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Too few women called to give evidence to parliamentary select committees

Women are seriously under-represented among those who give evidence to parliamentary select committees according to stark new figures from Democratic Audit UK, an independent research organisation based at LSE.

According to the report, Parliamentary select committees; who gives evidence?, seventy five per cent of all witnesses were men over a four week period spanning October/November 2013. The Commons committees called marginally more men to give evidence than other committees, with 76 per cent of their witnesses being male. This was in comparison to the Lords and joint committees of both houses where 73 and 71 per cent of witnesses were men respectively. 

The greatest disparity between men and women was among those called to give evidence as ‘independent experts’. Eighty three per cent of these were men. This disproportionate representation of men occurred across all categories of independent experts including individuals (those without an organisational affiliation), academics, think tanks and parliamentarians (excluding ministers).

Houses of ParliamentLSE policy analyst Richard Berry said: “Committees do not have a completely free hand when choosing who will appear before them to give evidence. However, gender disparities do exist among witnesses that committees have much more control over – such as independent experts. This suggests that committees are contributing to the problem of gender inequality as well as being subject to its effects.”

‘Government’ witnesses, such as ministers, civil servants and individuals employed by quangos were more representative with 25 per cent of witnesses being women (49 women out of 193 witnesses).

Some individual committees fared particularly badly. The Energy and Climate Change Committee only took evidence from two women out of 32 witnesses (six per cent) and the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee from only five women out of 29 witnesses (17 per cent). The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee fared better with 13 out of 31 committee witnesses being women (42 per cent). However, this is likely to because the subject of the session in question was ‘Women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) careers’.

The only committee to hear from more women than men was the temporary Mental Capacity Act 2005 Committee. This heard mainly from representatives of the caring professions which have a higher degree of women in senior positions.

Democratic Audit blog managing editor, Sean Kippin, said: “Although we only examined a short period of committee activity, the fact that men were over-represented among the witnesses of almost all committees across both Houses of Parliament and among every type of witness suggests this is an ongoing problem.

“Committees need to consider what steps they can take to address this, beginning with the setting of milestones for increasing the proportion of female witnesses and regular monitoring.”

The data also revealed the prominence of trade associations. Fifty five representatives of trade associations appeared as witnesses in this period – nine per cent of all witnesses. Seventy eight per cent of these witnesses were from trade associations representing the private sector, with 13 per cent from the public sector and eight per cent from non-profits or higher education.

Democratic Audit compiled a database of all witnesses appearing at a select committee – including in the Commons, Lords and joint committees – from 8 October to 7 November 2013. This comprised of 167 committees sessions, featuring 583 witnesses. The data is available to download here.

Democratic Audit is an independent research organisation, established as a not-for-profit company, and based at the London School of Economics Public Policy Group. Our core objectives are to advance education, enhance democratic engagement and to undertake and promote research into the quality and effectiveness of UK democracy www.democraticaudit.com

Posted: 22 January 2014

More information for media

Sue Windebank, Senior Press Officer, T: 020 7849 4624/ 020 7955 7060, E: s.windebank@lse.ac.uk

Richard Berry, Democratic Audit, T: 020 7852 3762, E: r.berry@lse.ac.uk