faltered from asking for things on behalf of my employer or the organisation that I have been working for. I am not a meek person.

And whilst, my consciousness raised, I am getting better at it, I am still sure that my fellow, male self employed interim managers no doubt earn the 11% more than me that the study suggests, partly because I have yet to have a daily rate turned down. This indicates to me that I am still not pitching myself high enough. Although statistically it’s hard to tell as there are very few female, self-employed interim managers, working at the level I do.

It comes as no surprise to me that men don’t like women that ask or negotiate; generally, it’s referred to as nagging. But it is a strange relief to learn that it’s just not encouragement, training or confidence building that women need (although we do) but a change in the complex, sociological and psychological situations that we find ourselves. Situations that mean a decision not to ask for something for ourselves is not always down to meekness or irrationality but a logical, assessment of the social impact of any such decision – albeit that we’re not conscious of doing it.

Which leads me to the fact that although our selection rules attempt to be scrupulously fair and provide ‘an even playing field’, they are not going to solve the problem of the lack of female MPs. An imbalance that will take 200 years to correct before women are represented fairly in parliament and 300 before ethnic minority women are. An environment of complex social and psychological attitudes that are individual and often unconscious undermines those rules.

Prejudice is something we tend to keep to ourselves. If you think that Lib Dems are too liberal to be prejudiced then I point you in the direction of a member who said to me, less than a year ago during a parliamentary selection campaign, that she wouldn’t be voting for the candidate that I was campaigning for because their surname sounded ‘too Irish’. I’m sorry; clearly some people don’t keep their prejudices to themselves.

Likewise, I often hear that the problem is one of supply; women are just not coming forward, there just aren’t enough. We aren’t interested in formal politics and political parties; we prefer other outlets for our political activism. Like not negotiating a raise, our lack of representation is clearly all our own fault!

We all know some of the practical reasons why women don’t come forward; they’re too busy looking after a family or they just don’t have the support at home that helps when you’re standing to be an elected representative. Unlike male partners of women often the girlfriend or wife of an activist will find them selves getting involved in politics to support their man, if only making the tea to start with. Boyfriends and husbands with no interest in politics are more likely not to get involved, even with the tea making – they go out or find something else to do that is of interest to them.

With the exception of the odd crèche here and there, I don’t think completely re engineering in the next few years the division of labour between men and women is within the budget of the Lib Dems gender balance agenda.

Perhaps the women who are not coming forward aren’t just too busy or lack the confidence, perhaps they are not coming forward for the same reason that they don’t ask for more money; because the social cost of doing so is too great. As a PPC you do have to be quite demanding, wanting to be the candidate can be perceived as quite egotistical and it would seem women, if this research is to be believed, would suffer disproportionately as being seen as ‘not nice’.

So, it is all more complicated than just ensuring that members are at least able to pick a woman or sending us on women only training courses. If we spend all our focus and energy on an unbelievably complex, but still inherently blunt selection process then we will not solve our dilemma. For all our efforts women only have 18% of the MPs in parliament and it’s only that much because of the Labour party contribution.

I know that some will come up with all sorts of statistics around the proportion of women selected as candidates and how much it has improved but how many are in winnable seats? Do we even have a target and is it 50% in winnable seats? And how can you say? Crikey, with the political weather being as choppy as it is at the moment who can tell which are the winnable seats and look at the level of replacement in held seats, since 2005 we have been busy replacing male and female MPs with men.

I know there are many who say that it doesn’t matter whether an MP is male or female, all that matters is that we have Lib Dem MPs but even that is a little short sighted. Votes go up with a female candidate: more women come out to vote (that is why diversity matters and why role models matter) and most importantly it increases female political activism. In my London Borough, female activists, you know, really active ones, are thin on the ground! Even next door, in exciting, go ahead Lewisham only 2 of the 16 councillors are women.

I believe it is beholden on us, not just be satisfied with our processes for selection but with the outcomes as well. Outcome is a perfectly reasonable measure of fairness. Voters don’t give two hoots about whether we think that our processes to ensure diversity are fair or not, they just notice the outcome. In the Liberal Democrat case it is that we choose predominantly white men to be our candidates and elected representatives, particularly in winnable seats. I wince as I write that, but it is the fact of it. We need to start measuring success in terms of the outcome not the application of the process. Process purists will argue that the purpose of the process is not to deliver diversity but what the members want - if that's the case then the short listing requirements should be ditched. I might mention it just one more time; it needs to be the outcome that counts.

This is not an issue just for the Lib Dems; there isn’t a national parliament in the world that has achieved even 30% female representation (which is seen to be the minimum number needed to start influencing the political agenda and modus operandi) without some sort of zipping or quota. This is because not matter how ‘fair’ the process, or how much you encourage and train women to come forward there are all those unconscious, or even conscious, prejudices that you can’t legislate away that are getting in the way of both the supply and demand for female candidates and elected representatives.


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