International Women’s Day: Women in Parliament and Government

This International Women’s Day theme is ‘Better for Balance‘ and we have taken a look at the number of women parliamentarians in the UK and abroad. While the number of women MPs in Westminster is the highest it has ever been, they remain the minority in the House of Commons and the House of Lords. Looking further afield, about a third of all countries have now been led by a woman and 22 countries currently have a female president or prime minister. Here we break down the figures in the UK Parliament, devolved governments, in Europe and beyond.

Women in Westminster

There are now 209 women Members of the House of Commons. At 32%, this is an all-time high. The proportion of women MPs grew slowly until the 1997 election, when 120 women were elected, making up 18% of the House of Commons. Before then, women had never made up more than 10% of all MPs and until the late 1980s the proportion had always been below 5%.

Since the Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act 1918 gave women the right to stand, 491 women have been elected to the House of Commons. Of these, 58% were first elected as Labour MPs and 29% as Conservatives.

There are currently 206 women in the House of Lords, making up 26% of all peers. The first women were admitted to the Lords in 1958. As recently as January 1995, fewer than 7% of peers were women.

As well as the Prime Minister, four women are Cabinet ministers. Nine of the 29 ministers (31%) who attend Cabinet meetings are women. The highest proportion of women in the Cabinet was 36% between May 2006 and May 2007.

Women standing in general elections

The number of women candidates has risen at almost every general election since 1966. In the 2017 General Election, 973 women stood across all parties – 29% of all 3,304 candidates. Although this is the highest proportion on record, the total number of women candidates was lower than the 1,033 who stood in 2015.

Labour had 256 women candidates, the highest number of any party in any general election. 41% of Labour’s candidates were women, compared with 34% in 2015.

184 (29%) of Conservative candidates in 2017 were women – a 3 percentage point increase on 2015 and the highest number in the party’s history. Similarly, 184 (29%) of Liberal Democrat candidates were women.

35% of Green Party candidates were women, as were 34% of Scottish National Party and 28% of Plaid Cymru candidates. Women made up 13% of UKIP candidates. The Women’s Equality Party, founded in 2015, fielded only women candidates.

Female MPs elected in general elections.
Sources: Rallings and Thrasher, British Electoral Facts 1832-2006
Common’s Library briefings General Election 2010, General Election 2015 and General Election 2017.

Women in other elected UK bodies

The proportion of women in other elected bodies has tended to be higher than in the UK Parliament. 47% of Members of the National Assembly for Wales are women, as are 35% of Members of the Scottish Parliament and 32% of Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly.

In Northern Ireland, 26% of councillors are women, while the proportion rose to 29% in Scotland after the 2017 elections and sits at 28% in Wales. It has been estimated that over 38% of councillors elected in England in 2018 were women, bringing the overall total of female councillors in England to 34%.

40% of Members of the London Assembly are women.

European Parliament

40% of UK Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) in 2018 were women. 36% of all MEPs were women and the UK ranked 8th among the 28 EU member nations. Finland had the highest proportion (69%) and Cyprus the lowest (17%).

How many female MEPs are there?
Source: European Parliament, European Parliament: Facts and Figures, April 2018.

International comparisons

22 countries (or 11% of members of the United Nations) currently have a woman as president or prime minister – a record high.

The first woman to become a non-hereditary national leader was Sirimavo Bandaranaike, elected Prime Minister of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) in 1960. Margaret Thatcher became the sixth female national leader in 1979. About a third of all countries have now been led by a woman.

female leaders worldwide
Sources: Centre for Women and Democracy, Women Leaders Worldwide October 2017. House of Commons Library analysis.
 

At 32%, the UK is in 39th position for the proportion of women in the lower (or only) house of parliament. Rwanda has over 61%, and along with Cuba and Bolivia has a majority of women in parliament. At the other extreme, Micronesia, Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu currently have no women in parliament.

In February 2019, 54 women presided over one of the 222 national houses of parliament throughout the world, therefore making up 24 per cent of all speakers. In two countries – the Netherlands and Trinidad and Tobago – women presided over both houses.

In 1927 Austria became the first country to elect a woman to the presidency of a parliamentary chamber; the next was Denmark in 1950. To date women have held one of those positions in 98 countries.

The UK became the 27th country to achieve this when Betty Boothroyd was elected Speaker of the House of Commons in 1992.

Further reading

Women in Parliament and Government, House of Commons Library.

Steve Browning is an Assistant Research Analyst at the House of Commons Library, specialising in social and general statistics.

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Photo: Women Members of Parliament Stand Together © UK Parliament / Jessica Taylor (2016).