Four influential women visited the University of Warwick on Thursday 9 February to debate the reasons behind the low representation of women in the public sphere.
They included Professor Shirin Rai (political scientist, Professor of Politics and International Studies and Director of the Gendered Ceremony and Ritual in Parliament Programme), Bidisha (writer, critic and broadcaster), Ellie Mae O’Hagan (writer and co-editor of New Left Project) and Gabrielle Shiner (European Students for Liberty and contributor at Spiked).
Women comprise just 22 percent of MPs in the House of Commons, one-fifth of peers in the House of Lords, and just one-fifth of journalists, despite making up 51 percent of the British population.
Topics discussed included Thatcher’s role in feminist history, the role of the state in women’s issues and representation of women in the media,
Shiner argued that the emphasis on state intervention by feminist groups had the potential to be patronising.
O’Hagan focused on the women’s representation in the media. She said that women are generally portrayed negatively. Sexism in the media was also described as being covert, with women’s issues repeatedly relegated to the ‘Life and Style’ sections of newspapers. The main problem, she suggested, was “not how women are portrayed in the news, but that they’re not in the news.”
Professor Rai, spoke about female representation. Worldwide, women’s representation is around 19 percent.
Bidisha focused on who is to blame in this situation – usually, she says, it is the women. She puts the differences down to sexism, not just from men, though. “Things are changing for women though, even if it doesn’t feel like it,” she added.
The content of the debate holds much relevance for the representation of women at the University. Whilst women make up the majority of university students nationwide, there is a discrepancy between their numbers and their representation in public office. The 2011-2012 Students’ Union (SU) Sabbatical team includes just one woman, Welfare Officer Izzy John. Throughout its entire history, the SU has been headed by just four female presidents, out of a total of 54. Last year’s elections saw just three women run for positions, out of a total of 24 candidates.
Nationally 38 percent of sabbs and 21 percent of SU presidents are women. Less than quarter of all of Warwick SU’s sabbs have been female.
This year has witnessed a marked improvement, with 15 female candidates competing for Sabbatical Officer positions, out of a total of 37 candidates, with at least one woman running for every position.
Maahwish Mirza, who organised the debate said that “The event went incredibly well – we were fortunate enough to have an excellent panel, a great turnout and a variety of views to be found both in the panel and in the audience.” She added that she felt it was “very important that we see this kind of dialogue taking place on campus”.