The all-women shortlist trap

Imagine you’re taking part in a football match. It’s the most important game of the season and you’re ready to give it your all. You know you’re good; your teammates know you’re good, yet for some reason they won’t pass the ball to you. You’re not sure why. You’ve found the perfect spaces yet as far as they’re concerned, you might as well be playing for the other side.

This continues for the first half of the match and most of the second. There are rare moments when you gain possession but then it’s impossible to pass; no one wants to receive from you. Your teammates act as though you are not there or, even worse, they laugh when the opposite side comes in to tackle. Eventually the manager takes you to one side and asks if you want the chance to play properly.

“Of course,” you say.

“Fine,” he says, “I’ll get the boys to treat you as a full team member, only you’ll have to have your shoelaces tied together. Those are the rules.”

Tired of being unable to compete according to the current, unspoken regulations, you agree to this amendment and waddle back onto the pitch, undignified and trying not to fall. Perhaps this time, even though you’re more obviously disadvantaged, you’ll benefit your team through having the chance to play at all. You might as well give it a go.

As soon as they have the opportunity, one of your teammates passes you the ball. You hobble forward to kick but can’t do it with your feet so close together. You try again by half-jumping but end up falling to the ground. An opposing player takes possession while one of your teammates helps you to your feet.

“See?” he says. “That’s why we never pass to you. You can’t play this game. We always knew you’d fall over.”


All-women shortlists are a con. Our political establishment remains sexist – desperately, boorishly, brayingly sexist. The majority of those sitting in the House of Commons remain unable to listen to and debate with women on equal terms. Voters believe female involvement in politics started and ended with Margaret Thatcher. Today’s female politicians are mocked by the press, served up as packs of “babes” and “cuties”. If they are silent, they are ineffectual and boring; if they speak up, they are hysterical. Report after report describes a hostile workplace, in which discrimination is rife.

If it’s that hard once you’ve become an insider, how hard must it be to get there in the first place? What level of support will you get? Whose protégé will you be? And yet if you get there at all, you already know that humiliation awaits.

We shouldn’t be at all surprised that women find it hard to enter and progress in politics. The fact that all-women shortlists are proposed as a solution suggests, however, that we are. It’s not as though we’ve actually tried anything else, beyond shouting from the sidelines that the ladies really need to buck up. Sure, the rules aren’t quite the same for them, sure, they’ll be considered outsiders, not quite part of the boys’ club, but they want to play, don’t they? And it’s not as though the club itself can change. It’s not as though politicians themselves can work to change the experience of politics and the perceptions of voters. God forbid, we can’t have that.

So instead women wait and eventually, every once in a while, the all-women shortlist is proposed. We all know what it means. It sounds patronising because it is. Equality bestowed on women by men, reinforcing the fact that they’re not considered equals at all. It is a form of humiliation. Oh, but it’s practical, see? We give you a foot in the door. A foot in the door, perhaps, but when so much of politics is image, projection and reputation, the successful all-women shortlist candidate risks being tripped up before she’s taken her first step over the threshold. The slightest stumble will be equated with her falling flat on her face, whereafter we can go back to agreeing that the old sexism, the silent exclusion, wasn’t so bad after all.

We should feel furious at this state of affairs, furious that our political system has let women down so badly that it comes to this. The all-women shortlist is not even benevolent sexism. It’s a form of bullying from a male elite that refuses to change (despite the fact that it will be them, and not the women, who cry “sexism” the loudest). We should not accept such a dearth of options. We should not have to choose between being patronised and not being accommodated at all. Until politics and politicians cease to be hostile towards women, all-women shortlists are a joke.

According to Edwina Currie, all-women shortlists are bad because “people who have suffered discrimination shouldn’t practice it”

And in practice, women who’ve come through this route have skipped several steps so their skills may be deficient. Often they’re women who’ve come through various women’s organisations, and they’re a bit…well, limp. It may help to explain why so few of Blair’s Babes made any mark in the House of Commons.

Deficient in skills? Or just not respected? Surely it’s frighteningly easy not to make a mark when you’ve merely gained entry into an organisation that still doesn’t want you around? Currie has made her own impression, sure, but I think of her and I think of eggs, salmonella, Strictly and the shagging of John Major. This is what the media tells us but is this really the measure of her as a politician? Shouldn’t she be fighting this rather than dismissing others as “limp”?

Every time we look at a male politician we should ask ourselves whether he’d be where he is today were it not for his maleness. We should worry that perhaps he’s not up to the job. After all, if someone’s had the extra leg-up you get from matched stereotyping and gender preference, perhaps he’s not all that skilled at all. We should ask ourselves this, and we should ask it frequently. As long as the default setting of our political system supports unofficial all-male shortlists, we must necessarily mistrust the talents of men. They should feel the positive discrimination millstone around their necks. They should be handicapped by accusations that they’ve had too easy a ride. It doesn’t matter whether it’s true or not; after all, how can we know whether it is or it isn’t as long as the debating chamber demands little more that frat boy mockery from those fortunate enough to be male?

Of course, it’s not fair to do this, but then no one is playing fair. Until we have the will to solve it – until we actually want to change the nature of political exchange – then women shouldn’t have to be the only ones competing with their shoelaces tied together. We don’t want extra help. We just want to play the game and to play it well.


10 thoughts on “The all-women shortlist trap

  1. There is a big difference between the “all male short-list” and the “all female short-list”. The common all male short lists are lists of the best candidates, gender not considered. The all-female short lists have the first and foremost consideration of gender. It’s kind of like the Olympics. There is the world record for fastest Person (always and forever a man) and the record for fastest woman (men are excluded).

    An exception that proves the rule? The Dem’s primary candidate short list. That list really is Elizabeth Warren and Hillary Clinton. This is the list of best candidate for President, gender not considered. The fact that it is all female is just as meaningless as the all male lists being all male. It is a list based on merit, not gender.

    1. But this overlooks the point that discrimination and exclusion doesn’t have to be overt. Men don’t get onto all-male shortlist’s purely based on merit – or rather, we have no idea whether, if we viewed all politicians as politicians rather than as politicians and female (i.e. “lesser”) politicians, said lists would or wouldn’t be all-male.
      Also, the comparison with sport fails because we know that men can, on average, run faster than women. By contrast men aren’t, on average, more deserving of a voice in how our political system is run, nor are they more capable of making decisions for the greater good.

      1. But that’s just it, we do know that the lists are based on merit. The Dem’s short list for the 2016 presidential nomination is only women, but it’s because the two front runners are female, not because it’s a list of females.

        The problem with the female short lists is the same problem we have with female Olympians. It is a list of people that run fast, for a woman. The merit lists contain exclusively men (mostly) because men out number women in politics dramatically.

        If we really want to see a change, we can’t look at end results and bitch that they are no good. We need to look at starting positions. In k-12 education only about 5% of teachers are male. Girls are given role models of real people to follow, a boy is only has super heros and larger than life role models. Girls grow up with more reasonable expectations. Boys are taught aim for Alpha-Centaui. This means that the 0.01% of the most successful are men, and that 99.99% of the worst failures are men. We need to be focusing on fixing education and inclusion of fathers and providing down to earth role models for boys. We need to make better options for males other than be one in a million, or die trying (the male suicide rate is more than 4 times higher than for females)

        Men are not more deserving of a voice, nor are men more capable of making decisions. Men are MUCH more likely to put in 110% all or nothing, die trying to achive that power.

        1. Are you seriously suggesting female under-representation is down to a lack of will? So sexism is irrelevant? The unpaid work done by women is irrelevant? Women are never exceptional or single-minded?
          It’s not very plausible, is it?

        2. It is a question of degree not existence. Men with the options of make it big or die trying…for the very very few elite men that make it big, do have greater will. The rest are discarded as human waste. Women with greater options other than make it big or die have less motivation to make the all or nothing gambles that pay off huge for the lucky few.

          For men the work/life balance is work work work work and more work. Women, because women have options that men don’t, actually try for some actual living between working.

        3. The gender ratio of engineers is 1 woman to 4 men.
          The gender ratio of teachers is 1 man for every 20 women.
          The gender ratio of homemakers is 1 man to 300 women.

          Yes, women have options that men do not. For 50 years feminism has been breaking down, and very successfully so, the options that men have that women didn’t. If we are to actually achieve gender equality, not benefits for women, we need to look at the restrictions and benefits of both males and females. Women do have options that men don’t. To deny this is to argue against equality and for female dominance.

    1. I don’t know the difference between the two! But I would have been disappointed if I hadn’t come up with a football analogy and got a vaguely mansplaining comment in return 🙂

    2. You know that the rest of the world calls it football, right? The US is pretty much the only place where it’s known as “soccer.”

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