Women’s groups have reacted with concern and anger over the low representation of women in the new cabinet.
Rishi Sunak removed 11 members of his predecessor’s top team on Tuesday as he put together a cabinet that he said “reflects a united party” by showcasing “all the talents”. Under the changes, however, fewer than a quarter of all people – about 23% – able to attend cabinet meetings will be women.
This is down from nearly a third at the start of Liz Truss’s premiership and is lower than under Boris Johnson, at 24%, and Theresa May, at 30%. The figure has been falling since its highest ever rate under Tony Blair in 2006-07, when the proportion of women in cabinet was 36%.
“Women remain significantly underrepresented in parliament where just 34% MPs are women and, while progress has been made, the pace is glacial,” said Amy Whitelock Gibbs, the interim director of policy at the Fawcett Society. “We need to ensure women, from all backgrounds, are not just in the halls of Westminster but also around the cabinet table.”
Gibbs said the presence of female MPs in the rooms of power where decisions were being made had “undoubtedly transformed our laws and policies”, from equal pay to domestic violence legislation.
“That is why, as the cost-of-living crisis intensifies and has a disproportionate impact on women, we were disappointed to see the proportion of women in cabinet drop. We urge the government to put women at the heart of its economic recovery.”
Mandu Reid, the leader of the Women’s Equality party, said the fall in women’s representation showed Sunak had a “massive and deeply concerning blind spot” when it came to the fact that “it is women who hold up our NHS, women who deliver social care and women who are overwhelmingly employed in the childcare sector which enable parents to actually go to work”.
She said that if Sunak was “serious about growth, he has to take an approach to planning the economy that recognises that some of the serious most serious impacts of the crisis that we’re seeing will be gendered”.
“This is not a hypothetical issue,” she added. “Having a cabinet that resembles a golf club lounge more than it does the demographic makeup of our country is really disappointing and a big step backwards, and suggests that this government is set to continue to completely fail women at a time of crisis when women are being hit hardest on lots of different fronts.”
Kemi Badenoch has been given the women and equalities brief by Sunak in addition to her new role as international trade secretary; the former post was dropped from the government by Liz Truss, who had previously held the position herself under Boris Johnson.
But while it was positive to see the role brought back, said Reid, “it’s not good enough that the women and equalities portfolio is an add-on to the really big role of trade secretary, which is going to involve Badenoch travelling around the world. You need a standalone cabinet role to champion that work.”
Jessie Duncan, the development officer for equal representation for Engender, which campaigns for men and women to have equal access to resources and power, said: “It’s particularly concerning to see representation taking a huge jump backwards at a time when the government is about to make huge budgetary decisions that are going to affect women’s lives across the UK.
“Women have so often borne the brunt of austerity measures. While having women in cabinet will not of itself solve these challenges, gender equality at all levels of decision-making is fundamental to the healthy functioning of our democracy, and without it, the government cannot hope to act in the best interests of all its citizens.”
The rate of women’s participation is higher in the devolved legislatures and local government across the UK: 43% members of the Welsh parliament are women, along with 46% of the Scottish parliament and 37% of the Northern Ireland assembly.
About 41% of local authority councillors in England are women; 26% of councillors in Northern Ireland are women, along with 35% in Scotland and 28% in Wales. Fifty-two per cent of members of the London assembly are women.