A good week for the representation of women?

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Following David Cameron's dramatic cabinet reshuffle this week, the question of female representation has risen prominently on the political agenda.

Four new female faces will be sitting at the cabinet table following an exciting reshuffle on Tuesday evening, which saw a Prime Minister resolute on discarding the ‘male, pale and stale’ perception of his party.

Meanwhile, the Church of England’s general Synod finally voted on Monday to allow women to become bishops, ending a two-decade dispute and breaking the Church’s 2,000-year-old tradition. And earlier in the week, the new President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, urged national governments to appoint more women for his new team of commissioners. Are we seeing a decisive shift in the representative of women?

We now have five full female cabinet ministers, with Education Secretary Nicky Morgan and Environment Secretary Liz Truss joining Home Secretary Theresa May, International Development Secretary Justine Greening and Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers. A number of other women, such as Claire Perry and Anna Soubry, have also been promoted to more senior roles, and Employment Minister Esther McVey will now attend cabinet meetings.

Prime Minister David Cameron can officially claim that just over a quarter of his cabinet are women, and as he mentioned in his Commons session today, if the Liberal Democrat ministers are excluded, one third of women make up the 18 Tory cabinet members.

“They were promoted on the basis that they deserve their jobs and I want a team that reflects modern Britain,” Cameron told a packed Commons at Prime Minister’s Question Time today. The Prime Minister also responded swiftly to the vote on the ordination of women bishops earlier in the week, describing it as “a great day for the church and for equality.”

But without sounding entirely disparaging, it has been nearly 35 years since the UK had its first female prime minister, yet it seems women remain shockingly underrepresented in the highest echelons of parliament.

Despite Cameron’s reshuffle, 18 men and only 4 women will sit around the cabinet table. Many argue it was a clever move to bolster Tory popularity ahead of next year’s general election. Labour’s Luciana Berger described the reshuffle as a “token sprinkling of women”. Whatever the reason, Cameron’s promise to make a third of his ministers female by the end of his first parliamentary term seems a long way off.

Currently, just over one in five members of parliament are women. And whilst the number of female MPs in the Conservative party increased in 2010 from 17 to 49, this only represents 16 per cent of Tory females. Labour’s all women short list seems to have improved the party’s gender imbalance problem, with 32 per cent of its MPs women, yet it still lags behind an appropriate representation of the electorate.

Worryingly, the Fawcett Society expects the number of female MPs to fall even further at the next general election. The women’s campaign group notes that several women, such as Laura Sandys and Louise Mensche, have either stepped down or announced their intention to stand down in 2015 due to family or personal commitments. Meanwhile, a big chunk of constituencies have lined up male candidates for next year’s election.

With the UK ranked as 65th in the Inter-Parliamentary Union on female representation in parliament, behind even Afghanistan, Iraq and China, there seems a great deal to be concerned about. The problem is, however, that when women do enter parliament, they can find it to be a very male-centric environment, with sexist and unfriendly remarks appearing to be more common than not. A piece by former Home Secretary Jacqui Smith’s in the Times today argued that the only way to survive as a woman in the cabinet was to be on your “guard against sexism.” Minister for Women and Equalities, Jenny Willott, said recently that she tries to avoid attending the weekly session of PMQs because of its male dominated atmosphere.

Female MPs will also have to protect themselves against misogynist media attention, like for example the Daily Mail’s offensive style verdict of “Cameron’s cuties”. It seems that the tabloid remains stuck in an era when it was acceptable to focus on a woman’s “turbo-charged hair”, her handbags and skirt length, rather than her politics.

Whilst David Cameron deserves some credit for a seemingly decisive effort in tackling the gender imbalance that infringes upon our political system, we shouldn’t bring out the sparkling wine just yet. Parliament’s culture needs to change so that it becomes an attractive environment for aspiring female MPs. More than that, it needs to focus on a model of greater diversity, so that the corridors of Westminster will appeal to a range of individuals and groups that see politics as inaccessible. Only then can parliament be representative of an electorate that it purports to serve.