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Friday, July 30, 1999 Published at 13:58 GMT 14:58 UK

UK Politics

A suitable job for a woman

There are 101 female Labour MPs

By BBC News Online's Sarah Teasdale

The prime minister's reshuffle has been criticised as the non-event of the political year.

But one of the most important aspects of the "non-shuffle" has been the promotion of nine women from the backbenches or within the government.

[ image: Baroness Scotland joins the Foreign Office]
Baroness Scotland joins the Foreign Office
Only one of the 14 ministers who left office was a woman, Glenda Jackson, who hopes to become London's first directly-elected mayor.

None of the five women in the Cabinet has been demoted, despite intense speculation about the future of Leader of the Commons Margaret Beckett and Chief Whip Ann Taylor.

And there have been reports that the whole non-event revolved around the Northern Ireland Secretary Mo Mowlam's refusal to move while a solution to the peace process remains possible.

This week's comings and goings in Downing Street have also seen the appointment of the first women to macho ministries.

Arsenal-supporting Kate Hoey is the new sports minister and Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean has moved from the Foreign Office to become the first female minister of state at the Ministry of Defence.

[ image:  ]
Baroness Scotland of Asthal has become the first black woman to become a minister of state through her appointment to the Foreign Office. She is also one of five women brought into government for the first time.

Among those emerging from Downing Street with a new portfolio this week was Birmingham Edgbaston MP Gisela Stuart, who is now a junior minister at the Department of Health.

Ms Stuart, who was elected only two years ago, believes it is important not only to bring women into positions of power but also to change the way the machinery of government operates.

Representative government

[ image:  ]
She told BBC News Online: "I've always thought it is important that we need women to bring their experience and style to government.

"Government is meant to be representative and for that it needs to reflect the gender balance so people's life experiences are there.

"But we also need to change the structure of looking at policy through more draft bills and pre-legislative scrutiny and consultation."

She believes that concern to find out how policies affect real people is behind her rise and that of her fellow newly-promoted MPs.

[ image: Gisela Stuart: Need to reflect gender balance]
Gisela Stuart: Need to reflect gender balance
Ms Stuart believes that although women are strongly represented in other walks of public life, such as in local government and as magistrates, the way forward must be to have equality at all levels.

This week's reshuffle should encourage that by raising the profile of women in government.

She continued: "When you look at the women who came into Parliament in 1997 they reflected a range of people, from Ann Cryer, who is a grandmother and whose son sits in the Commons, to Claire Ward, who was only about 25.

"I think the image of superwoman is damaging but I would like to think any woman can look at any of us and see what we've done and use that to help them achieve their own ambitions."

Ms Stuart is one of 101 women Labour MPs who were returned to the Commons in 1997.

But despite the unprecedented number of female faces in the Commons, the government has been previously criticised for the lack of women on the front line and its macho style of politics.

Laddish culture

[ image: Men still dominate the Cabinet]
Men still dominate the Cabinet
Mary-Ann Stephenson, director of the Fawcett Society, an independent campaigning group for equality, believes that although the promotion of women is a positive step forward, Parliament is still a long way from seeing women as 50% of its MPs or ministers.

She said: "There has been concern about laddish culture throughout politics, in all parties, not just in the government.

"We want to see women active at all levels and that includes in the civil service and as special advisors.

"There are far more women ministers than ever before and the government deserves credit for that.

[ image:  ]
"I'm not saying that men can't represent women's issues, but it is very clear that women's practices and perspectives are different to men.

"There are certain issues that men don't think about instinctively, such as the balancing of work and family life."

Ms Stephenson believes the reshuffle - termed the "petticoat revolution" by one paper - will also put an end to the idea of Labour's women MPs as merely "Blair's babes".

"There is a large number of very able women MPs and hopefully this will end the lie that the women MPs have been disappointing or that those from all-women shortlists were not of the calibre they should have been."

Although women have moved into areas such as sport and defence, Ms Stephenson believes the idea there are traditional ministries suitable to female politicians is misleading.

She said: "In the 1980s, women generally got ministries for health and education which were then seen as soft issues.

"Now those are big political issues and in the last reshuffle, there was criticism for the movement of women to positions such as leader of the House of Lords and not to the big ministries of health and education.

"There is a suggestion that people move the goalposts for what is acceptable for women to manage."

There is already speculation that Tony Blair will reshuffle his more senior ministers, including the five women in the Cabinet, in the autumn.

Whether the prime minister maintains his commitment to promoting women and giving government a more feminine perspective will be seen then.

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