IPR Honorary Professor Sue Maguire has authored a new report funded by the Government Equalities Office (GEO). The purpose of the rapid evidence review was to appraise the literature on the barriers to women’s selection/election to local and national government and to analyse evidence on what works to increase their representation.

Professor Maguire explains, “Equality of opportunity in political life remains an aspiration within the UK, with less than a third of local councillors and MPs being women. This report shines a light on the many barriers to achieving equal representation in politics and the need for structural, cultural and social changes to tackle long-standing and entrenched issues.

The research highlighted that, while there has been an expansion in female representation within local and national government in recent years (currently circa 32 per cent of elected MPs and local councillors are women), the pace of change has been greater at Westminster. However, across each domain, councillors and MPs remain predominantly male, older, white and middle class, leading to high rates of incumbency which serve to stifle the potential arrival of new blood and greater diversity.

There is a wealth of literature on the multiple barriers facing women, focusing on supply and demand issues. On the supply side, barriers relate to who decides to put themselves forward for election and the associated challenges. On the demand side, the focus is on the role of political parties in choosing suitable candidates, their selection procedures and the difficulties of changing established recruitment, selection and promotion protocols.

Evidence on mechanisms to address these barriers, such as mentoring and training schemes, and on the role of political parties as gatekeepers to broadening the representation of women is limited. Whilst quotas have been tried and tested in many countries what this report suggests is that while quotas get women through the door, this is not sufficient to address the cultural and working practices in parliament and local government that remain significant barriers: nor do quotas assure the future progress of female representatives.

Overall, the evidence points to the need for a broad range of strategies to increase women’s representation - to look ‘beyond the numbers’ and examine the informal and institutional barriers to power that remain.