Where are the Women?

Karen Miller and Duncan McTavish
Karen Miller and Duncan McTavish

Karen Miller and Duncan McTavish from Glasgow Caledonian University discuss their latest article for Policy & Politics, ‘Representative Bureaucracy‘. 

As we approach the UK General Election in May 2015, and in 2018 the centennial anniversary of the suffragettes’ struggle, the absence of women in politics and public life is stark. Political and public institutions which formulate and implement equality policies often lack representation of minorities at the senior echelons of power. Our question of where are the women belies a more fundamental question of how can policies, which are formulated with objectives to achieve equality, be formulated by decision makers who not representative? Our question is fundamental to the core idea of representative democracy, government for the people by the people.

The representation of women in political and public life remains elusive. In the recent ‘Sex and Power 2014’ report, researched and written by the Centre for Women & Democracy on behalf of the CFWD, the Electoral Reform Society, the Fawcett Society, the Hansard Society and Unlock Democracy, women account for 23% of Member of Parliament; 23% of Cabinet Ministers; 13% of local authority leaders; and 25% of Permanent Secretaries. This is despite the fact that women constitute 53% of public sector employment (Office of National Statistics, 2013). Thus, while women play a significant role in public life, their representation at policy making levels remains limited in the UK and Europe.

Our article questions the lack of representation of women at policy making levels but goes further and discusses not only the passive, but active representation of women. Passive representation is concerned with representatives, as a proportion of the population, having the same demographic origins (such as gender, race, income, class and religion) as the population they serve while active representation involves representatives actively advancing the interests of a group. Much research tends to focus on the level of passive representation, i.e. how many women and minorities are represented in political and public institutions. Our research makes a case for passive and active representation; arguing that the active representation of women in decision making is essential for positive policy outcomes. We argue that it is insufficient to merely have passive representation but what is necessary is active representation. And, that the active representation of women’s interests is necessary to challenge the status quo and the masculinity of politics and public administration.

Our paper reviews strategies such as gender mainstreaming and positive action as ways in which to increase the passive and active representation of women in public policy. However, we conclude that strategies such as gender mainstreaming have been largely ineffective given that these strategies are implemented within gendered organisational contexts. We suggest therefore that that there needs to be a critical examination of strategies for representative bureaucracy, comparatively and within various public administration organisational contexts. The effectiveness of strategies to improve the levels of passive and active representation depends on a number of variables including existing or historical levels of representation or lack thereof, organisational values and culture, context and function of the public administration and political institutions. We argue too that any strategy needs to address the masculinity of organisations.

Representation is fundamental to democracy and good governance. The lack of women and their interests in political and public administration institutions represents a democratic deficit and moreover results in poor policy outcomes for women.

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