Submission from the National Federation
of Women's Institutes (SC-4)
The National Federation of Women's Institutes
(NFWI) is an educational, social, non-party political and non-sectarian
organisation. It was established to ensure that women are able
to take an effective part in their community, to learn together,
widen their horizons, improve and develop the quality of their
lives and those of their communities and together influence local,
national and international affairs. The WI (Women's Institute)
has an unrivalled reputation as a voice of reason, integrity and
intelligence on issues that matter to women and their communities.
The ideals of the WI of truth, justice, tolerance
and fellowship are as strong and important now in the 21st century
as they were at the birth of the WI in 1915. Equality and human
rights are issues which have always been at the forefront of the
organisation. In 1943 the NFWI passed the following resolution:
"That men and women should receive equal pay for equal work"
and in 1975: "The NFWI believes in the principle of
equality of opportunity and of equal status for men and women
and pledges itself to work to achieve this". In addition
the NFWI has over 6 resolutions calling for equality with
regards to older people and people with disabilities. Many of
these mandates have as much relevance today as when they were
discussed and campaigned on by the organisation and its membership.
NFWI has some 200,000 members in 7,500 Women's
Institutes across England, Wales and the Islands.
Are problems caused by the unbalanced representation
in the House of Commons of different groups in society? If so,
what are those problems?
Less legitimacy. Without accurate representation
of all groups in society, parliament will not reflect the diversity
of views in the population and will thus lack legitimacy. More
effective policy is also created if it's informed by diverse opinions.
Better representation confers legitimacy, promotes ownership,
and should result in better decisions and therefore better government.
Loss of faith in the political processleading
to lower voter turnout. Voters are put off by political discourse
being run entirely by middle aged, middle class white men. Low
voter turnout in recent years reflects this.
Barriers to cultural equality. Equality
laws are vital in dismantling the barriers to greater involvement
of women in all areas of public life. However, much of the remaining
discrimination is cultural. Normalising the concept of women holding
public office alongside men will act to change cultural attitudes
towards the role of women.
Policy making not accurately reflecting the
needs of the whole of society. An increase in the number of
women elected would lead to higher quality of decision-making
would reflect the greater diversity of experience of those making
the decisions. It is arguable that the far greater number of women
MPs post 1997 contributed to significant break throughs in
policy areas such as equal pay and child care.
Is there a relationship between these levels of
representation and voter attitudes to Parliament?
More women parliamentarians are also crucial
if we are to combat widespread political apathy. The old-fashioned,
macho, aggressive way of doing business is simply alienating the
electorate. While women, especially young women are put off by
politics because they feel it just does not represent them.
Electoral Commission research has shown that
women are far more likely to turn out and vote if they are represented
by a woman. They are also far more likely to become involved in
a political campaign if they are working with a female candidate.
What are the reasons why more women, people from
ethnic minorities and disabled people do not become Members of
Barriers are both practical and cultural.
Qualitative research conducted in March 2006 by
the NFWI Women Making a Difference Project with groups of women
in Bridgend, Neath Port Talbot, Blaenau Gwent Anglesey & Wrexham
identified a number of barriersor limiting considerationswhich
were preventing women in Wales taking a more active part in "Public
1. Lack of confidence was the main reason
why women taking part in the research said they would not stand
for any position in public lifeespecially
to stand up and speak in front of a large
group to speak
in meetingsparticularly in front
if they are currently outside the workforce,
for example taking a career break to bring up childrenor
if they work in a part time low skilled/paid capacity.
2. Many of the women were simply unaware
of the opportunities to serve on public bodiesor that there
are targets to fill them. They perceived Boards, Trusts etc.,
as closed (recruited on the golf course) or politically biased.
Even if the women were aware of public appointments and realise
they may be eligible, they did not generally know where they were
advertised or how to apply for them.
3. Women were not always clear about what
positions in public life would entail. For many of the women who
would want to take up a public appointmenta duty which
she must add to her regular employment, and often to running a
household and looking after children and/or elderly relativesthey
felt that the role must be attractive to them and worthwhile.
4. The women appeared to be less attracted
by the desire to acquire power and influence and more by the desire
to make a tangible difference. National level roles seem to be
less attractive to women than local roles. This may be because
women are more familiar with local issues and so they feel they
could "make a difference" in these situations.
5. The perceived culture of public bodies
as being "old boys networks" were identified by almost
all of the groups of women as being a barrier which was preventing
many of them from wanting to become involved in public life.
6. Many of the women were already combining
their career with child and/or elder care. This was thought to
be a barrier both in terms of time away conflicting with caring
responsibilities and also the costs and/or availability of child
or elder care during these absences.
Women Making a Difference has tried to
address these barriers by educating and empowering women who might
not otherwise see themselves in public appointment rolesequipping
them with the skills and confidence to apply, and successfully
compete on merit against other applicants, for positions in public
lifeany level; locally, regionally and nationally. More
There may also be some residual sexism within
local political parties, when it comes to making up shortlists
for selection. This is a cultural barrier that needs to be overcome
if parties are not to use quotas.
The type of electoral system has long
been regarded as an important factor; many studies have demonstrated
that far more women are commonly elected under proportional party
lists than via majoritarian single-member constituencies (our
Why don't more from these groups consider standing
Or, if they do,
1. Why aren't more of them selected? Or, if they
2. Why aren't more of them elected?
See above for answer to part one.
1. Barriers to selection arise from
very closed party selection systems, which often do not actively
encourage and even discriminate against them. An exception was
the introduction of all-women short-lists in target seats by the
British Labour Party, leading towards the proportion of women
at Westminster doubling from 1992-97. However, many parties dislike
the idea of all women shortlists and many women themselves see
them as eroding the principle of equity.
Winning the support of the local party means
investing a lot of time in local party work, which may be a problem
for women with family responsibilities.
2. Barriers to election can again
arise from the lack of time available to many women to devote
to the endless campaigning and canvassing required to become a
known face to the local electorate. PPCs often start their pre-election
campaigning a year before an electionwith local visits,
press releases and by setting up campaigns to save local services.
This requires a considerable time commitment.
There is also a financial angle to campaigning.
The pre-election low level campaign period will need a lot of
disposable incomewhile campaigning during a general election
is a full time job and requires many candidates to take sabbaticals
or simply resign from their jobs. A financial cushion during that
period is less available to women than it is to many men. Employers
also need to be sympathetic and flexible on this issue.
What are the problems and practical difficulties
encounteredat any point in the process of selection and
electionby members of these underrepresented groups who
are looking to become MPs?
Please see the above answer.
What actions could be taken by the Government,
political parties and interest groups to address disparities in
The NFWI believes that the primary unaddressed
barrier lies in women's feelings of representation on every level
in society. The challenge should be to make women's voices heard
at the most local level as a first step, to open the possibility
to them that positions of office are achievable. Mentoring schemes
would then open the door to elected office.
Encouraging community activisimwomen as
"agents of change"
WI experience over the years has shown that
individual women thrive when they are able to contribute to their
community in a way that is meaningful to them. WI actions in recent
years have centred on the unique role of women as "agendas
of change" in their community. This is a unique way of creating
change in society and one that believes women are well placed
to do as they are primarily responsible for day to day decisions
in their household. It believes that change cannot be imposed
from above but should be the result of the collective behaviour
of the grass roots. This example will then spread to the rest
of the community.
In recent years, WI members have set up such
projects in the areas of food sustainability and environmentalism.
With the recently completed Love Food project,
11 WI members acted as group leader to 11 groups around
the country involving 81 households, which met once a month
over four months to discuss key behaviours that contribute to
the amount of food waste produced in the home. The groups successfully
cut their food waste by half over a four month period and all
commented that the group support had been key to helping them
Through their action in eco teams, WI members
have shown that individuals and community groups can make a huge
positive impact on the environment and can lead the way towards
a more sustainable future in their everyday lives. The WI's eco
teams were designed for 6-8 households to come together once
a month to discuss their household habits and then make changes
enabling them to reduce their impact on our environment.
Another example of a project where WI members
are acting as "agents of change" is the Lets Cook scheme.
Trained members show young parents from disadvantaged backgrounds
the benefits of healthy eating by teaching cooking skills and
knowledge of the benefits of healthy eating. The idea is that
they would then pass on healthy life skills onto the next generation
and break a tradition of relying on convenience over nutrition.
The project which will now run until end of March 2010 continues
to thrive 539 parents have successfully completed the course.
We believe that the Government needs to do more
to harness the potential of voluntary groupsby providing
them with the infrastructure and support to promote behaviour
change in their community. It's important that the government
does not simply delegate areas of essential work to voluntary
groups with no financial or other support. Voluntary groups have
a role to play but must not replace essential core services, which
public authorities must still provide.
The Government is often guilty of providing
funds and support for voluntary groups to set up pilot projects
and then expecting them to continue afterwards without any support
or guidance about how to be self-sustainable.
Opening the door to elected office
We believe that the key to this lies in bringing
the often closed world of politics closer to women via education
and practical mentoring schemessuch as the Women Making
a Difference project run by NFWI Wales.
We do not support special quotas as they may
compromise quality. Equity should not be achieved at the expense
of merit, and the responsiveness of parties will be reflected
in their popular vote.
Having more women in elected political posts
will provide role models for girls to aspire to and promote a
popular perception that women are equal to men.
Women Making a Differencean NFWI Wales
project: In an attempt to encourage and support more women
to get involved in public life, NFWI-Wales in partnership with
Women's Voice and Oxfam UK Poverty Programme established the Women
Making a Difference Project in 2005.
Women Making a Difference training programme
delivered through NFWI-Wales' Project, encourages women from hard
to reach communities to "get onto the decision making ladder"
by taking up key positions within their local communitieswhich
will give them the skills, knowledge and confidence to become
more involved in public life at a regional and national level.
Skills training, mentoring and role shadowing are considered key
to successfully encouraging more public appointment applications
from underrepresented groups.
The priority groups for the Women Making
a Difference programme of training are women who are currently
underrepresented in public life because of race, disability, language
or because they live in socially deprived areas. Over 150 women
from a wide range of backgrounds have taken part in Engendering
Change training across Wales. All these women want to make a "difference"
in their communitieswhere they are very often carrying
out key volunteering roles but don't have the confidence to become
the "decision makers" themselves.
Courses held to date have been a great successand
approx. 70 women have gone on to the second stage of the
programme "Women into Public Life" which encourages
the women to work with personal mentors who support them on their
journey into public life, as well as taking part in "role
shadowing" so that they have an understanding of the commitment
and expectation of the position in public life that they are aiming
to take up.
Evidence to date has shown that many of the
women taking part in the programme have been given the confidence
and skills to make a difference and have been actively using these
within their community and in public life. Employment has also
been secured by at least three women following increased confidence.
Government and interest groups could also do
more to overcome the negative attitude that many women have towards
elected office by raising awareness about ways to get involved
at a younger age. Schools could devote learning time to understanding
the process and could invite female politicians to speak to students.
Breaking down barriers in political parties
involves moving away from a very closed and male-dominated culture.
Aside from the use of all-women shortlists, women looking to be
selected for seats need ongoing advice and support from fellow
local party members. This would open up the often hidden local