Westminster’s hidden gender problem – and how it’s getting worse


There is a hidden gender problem deep in the heart of Westminster. We often talk about the number of female MPs in parties and on the frontbenches, and how male, pale and stale those can look.It is obviously worth discussing, but we should look at what goes on behind the scene as well. By the end of his premiership, David Cameron’s government included 35 female special advisers out of 92 – a total of 38%.While this fell short of the ideal 50/50 gender split, the figure was reasonably encouraging, or at least showed that things were broadly moving in the right way.

This didn’t last for long. When the first list of special advisers working for Theresa May’s Cabinet came out in late 2016, it showed that only 28% of the 83 were women. It has since dropped slightly and is at 27%.The situation in Downing Street is even more depressing; in Cameron’s No10, there were 14 women and 18 men, which translates into a fairly decent ratio of 44/66. In 2019, it is now 17/83. On top of this, 11 Whitehall departments currently have no female special advisers.

This is worrying for a number of reasons. The first (and obvious) one is simply that we should have more women in every level of politics, not simply the ones that are public facing.The second is that the sort of policies you think about and promote does depend to an extent on who you are, and what your priorities are. If there is no diversity in a team, that team cannot be expected to cover all possible angles and have relevant experience from all areas of society.

People often wonder why politicians of all stripes can have such a hard time properly connecting to all sorts of voters, and not appearing to be distant, nearly from another world. A good step towards fixing this disconnect would be to have people who represent the general public in the rooms where decisions are made. Beyond gender, this also applies to class and ethnicity, and the intersections of all three.

Then there is the issue of sheer numbers. It is generally not enough to have one woman in a meeting otherwise full of men; chances are that her ideas will not get heard, and she will often find herself given the token “women’s issues” brief. This is not to say that issues that specifically relate to women are less important, of course; simply that men are not required to only ever focus on men’s issues, and the same should not be expected of women.

Finally, the dire lack of female special advisers is an issue because it did not come out of nowhere. SpAds don’t simply wake up one day, fully formed and in a department; there is a pipeline and if it keeps pumping out far fewer women than men, it means that something is going wrong.In the case of the Conservative party, a lot of special advisers will have made their mark as an MP’s assistant then in Conservative Campaigns Headquarters. We do not have a breakdown of the gender balance in CCHQ but can certainly draw our own conclusions.

All of this matters because becoming a special adviser isn’t the end of the pipeline for most. After a stint in No10 and/or a department, most SpAds will go on to become MPs, or gain senior positions in the private sector.If the gender balance at that stage already is this poor, it is no surprise that we end up struggling to find qualified women to take important positions in so many industries, connected to politics or not.

Whoever comes in after Theresa May, Conservative or Labour, should ensure that there are enough women in their administration, at every level.

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Radix is the radical centre think tank. We welcome all contributions which promote system change, challenge established notions and re-imagine our societies. The views expressed here are those of the individual contributor and not necessarily shared by Radix.


  1. Joe Zammit-Lucia says

    As the launch of the Independent Group has shown, women have a very important role to play. As you point out, the issue is not simply one of appointments at senior level but one of filling up the pipeline so that there are enough women for the senior positions. Would be interested in views as to why this is not happening. Are women less attracted to these careers than men? Do more women drop out of the pipeline than men before reaching senior positions?

    For instance, we know that the economics profession attracts far less women to enter it. In the medical profession, at least as many women enter as men but many more drop out half way through their careers. What is actually going on in the political sphere?

    To paraphrase, we need to tackle both the imbalances and the causes of the imbalances.

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