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In the land of the suffragettes, Britain's women push (again) for equity

The birth of the Women's Equality Party earlier this year was just one of a series of increasingly strong messages that British politics had to change to be more welcoming to women, Nahlah Ayed writes. There are even signs they are getting through.

Birth of the Women's Equality Party earlier this year sent a message that U.K. politics had to change

CBC's Nahlah Ayed meets some of the people behind the Women's Equality Party 1:50

If you thought Justin Trudeau's gender-balanced cabinet is revolutionary, you should have a close look at the British Women's Equality Party.

Sure, Britain's newest political party advocates an old idea for achieving gender balance in Parliament: "short-term" quotas that it believes can get the job done inside a decade, in other words, within two elections.

But even that was an idea the party settled on only after it crowd-sourced every point in its policy book and underwent extensive consultations with its growing membership.

More revolutionary, this is one party whose central objective is to be put out of business.

To those in power today, the message is "this is our policy document, take it," says Women's Equality Party Leader Sophie Walker.

"These are all our ideas to make the country flourish. It's yours, take it. We aren't proud, we just want to get it done."

The birth of the WEP back in the spring is just the latest in a recent surge of novel tactics that women (and some men) here in the U.K. are employing to correct what they see as a historic inequity in the British political landscape.

Progress on the matter of women in power is often described as glacial here in the home of the late Iron Lady, Margaret Thatcher  —  and let's not forget the Queen as figurehead — as it is in many Western countries, including Canada.

There isn't just one culprit. In Britain, it's everything from the challenges of balancing the demands of political work with home life, to the scarcity of role models, to the relative absence of a culture that encourages women to participate in politics.

Sophie Walker is the first leader of the Women’s Equality Party, Britain’s newest political party. (Pascal Leblond/CBC News)

"I don't think women are staying out of politics, I think women are being kept out of politics," says Walker.

"The economy is not working as well as a result. Society is not working as well as a result."

Bits of red ribbon

British women first won the right to become MPs in 1918, with the passage of an act of Parliament, shortly after they won the right to vote.

The act, in its original form, bound together in small bits of red ribbon, is preserved at the British parliamentary archives. It is among 500 years of bills preserved on parchment, and passed overwhelmingly by men.

"Most of the opposition [to female MPs] had died away once some women had gotten the vote," says senior parliamentary archivist Mari Takayanagi

"But there were still men in October, November, December 1918 who were willing to say in public that they didn't want to sit in the chambers with women."

Mari Takayanagi is a senior parliamentary archivist, specializing in women and Parliament. She says one of the biggest challenges historically for women becoming MPs has been being selected as candidates. (Nahlah Ayed/CBC News)

Takayanagi, an expert on British women and Parliament, says some of the same barriers that existed back then still exist today.

"The big problem has always been getting women adopted as candidates," she says.

"What history is telling us is that once women are candidates they stand just as good a chance as men at getting elected."

One-quarter of candidates

And yet, nearly 100 years later — and as the new film on the suffragette movement gains in popularity here — only a quarter of all candidates who ran in the last election were women, and 29 per cent of current British MPs are women.

That is up from 23 per cent before the May elections. But there are many other signs that the old ways aren't quickly changing.

Just a few weeks ago, for example some of those new women MPs complained anonymously to The Guardian newspaper about having to participate in a rota of "arm candy" appearances with Prime Minister David Cameron at the Conservative convention last month.

It is little things like this that may explain why women's equity, as a cause, seems to be back forcefully in the headlines.

Seemingly aware of the brewing discontent, Cameron's government just announced an initiative to compel companies to reveal any discrepancies between what they pay men and women.

Last week, a government-commissioned report revealed the proportion of women on the boards of FTSE 100 companies has doubled to 26.1 per cent in just four years — a stunning achievement, if still not quite where it should be. (And about five points ahead of what it is in Canada.)

But the advances in the boardroom could also inform the effort to reform the country's political life, suggests Brenda Trenowden, a British-Canadian who heads the 30% Club.

Her approach is to sell CEOs on targets — 30 per cent — instead of advocating quotas.

Brenda Trenowden, head of the 30 per cent club, says she prefers targets instead of quotas. She sells CEO’s on the business case of gender balance. (Pascal Leblond/CBC News)

Part of the selling job is explaining the business case for women's equity as one of the main incentives.

"We are really engaging with companies, you know, women engaging with men to set business targets," she says. "If companies take it upon themselves to set targets and to really look at it and measure it themselves, then they buy into it much more."

Trenowden applauds Canada's gender-balanced cabinet, saying "the more that we see initiatives like that, the more we'll see things start to move."

But she adds it takes a variety of approaches to alter the status quo.

"They all want to know 'what's the silver bullet? What's the one thing I can do?' There is a lot that has to be done."

About the Author

Nahlah Ayed

Foreign Correspondent

Nahlah Ayed is a CBC News correspondent based in London. A veteran of foreign reportage, she's covered major world events and spent nearly a decade working in and covering conflicts across the Middle East. Earlier, Ayed was a parliamentary reporter for The Canadian Press.

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