Page last updated at 06:45 GMT, Friday, 30 January 2009

Women 'transform Welsh politics'

Top (L-R) Jane Davidson, Helen Mary Jones. Bottom (L-R) Angela Burns, Jenny Randerson
Women AMs (top L-R) Jane Davidson, Helen Mary Jones. Bottom (L-R) Angela Burns, Jenny Randerson

The almost equal gender balance of AMs in the Welsh assembly has transformed how politics in Wales is conducted, according to a new report.

The study showed there were more female voices at the assembly than at Westminster and in many Welsh councils.

Political debates were more consensual than adversarial as a result and had 'non-traditional' topics on the agenda such as domestic violence.

Since May 2007, 47% of AMs are women. At Westminster 19.5% of MPs are women.

The report by Swansea and Warwick universities argues other legislatures should learn from the Welsh assembly.

In the first Welsh assembly, elected in 1999, 40% of the seats were held by women. In 2003, this rose to 50%.

The report's lead researcher Professor Nickie Charles from the University of Warwick's department of sociology said this gender balance had an effect on the style of interactions between politicians, both cross-party and within party.

We have fierce disagreement in group meetings but it is conducted with the complete absence of chest thumping and table thumping
Anonymous male Labour AM

"According to many AMs, women tend to do politics differently from men and this is often described as being more consensual than adversarial," she said.

"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, the report noted that the position in Welsh local government contrasted poorly.

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
Anonymous female AM

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 researchers, the culture of local government also contrasts with that of the Welsh assembly.

One woman AM, who was a member of a council in the south Wales valleys, said: "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."

The Welsh Local Government Association said: "Only a quarter of councillors in Wales are women and this reflects the fact that only a quarter of candidates who stand for election are women.

"Although there are a large number of Independent councillors in Wales, political parties have a key role in terms of selecting candidates and the encouragement of more women, younger people and ethnic minority candidates.

"Ultimately, however, the responsibility lies with individual members of the public to consider standing to serve their communities."

She added that the WLGA and local councils work to encourage people from under represented groups to stand as councillors.

The researchers will present the findings of their study to a conference of politicians and researchers at Swansea's Liberty Stadium on Friday.

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