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The latest cabinet reshuffle by David Cameron put a selection of very educated women in top positions within the cabinet. Nicky Morgan took over from Michael Gove as Education Secretary and Liz Truss became the new Environment Secretary. The day after this reshuffle, some tabloid newspapers chose to focus on the physical attributes of these women, as well as their clothing, instead of what they might bring to the table in their new roles. This naturally brought the debate about sexism in politics back to the fore; is Mr. Cameron’s gesture simply a bid for votes as the general election looms? Or is it actually a step in the right direction when it comes to representation in the government?
Currently there are five women in the cabinet and 17 men, and whilst I do not necessarily believe in setting targets for equal representation – as surely it should be the person best for the job who gets it regardless of gender – this does seem to be a bit of a large margin. It was less than a month ago that Harriet Harman accused Gordon Brown’s government of sexist behaviour as she was sidelined, even when she was the deputy leader of the party (note the omission of the title deputy prime minster), at important events such as the G20. Harman also mentioned the accusation of former Europe minister Caroline Flint, who resigned in 2009 after charging Mr. Brown with using women as “window dressings.” She further said that she was targeted after having her first baby for missing a key vote (she was severely ill), she said that a female MP is “still defined by her marital status reproductive record in a way that would be unthinkable for a man.”
Of course it is not just in the United Kingdom where this is an issue: Hillary Clinton also spoke out as she was promoting her new book and said, “when you’re in the spotlight as a woman, you know you’re being judged constantly. It is just never-ending.” Clinton has still not confirmed whether she is going to run for presidential office in 2016, although she is widely expected to. She has also vocalised her support for the idea of having a woman in the oval office, saying that it should happen as soon as possible, but she did omit saying whether it would be her who would attempt it.
Equally it is not only women in the political game who experience a sexist attitude towards their capabilities. A conservative group in America recently urged women in an ad campaign to “vote for the cute one,” because apparently that’s all most women care about when choosing their candidate. I think not. It is time that we moved past the idea that for men the image of them as a family man will win them votes, whereas for a woman the idea would be unthinkable because it wouldn’t be long before questions about their commitment to their work were aired.
Perhaps Mr. Cameron’s reshuffle is a step in the right direction, although if we remember back to 1997 and the so-called “Blair’s babes” who were the 101 female MPs elected that year, it seems that nearly twenty years later we are still crossing the same ground because very little has changed.