A record number of female MPs were elected at the 2017 General Election. In this post, we look at how the number of female MPs in previous parliaments relates to their ability to take part.

A ‘critical mass’?

Some research argues that female MPs act differently once their numbers reach a ‘critical mass’ that enables them to influence their parliament’s culture and agenda. For example, Karine Riviere-De Franco suggests that while numerically speaking, female MPs tend to contribute at a similar rate to their male colleagues, they tend to emphasise certain “women’s issues” and social issues. However, she does not compare women’s activity over a longer period of time – so there is no indication if recent increases in the number and proportion of women in the UK Parliament have generated a step change in how female MPs participate in parliamentary activities.

What does the data show?

Data on Parliamentary Questions asked since 1987 is available from Parliamentary Search. In the 87/88 session, there were 41 female MPs (6.3% of the total), compared with 196 (30.0%) by the end of the previous Parliament and 208 now. Hypothetically, this increase could result in female MPs asking more questions – if their minority status initially formed an obstacle to asking questions, this effect would be reduced as their numbers grew. The chart below shows the average number of written and oral PQs asked by MPs of each gender in selected parliamentary sessions.

There is not a clear relationship between the number of female MPs and the number of PQs they ask. Female MPs asked more PQs than their male colleagues both when their numbers were relatively smaller (87/88 and 92/92) and when their numbers were larger (12/13 and 16/17). In between these periods, the average number of PQs asked by female MPs dropped, although their numbers did not (at least not substantially). In fact, the number of female MPs increased to 120 at the 1997 General Election (up from 60 at the 1992 General Election).

Why were women asking fewer PQs?

A possible explanation for this drop in the average number of questions asked by female MPs is that a high proportion of female MPs are Labour: in 1997, this was 101 out of 120. With the Labour Party in government from 1997 to 2010, Labour MPs (including female ones) would probably ask fewer PQs, and this would bring down the average number of PQs asked by female MPs.

Perhaps women do not need a ‘critical mass’ to participate in Parliamentary activities on a par with their male colleagues, at least in terms of frequency. Karine Riviere-De Franco‘s analysis of the number of written and oral interventions in the Commons (May 2010-December 2011) found that female MPs contribute roughly as much as their male colleagues. Tony Hirst shows that political party may have a stronger effect on the average number of speeches made by MPs than gender: in the 2015 Parliament, Conservative MPs spoke more often than Labour MPs, regardless of gender. Analysis by Evan Odell shows that the average length of speeches made by male and female MPs between 1936 and the dissolution of 2017 is not substantially different: men spoke for 182 words, and women for 172. The things they were talking (or asking) about, however, may of course be very different.

Note: in the data available, each contribution is counted as a speech, even if it is only a short intervention in another MP’s speech.

Picture credit:  Leader of the Opposition speaks to new members (2010) by UK Parliament –  Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)