The Downing Street Project / network

On International Women's Day, DSP enters Phase 2

The Downing Street Project is one year old. With the UK on the brink of an
election, our dream of lining up 100 new women to stand seems far away. Despite
plenty of excellent candidates, the eye of the needle is selection at party
level. There are more women short-listed, but very few that are chosen to run
for winnable seats – even where the local selectors are largely women. Why? At
the current rate of change, it has been estimated (
that it will take us another 200 years to reach parity in the British

It was our journey into the underlying causes for this stalemate that made the year so valuable. Few would argue that injustice, inequality and institutionalised sexism are at the heart
of the matter. But are these the causes

of women’s marginalisation in politics - or are they the effects
of deeper structural and cultural distortions in our
society that are affecting everyone? And will we be able to address those
deeper factors by focussing only on the quantity of women included, without
looking carefully at the quality of their contribution?

Although politics is hugely gender-imbalanced, there is an understanding on the part of both women and men that it should be a gender-neutral space of competition: a simple, though
unexamined, meritocracy. Whoever is best at politics, gets chosen. Women
accepted that choice because, at that point, they were fighting a battle for
equality. Any suggestion of difference would sound like special pleading.

Today, full equality may not be entirely achieved, but at least women’s rights are enshrined in the law. We can afford to move into a new cooperation between the sexes. Instead we’re choosing
to stick to the same old rules of engagement.

Within the meritocracy we have, women cannot – or will not – make any claims for womanly skills or capacities. In politics, what is deemed effective is alpha male behaviour: the ability to
perform, to dominate, to make quick, tough decisions and not be distracted by
emotion. In addition, the politician has to come free of the baggage of
families – willing to put everything aside to give political service,
unproblematically, at all hours of the day. At the moment of selection, it is
those women who can demonstrate most of these macho qualities that are chosen
for office.

Women whose strengths might be in listening and integrating rather than performing, who have an ability to see the bigger picture over the immediate crisis, who use emotional and social
intelligence as a primary tool of connecting with the people they serve – these
women will be undervalued in such a political culture. Those women who make
their child-rearing responsibilities central to the decisions they make about
their whole life, including their work – those that are not willing to put
their family second to their job – are excluded from the political process.
Given that we can see the benefits of these women in numerous other professions
– health, care, teaching and increasingly business – society surely misses out
by not having them in government.

Is there such a thing as a bottom line in politics – a clear list of deliverable outcomes? Is maintaining fiscal growth, or keeping crime at a manageable level, sufficient grounds for our
leaders to proclaim their competence? Or are there other cultural and
quality-of-life issues that we feel government could help shape? In their
mid-nineties book The War Against Parents, Sylvia Ann Hewlett and Cornel West
concluded that parents were particularly excluded by the political agenda. Can
we say it’s any better today? And if we don’t know what our real hopes and
expectations are from government, how can we know whether or not we need women
in the mix to deliver it?

For that reason, in our second year, The Downing Street Project is going to shift its gaze from equal representation for women, to the much broader question of the gender dynamics
of the public sphere and its effect on society. What do women offer politics
that is currently missing and would benefit everyone? What do men have to win -
and lose - by women sharing that space? How would balanced leadership make a
difference to how young people thrive in their public and private lives? Would
it deliver a softer, smarter style of governance than the hard-powered style we
have come to see as normal?

This is a call for the whole field of gender politics to be expanded, not just shifted in any particular direction. We want more involvement of people – men and those women who never
saw themselves as feminist - as a complement to the vital work being done already
by women’s organisations everywhere. Our plan is to host facilitated spaces for
men and women to work together, gender-consciously
, on creating a new understanding of how gender impacts the
whole of society. We will be experimenting with different kinds of forums for
exchange – more dialogue than debate, more play than delivering clear
objectives. We’ll be starting a model Downing Street Cabinet - 51% women, 49%
men - giving participants the powers to add or subtract government departments
according to how they reflect the priorities of the whole of society – not just
the male part. The result should be a growing understanding of what the real
opportunities of balanced leadership are in public life and what the benefits
would be for everyone.

The Downing Street Project Phase 2 is for the men who love women and support change, but also the women who love men and want to maximise the benefits for all. A new journey is about to begin.

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