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Articles

All-Women Shortlists break all notions of fairness

12.18.09

I am against all women short lists (AWSL). I find them anachronistic.

Any positive discrimination on the one hand is negative discrimination on the other.

Evidence suggests that AWSL do not work in the long run. Research into the use of positive discrimination strategies in the work place suggests that these help to maintain perceptions that women and minorities are less effective.

I cannot understand how a leadership which espouses localism based on the objective of redistributing power from the centre to communities can then be profoundly centralist which it comes to letting Associations choose MPs.

Even if the outcome is one that we all support, I instinctively dislike the practice of manipulating a system in favour of any one chosen group. It gives a great deal of unchecked power to those who do the choosing, breaking all notions of fairness.

I believe it is important that Parliament reflects the society it represents. Dominance by any one sector of society would not be democratic. When I became Director of Candidates in 2001 my brief was to increase diversity in the Parliamentary Party; I was told that I should not resort to the accepted tools of the day – twinning, zipping, and above all AWSL. The assessment centre that Jo Silvester (Professor of Occupational Psychology) and I designed was based on best practice from the commercial world (where the “war for talent” is very real). We adopted a competency-based model which rated candidates according to their skills, measured against those that they would need to be a MP. We established these through a job analysis to identify the knowledge, skills, abilities and other attributes that are required to perform the role effectively. We believe that this was the first time that this had been done in a thorough and systematic way.

In 2002-3 we assessed 415 people of whom 106 went on to be PPCs. This gave us enough data to evaluate the system to see, firstly, if we were able to establish whether there was any difference in aptitude between men and women; and secondly, using the 106 PPCs performance in the 2005 general election, to see which skills were the most predictive of performance.

The results of the 415 candidates showed that there was no gender difference. Men and women possess equal competences for a political role. In fact men and women received equivalent ratings for competence even where stereotypical gender difference might have been expected, for example in areas such as leadership or relating to people. This was rigorous academic peer reviewed analysis which was published in the British Psychology Society’s Journal of Occupational Psychology in March 2007.

Evaluation of the 2005 General Election results showed that the results from the PAB (Parliamentary Assessment Board) could predict performance in a general election measured against proportion of votes gained and percentage swing. Skills that proved to be the most predictive were critical thinking ability (the ability to master, understand and deal with large quantities of potentially conflicting information) and communication skills (a capacity to communicate messages to a variety of audiences and contexts and the ability to listen and create opportunity).

This information could have been provided to the Associations. Party selectors in the Associations are not fools that have to be told what to do. Many of them have business and professional backgrounds who are familiar with a competency based approach. Ratings from the Assessment Board would have given them a head start as to who might be the best candidate for their locality. Moreover the fact that we know certain skills are associated with good performance raises more possibilities; for example candidates could be prepared better and skills could be developed.

The candidates department should be proud of that fact that more women are being selected as PPCs. The real problem is that there are not enough women presenting themselves to be candidates. But it is not the time, when Parliamentary probity is being questioned and the standards of political leadership in general are found wanting, to start manipulating a system to select people on their sex rather than on their ability. We need to raise standards not play number games.

Entrenched beliefs have to be challenged. One of them is the notion that men and women are going to come forward in equal numbers. This is a time when life styles choices are replacing sex and gender as the main drivers of societal roles as the sociologist Dr Catherine Hakim has shown us. Is the demand on women in the 20s, 30s and early 40s, a time when careers and family interests are at their most pressing, to add on all the expectations that the Party asks of its candidates? The Party with the Associations needs to look at their demands to see whether they are reasonable. Older candidates should be more encouraged. Parliament would be a good place for a second career for older people. If there is recognition of the skill set needed to be an MP then there should be greater acceptance of older candidates. People in the late 40s and early 50s are able and experienced but the culture of the selection process militates against them.

Jo Silvester and I have continued to research what constitutes good political performance. Our research is available to the Conservative Party. AWSLs are simply out of date.

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