Women Assembly Members (AMs) in the Welsh National Assembly have transformed the national political life of Wales and offer a far more equitable level of representation for women than that found in Westminster or in many Welsh councils.
These are just some of the findings of researchers from the University of Warwick and Swansea University who have presented the results of their three year study of the impact of Women in the National Assembly to a major conference of politicians and researchers in Swansea’s Liberty Stadium on Friday 30th January 2009. The research was funded by the the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). The conference has been convened to ask "What is the National Assembly doing for women?".
The answer to that question, according to the University of Warwick and Swansea researchers, is a very great deal. The report notes that a major feature of the National Assembly as a representative political institution is its gender parity. During the first Assembly, elected in 1999, 40% of the seats were held by women, in 2003, this rose to 50% and, since May 2007, 47% of AMs have been women. By contrast only 19.5% of Westminster’s MPs are women.
The report says that this has led not just to a more equitable share of representation for women, it has also transformed for the better the conduct of Welsh national politics in a way many other legislatures could and should learn from.
According to the report’s lead researcher Professor Nickie Charles from the University of Warwick’s Department of Sociology:
‘This gender balance is seen as having an effect on the style of interactions between politicians, both cross-party and within party. According to many AMs, women tend to do politics differently from men and this is often described as being more consensual than adversarial. The Assembly is a new political institution associated with a consensual political style, an inclusive politics, and working arrangements which recognise the caring responsibilities of those working within it.’
The report quotes an anonymous male Labour AM who says:
"It makes a difference to the culture in which group meetings are conducted, as I’ve said we have fierce disagreement in group meetings but it is conducted with the complete absence of chest thumping and table thumping."
The AMs interviewed as part of the research agreed that women had an impact on the type of policy issues that were debated. More emphasis was given to what one AM referred to as ‘non-traditional areas’. They said:
"Domestic violence is on the agenda, equal pay is on the agenda and all those kinds of really important issues that probably wouldn’t be there if there wasn’t such a high number of women."
Researcher Charlotte Aull Davies from Swansea University said
"The culture, the way debates are conducted, the language used and the policies that are prioritised are linked, by almost all AMs, both to the gender balance of the Assembly and to the fact that it is a new institution."
However while the report has much praise for the representation of Women in the Welsh National Assembly they note that that the position in Welsh local government contrasts rather poorly.
The researchers note that after the 2004 local elections the proportion of women councillors in Wales was 22%. Since the 2008 elections it has increased to 25% but this all-Wales figure hides considerable local variation. At the time the research was conducted, Cardiff had 37% women councillors, Swansea 31% and the Vale of Glamorgan 30% while Blaenau Gwent had 9.5%, Anglesey 5% and Merthyr Tydfil 3%.
According to AMs interviewed by the researchers, the culture of local government also contrasts with that of the National Assembly. As one women AM said:
"You have to remember that I was a member of a Valleys council…it was largely made up of older men who felt that the place for a woman was in the home, and also that they had a right to run everything locally. There was a view among councillors that the culture of local government was male dominated and that that in order to fit into it women had to behave like men."
Note for Editors:
This research was funded by the ESRC (RES-000-23-1185). The research team consisted of Nickie Charles (Principal Investigator), University of Warwick, Charlotte Aull Davies and Stephanie Jones (Co-investigators), Swansea University.
For further information please contact:
Professor Nickie Charles, University of Warwick, 02476 528428
Charlotte Davies, Swansea University, 01792 295311
Peter Dunn, Press and Media Relations Manager
Communications Office, University House,
University of Warwick, Coventry, CV4 8UW, United Kingdom
Tel: 024 76 523708
Mobile: 07767 655860
28th Jan 2009