Do female MPs in the House of Commons gravitate towards different policy areas compared to male MPs ? This is the question that Dr Mark Goodwin, Lecturer in Politics, School of Humanities, addresses in a new paper “Electing to do Women’s Work? Gendered Divisions of Labour in UK Select Committees 1979-2016” , recently published in the Politics and Gender journal of the American Political Science Association.
The article finds that despite a huge increase in the overall number of female MPs in Parliament across the period studied (rising from less than 5% in 1979 to 30% by 2016) , there are still many areas of the work of Parliament that are disproportionately male or female. Analysis of the composition of parliamentary committees (groups of around 12 MPs chosen to scrutinise and oversee government work in particular policy areas) showed that committees in some policy areas consistently over-represent either men or women despite the changing gender balance in Parliament. The article describes this as a ‘gendered division of labour’ .
The gendered division of labour was found to operate both ‘vertically’ (in terms of the prestige and status of committees with men dominating the higher-status committees) and ‘horizontally’ (with women disproportionately taking places on committees covering policy areas that code ‘feminine’) . The horizontal division of labour showed clear gendered patterns with male MPs dominating ‘high politics’ areas such as Defence, Treasury/Finance, Foreign Affairs and Trade; while women were over-represented in ‘low politics’ areas such as Health and Social Care, Social Security/ Work and Pensions, and Education.
The research suggests that male and female MPs continue to behave differently from one another and occupy different policy areas despite rising numbers of women in Parliament. Female MPs tend to ‘cluster’ in particular policy areas (typically ‘low politics’ and public services-related) leaving other policy areas as ‘bastions of maleness.’ This suggests that the impact of a rising number or ‘critical mass’ of women in Parliament (or in other parliaments internationally) might be confined to a small number of stereotypically ‘female’ policy areas. More recent committee elections such as those held in 2019-2020 have shown changes in this gendered pattern in some areas (a sharp increase in the number of women on the Treasury committee, for example) but also a familiar lack of female representation in other areas (such as the International Trade committee which failed to elect a single female member). The gender composition of Parliament has been transformed in the last two decades, but some of the old gendered divisions of labour appear to remain as strong as ever.