A record-breaking number of women were elected to the British Parliament in Thursday’s election, with many calling it a “historic” moment. When legislators return to Westminster next week, there will be 208 women among their ranks, or 32 percent of Parliament. The majority of the parties are also led by women. In fact, Prime Minister Theresa May is now negotiating with another woman, Arlene Foster of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, to form a government.
But is this election really a turning point for women in the United Kingdom?
Despite the headlines, these results represent only an incremental change — a gain of just 12 more seats for women. And although women might be better represented in Parliament than in the U.S. Congress, the United Kingdom still lags behind most European and Latin American democracies. Thursday’s election moved it from 46 to 39 in the global rankings. Focusing on the headline number also obscures significant variation across parties and regions.
The parties aren’t alike
As with the Democrats in the United States, women’s representation is highest in the center-left Labour Party. Women hold 45 percent of Labour seats (119 of 262) compared with 21 percent of Conservative seats. In fact, the number of women parliamentarians in the Conservative Party actually decreased from 70 to 67 in this election.
The difference between the parties is because of a strategy — “all-women shortlists” — adopted by the Labour Party in 1994. Labour requires that half of all winnable seats be contested by female candidates. When it was partially implemented for the first time in 1997, women’s numbers grew from 37 to 101. Since being fully implemented from 2005 onwards, women’s representation has never fallen below 27 percent.
Scotland is different, too
There is also variation within the U.K. itself. Women’s representation actually decreased in Scotland. This is in large part because of the Conservative gains in the region: among the thirteen returning members of Parliament, only one is a woman. And this is despite the striking prominence of women in Scottish politics, where the leaders of the three major parties are all women, and First Minister Nicola Sturgeon appointed a gender-balanced Cabinet.
The U.K. isn’t close to gender parity
The U.K. remains a long way from gender parity in Parliament. To get there, the Conservatives will have to increase the number of female candidates competing in winnable seats. They’ve tried to bolster women’s numbers before through “soft” measures — such as the Women2Win initiative co-founded by Theresa May to support and train Conservative women, and the gender balanced “priority list” of prospective candidates that local parties were encouraged to select from (although it proved unpopular and was soon abandoned).
Despite acknowledging the need for more women in politics, the Conservative Party remains opposed to a strategy like all-women shortlists. Their resistance is not surprising. While there are right-leaning parties in Western Europe with voluntary quotas (including the German Christian Democrats and Austrian People’s Party), no conservative party in the region has been willing to implement this strategy.
Moreover, Britain, unlike more than 75 countries across the globe, has not adopted legislation that mandates the selection or election of female candidates for office. A growing number of European countries have done so, including France in 1999, Ireland in 2012 and Poland in 2011.
What comes next?
One crucial issue on the agenda: women’s reproductive rights. The governing coalition will likely include the Conservative Party and Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, and the DUP has consistently campaigned to limit abortion rights. The DUP’s former health minister, Jim Wells, has even argued against abortion in cases of rape. Newly elected MP Owen Paterson confirmed in an interview yesterday that abortion restrictions might be up for debate.
At the same time, May’s position is precarious, and many observers do not expect this fragile coalition to last long. If new elections are on the horizon, then we will soon see whether there will be further increases in women’s representation — and if so, what that means for public policy.
Diana Z. O’Brien is an associate professor of political science at Indiana University. Her research focuses on the causes and consequences of women’s access to political power. Find her on Twitter at @dianazobrien.