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  • 6th Feb 2018

One hundred years of votes for women: what next to close the gender gap in politics?

Today marks one hundred years since some women in Britain got the right to vote. It’s an important milestone, with plenty to celebrate a century later — a record number of female female MPs entered Parliament in the last election.

But the gender gap in political representation remains wide. Women make up only 32 percent of MPs, 26 percent of Cabinet members, 33 percent of local councillors and 17 percent of council leaders. These figures put the UK in 38th place globally for female political representation.

Behavioural roots of the political gender gap

Gendered social norms, gender stereotypes and bias towards women all contribute to the gender gap in political representation. Evidence shows that female politicians tend to be perceived as less knowledgeable and competent than men, even when candidates were judged by just a photo.

Female politicians who are perceived as competent and ambitious are also more likely to be disliked and penalised for mistakes than their male counterparts. This is the so-called competence-likeability dilemma, displayed by both men and women towards women.

These norms, stereotypes and biases can undermine women’s interest in politics early on. The well-documented political ambition gap emerges in adolescence, due to lack of encouragement from parents and teachers. With time, women also become more sceptical about their chances to succeed in a competitive electoral environment (the political competition aversion). This is because they are aware of the negative stereotypes about women in politics, more concerned about the financial costs of campaigning and less motivated by power-seeking goals than men.  

How can behavioural insights help?

Behavioural science can offer a range of solutions for the political gender gap. One promising direction is to increase the visibility of female politicians that young women can identify with.

Previously, BIT has achieved promising results using role models to encourage young people to aim high. In a recent trial for the Department for Education, we found that a hand-signed letter of encouragement from a Russell Group undergraduate motivated students from under-represented schools to apply. Ultimately, it led to a 34 percent increase in the number of students who accepted an offer from a selective university.

In another trial, a series of inspirational talks by a role model made students twice as likely to accept an offer from a Russell Group University. Similar approaches could be used to encourage female university students to become politically active, whether getting involved in student politics or joining a political party.

A time for a new approach

Our society has transformed in ways unthinkable to those suffragists and suffragettes who campaigned a century ago. But just as in the early 20th century, recent events have led to a new energy for change.

We believe behavioural insights can play an important role in closing the gender gap. We will be working closely with businesses and other organisations to develop and trial new, behaviourally-informed interventions to help women and men reach their full potential, whether at home, at work, or in politics.