So we have a second female Prime Minister – Theresa May – who joins the 11 other women already serving as Head of State and 10 serving as Head of Government around the world. I’m not going to join commentators in the press by comparing her to Margaret Thatcher, although her performance at PMQs last week was “the ghost of Thatcher past” (Thank you, Quentin Letts) or ponder about her feminist credentials – instead I thought it was useful to remind us how far (or little) we have come in terms of equality of gender roles in the UK in recent years and look at how we compare with other countries.

Ten years ago the Women in Work Commission found that “unleashing women’s full potential could be worth £23 billion a year to the Exchequer” – in other words, just increasing the number of women in the workplace would give a big boost to GDP.

Latest figures show there has been an increase in the proportion of women working in the UK – 79.2% of men and 69.6% of women aged from 16 to 64 were in work between March and May 2016. This employment rate for women is the highest since records began in 1971. The gap in employment rates in the UK (just under 10%) is better than the average for EU countries – only 5 out of 28 have a better gap – Malta has the worst gap of 30%.

Gender Gap

UK female employment rates might have improved but has this been matched by an increase in the representation of women in public life, the professions and in the boardroom? In 2014, the House of Commons Library statistical team produced a report looking at women in senior roles in the UK. They reported that while most professions have seen an increase in the proportion of women in senior roles, the rate of progress is slow and

In very few of the sectors examined do women [in senior roles] exceed the 51% of the UK population that they represent.”

Out of the c50 professions contained in the report the only ones that have a greater than 51% of women in senior roles are Advertising and PR, Education (excluding Secondary School Heads and Higher Education), Human Resources, Health (excluding Hospital Doctors and Consultants), Social Services and Librarians.

Turning to the proportion of women in the most influential positions in the UK, the table below shows an increase in recent years in all areas except in the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly (which already had relatively high numbers of female members), Secondary Head Teachers and the Justice of Supreme Court (which retains the wooden spoon prize with only 1 female representative).


House of Commons Library report Latest data
Role Year % Year % % change
MPs 2013 23 2016 29.5 6.5
Lords 2013 23 2016 26 3
Cabinet 2014 14 2016 29.6 15.6
Scottish Members of Parliament 2011 35 2016 35 0
Welsh Assembly 2011 48 2016 41.7 -6.3
Storemont 2011 14 2016 28 14
Board of public bodies 2012 35 2015 37 2
Senior civil service 2013 36 2016 39 3
Justice of the Supreme Court 2013 8 2016 8 0
GPs 2012 47 2016 51.3 4.3
NHS Consultants 2012 32 2016 33.4 1.4
Secondary Head Teachers 2009 39 2015 36 -3
University Professors (2011-12) 21 2015 22 1
FTSE 100 Directors 2013 17 2016 25.8 8.8

Maybe the most important statistic to look at overall is the proportion of female MPs. After the 2015 election this rose to just under 30%. According to the UN  – 30% is considered to be the important international benchmark for women’s participation in parliament. They go onto say

“More women in politics does not necessarily correlate with lower levels of corruption, as is often assumed. Rather, democratic and transparent politics is correlated with low levels of corruption, and the two create an enabling environment for more women to participate”

In 2005, Theresa May co-founded Women2Win in order to increase the number of women selected in winnable seats. This did result in more female Conservative MPs, but only time will tell if this increase in female MPs in the UK will be correlated with more democratic and transparent politics and lower levels of corruption.