What should MPs look like?

Is it really just this?

There has been a flurry of interesting posts on Lib Dem Blogs gender equality in blogging, in the Lib Dems and in general over the past few days; it feels like it has been a bit of a breakthrough for women bloggers, there’s been a definite surge of confidence.

‘Wimmins’ stuff isn’t massively popular on Lib Dem Blogs and so it was nice to see Alix’s posting on Positive Discrimination getting nigh on 40 comments and opening a lot of discussion. I found it really heartening to hear a wide variety of opinions and some of them even chiming superbly with my own. I was especially struck by Linda Jack’s question on who defines the ‘best’ when it comes to candidates’ she says:

“Democracy has its downsides - if a man gets a job for which a woman is better qualified she has redress in law, if, because of the subconscious prejudices of an electorate that sees an MP as a white middle class well educated man, as better than a more qualified woman, she has no redress. This is the difficulty of using the word best.”
I would argue that the problem is less with the electorate, who actually come out and vote more if there is a woman candidate but the ‘selectorate’…the people choosing the candidate in the first place. I don’t think they realise what an electoral asset women are and are unnecessarily small ‘c’ conservative on behalf of the voters in short I think they read voters wrong.

I also think that all the political parties are conservative, when they’ve finally plucked up the courage to select a woman in a winnable seat around how she should look.

When going to Fawcett Society ‘Do’s’, I find myself more often or not talking to women from the Labour Party, as Lib Dem and Tory female activists are pretty thin on the ground at such events. It is fascinating to hear about a completely different cultural approach to gender and I’m not just talking all women shortlists. However, one thing that doesn’t seem to be different is the requirement for female candidates to look a certain way. In the Labour party they all get sent to Barbara Follett for a makeover…it’s known as ‘folletting’.

And so you end up with something akin to this…better…but still not really representative, is it?

The other week I met Johanna Sumuvuori MP, whom I found completely inspiring and engaging and who had definitely never, ever been folletted!! Obviously, she had a super name; in fact, reading her CV was a bit of a masterclass in visualisation – ‘Johanna sits on this committee in parliament, Johanna is the chair of that committee’; I’ve saved it to waft in front of myself in moments of weakness, in the manner of smelling salts.

But more importantly as I looked at her and listened to her speak I couldn’t help but think how much I identified with her. I find it difficult to explain completely but I looked at her and thought to myself that nobody had ever taken it upon them selves to tell that if she wanted to succeed she would need to dress differently, iron out any individuality and for goodness sake don’t do anything to bring attention to the fact you are a woman!!

Somewhere along the lines to Finnish parties have worked out that you can be representative, you can scrutinise, you can sit on and chair committee whilst looking like a young woman in your thirties; any young woman.

Finland use a list system and PR allows one to focus less on the individual and more on the party; no doubt if it were a first past the post system there would be more pressure on individual candidates to conform to a stereotype that is acceptable to the media and party system.

And obviously, I’m not suggesting that the 9 (is it really only 9?) women Liberal Democrat MPs are lacking in individuality or criticising their personal style or anything like that; they dress like business women, like I do. Our female MPs, PPCs and business women like myself do this because not to would undermine our credibility. In fact, even when I’m working at a client’s who have a dress down policy, I go in wearing a suit, just to make sure. But, I admit I was intrigued by Johanna, her style (which would be much like mine, if I was left to my own devices) and her ability to be all this and still have power! Frankly I was pretty envious and briefly wished my mother had had the foresight to school me in Finnish.

I thought to myself how wonderful it would be to be able to just look myself when campaigning to be selected instead of having to dress in a particular way to try and prove that I have the ability to be a good candidate or MP.

But, I also thought what a fantastic role model Johanna is to young women in Finland, who must surely recognize themselves in her and feel far more confident about their ability and right to go forward and represent their party and fellow citizens without losing part of their own individuality in the process. And of course, vote for her…..because I am quite sure that she is an electoral asset.

9 comments:

Jo A said...
3 Dec 2007, 22:23:00
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jo A said...
3 Dec 2007, 22:24:00

Thanks for giving me a mention.

The discussion thread from my post has been moved onto Facebook - if you are interested message Mary Reid.

Left Lib said...
3 Dec 2007, 23:07:00

I do not know if it is any reassurance, but there are quite a number of us guys who really do not care what you wear, and do not even notice if you are wearing make up or not, and are only interested in what your opinions are.
I guess you can tell who we are as we probably look a shambles ourselves, not that we realise it unless someone points it out.

Linda Jack said...
3 Dec 2007, 23:41:00

Yes, I struggle with this. When I was on the GBTF training earlier this year I discovered that shocking pink (my favourite colour) was NOT what I should wear when trying to convince the "selectorate" (I love that description!) I was the right candidate for them. My eye makeup really had to change and shame of shame, my nails are the real disgrace! So, what to do? Well, I am done with selectorates for a while, so out come the shocking pink boots and jacket again. Part of the process is challenging the status quo, but it is a risky business. Also part of the process is constantly challenging the assumptions. So, what does an MP look like............er......a human being would be a good start!

James Graham said...
5 Dec 2007, 00:06:00

"I would argue that the problem is less with the electorate, who actually come out and vote more if there is a woman candidate but the ‘selectorate’…the people choosing the candidate in the first place. I don’t think they realise what an electoral asset women are and are unnecessarily small ‘c’ conservative on behalf of the voters in short I think they read voters wrong."

Really? Anecdotal evidence aside, I don't think that argument is backed up by the facts. Sure, there are people who vote against women because they are women, but there are plenty of people who - all things being equal - vote for women for the same reason. I've met plenty of them; I'm one of them!

Sure, wearing shocking pink might hurt your selection chances, but a man turning up to a hustings in jeans and a t-shirt won't help either (this is one of the main reasons I can't be bothered with getting approval myself). Overall though, if 20% of our selected candidates are women then 20% of our seats (including target ones) tend to go to women.

(Plus the the historical incumbency factor - representation of women has gradually increased but we still have a Parliamentary Party that was largely elected before 1997 when we had a much worse record of course).

But the main barrier is getting women to think of themselves as potential candidates, and this is where we get into knotty vicious circles. Until it becomes much more normal for women to be MPs, most women will simply assume that it isn't a job for them. That is the crux of the matter, not hectoring local parties (beyond perhaps encouraging them to treat selections with the rigour that they should treat a job interview).

Jo Christie-Smith said...
5 Dec 2007, 07:34:00

Left Lib,

Well, thank you for that; but I'd just like to point out that I don't think Johanna Sumuvuori MP looks a shambles; I think she looks fantastic!! And don't want to go around looking a shambles...just myself!

Jo Christie-Smith said...
5 Dec 2007, 07:36:00

Linda,

When I lost out on a selection earlier on in the year I made myself a promise that I would wear jeans to conference as it was no longer the equivalent of a 5 day job interview!!

I'm also having myself a mini rebellion by wearing my hair in its natural curly rather than the admittedly neater but a lot harder to maintain blow dryed straight.

Jo Christie-Smith said...
5 Dec 2007, 07:45:00

James,

There are some stats from the EOC about the increase in voter turn out amongst women when there are women candidates; voter turnout amongst men is not affected adversely by a woman candidate. I've also heard somewhere but never been able to find the stats to back it up that in the US, in elections to multi member wards/ constituencies parties that don't have a female candidate standing lose out votes. However, I don't have time to find the EOC stats this morning and can't post or comment (for some bizarre reason) from the office. What I'm saying is that we need to educate the selectorate about this so they don't think they're taking a risk with a woman, which many of them do.

James, it could be considered a loss to the party that you don't stand because of the perceptions around the way you dress or don't...I wasn't saying there weren't the rules for men!

I see all sorts of low level, under the radar prejudice at the local party level; I'm not saying it's rife but I think it's naive to pretend it's not there. I see it all the time, more against other women that against me; or at least that's my perception!

Voice from Finland said...
24 Dec 2007, 12:38:00

"Finland use a list system and PR allows one to focus less on the individual and more on the party; no doubt if it were a first past the post system there would be more pressure on individual candidates to conform to a stereotype that is acceptable to the media and party system."

Actually (unlike for instance Sweden) we use open lists, which means that the parties can't determine which of their candidates will be elected. This means that the candidates of the same party are also competing with the other. Interestingly this seems to increasingly favour especially young women at the cost of men.

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