This article has been sparking some interest and as the blog I originally wrote it on is defunct I decided to republish it on here.
Article originally published 05/02/12 some details may be out of date.
When I speak to people about politics, especially in the Labour Party, a common complaint is that Young Women just aren’t interested in politics. To many being interested in politics is all about attending Branch or G.C meetings and running for office.
To which my reply is always the same “well have you asked them?” This gets varying responses from ummm… to well we did once but didn’t get any response back so didn’t bother again. They then go on to complain about young people in general which gives you an idea of what the real problem is.
People expect that young women won’t be interested in politics and therefore don’t put the effort in to welcome them to meetings or invite them to events. Many young political women I have spoken to have at some point attended a meeting and had a bad experience. In my own experience my first Branch meeting scared me off for a year despite already being politically active within the Labour party. There is this expectation that if you are new to a group your role is to sit down, shut up, listen and learn. Very few people felt welcome in their first meeting which is a major issue for any new member let alone young or female ones.
Going to a branch meeting where you don’t know anyone is a scary experience that could be made easier simply by people greeting you with a friendly word and a smile. There is an already acknowledged problem of male members monopolising any discussions, added to this is the idea that young people don’t know what they’re talking about and a tendency to talk down to them unless they are a member of long standing or to chastise them like a small child.
With experiences like that is there any wonder that young women don’t tend to go to branch or G.C more than a couple of times? Yet this doesn’t mean they aren’t politically active; many are involved with single issue campaigns, electioneering, online activism and protests. All of these methods of political activism are just as valid as working within the party system.
The main issue as I see it is the lack of young women running for office. I have been told that at 23 I am the youngest women elected at borough level and above. (This has recently changed) Compare that to the case of Jake Morrison elected councillor at the age of 18, the difference between 23 and 18 may not seem much but as much as “a week is a long time in politics” the same can be said for years of age. So why are young men running for, and getting elected, office and young women not doing the same? Could this be due to their lack of participation within the Party organisation? The sexism and ageism inherent in the system? A lack of confidence in young women resulting in them not being put forward? or simply because they cannot be bothered?
Firstly I don’t believe that it is because they cannot be bothered, I know many capable and amazing young women within the Labour Party some of whom have run for election. If we draw comparisons with the workplace, studies have shown that men will apply for jobs when they have around 20% of the qualifications needed whereas women will only apply when they have closer to 80%. There is a confidence gap between the genders and women tend to perceive themselves as less skilled or able than they are. Because of this women who run tend to start in unwinnables and go on to become a better “bet” as they get older and more experienced in electioneering.
The sexism and ageism within politics has been handled many times by writers and academics more skilled than myself suffice to say a quick google search will bring up many excellent articles
Intelligence Squared Debate
It is all well and good discussing the sexism in politics but what can we do about getting young women involved? Rather than spend all my time criticising I would like to suggest some practical methods that I have found have worked personally.
- Form a new members committee with a mixture of ages whose job it is to welcome new members, possibly by taking them for coffee or to the pub so they get to discuss things in a less structured and pressured environment.
- If you see a new member, go up and introduce yourself. Have a chat, make them feel welcome and share your agenda if they don’t have one.
- Don’t judge them, don’t talk down to them and don’t assume they have no experience in the Labour Party and that they don’t know anything.
- Get to know new members, it’s basic but it works. All it needs is some time. I recently got tickets to a preview of an art exhibition and invited a young female member as I knew she’d enjoy it. Afterwards we had an amazing conversation in the pub and found how much in common we had. Now she has a friend she is more likely to attend meetings.
- Get active on Social media, many young people are more likely to be contacted on facebook than by post. A simple tweet “are you coming to the meeting tomorrow” is more likely to get em to attend than a sheath of minutes, agenda etc
- Organise social events outside of meetings, this could be a women’s group or simply a meetup in a local cafe for young women to meet, compare battle stories and feel like they aren’t alone. If you have particularly crafty young people a regular stitch and bitch could work here. There is actually a labour knitters group on ravelry
- Don’t automatically nominate them for youth officer, it’s patronising and overwhelming. I have been told so many stories about people turning up to their first meeting, being elected youth officer and then being expected to be responsible for all the young people and organise things.
- Support them, I wouldn’t be a councillor if it wasn’t for the support of two amazing party members who got to know me and then convinced me to not only run but to go for a winnable seat and apply to be a joint Labour and Coop councillor. Mentoring can also play a big role here. Ask young women who have achieved in the party if they would be willing to do this.
- Introduce them to the world outside the local party. For instance, being a member of the Fabian Society can better arm them to take part in debates, the Coop Party can be an amazing experience for young people, especially summerfest.
- Don’t let meetings be all business, yes it’s important but people get involved in politics for more than Apologies, Minutes, Matters Arising, Officer Reports and AOB. Having a discussion on a issue that interests them is more likely to make them attend more often in the chance of more.
- Don’t always moan about All Women Shortlists, the more that men talk about how sexist they are the more likely young women are to feel that they aren’t as able to run and shouldn’t even try because “they are taking places from capable men”. I understand you have concerns but the SAME ARGUMENT has been going on for TWENTY YEARS. What do you think you have to say that is so original and going to overthrow the whole system?
- If you have capable young women for Bevan’s sake ask them to run.
- If you have young women who have got elected make a big deal of them, nominate them for conferences, positions, get them speaking gigs and make them as visible as possible. The more visible women are the more likely they are to inspire other women to run.
- When they are elected don’t just pigeon hole them as the young person who only does youth issues.
But most importantly, going back to the beginning, Ask them! Ask them to attend, ask them why they aren’t attending and ask them what you can do to encourage them to attend.
You never know until you try!