My Lib Dem Spring Conference 2016 Speech on All Women Shortlists

This is the 3 minute speech I gave to the Lib Dem conference on all women shortlists. It was supporting an amendment which would remove them from a diversity motion we were considering. I took the view that the underlying problem is that the political environment is hostile towards women, and all women shortlists don’t address that, but paper over it.

We lost, but it was quite close, and some told me that my speech had changed their minds, which I suppose is the mark of a successful debate speech.


In days of yore, it’s said coal miners took caged canaries down mines, to test the air. Imagine, if you will, one mine that has a problem. Nine miners take down a canary, and the canary, after looking distressed for a bit, dies.

The miners realise they have a problem. “Better get another canary”, says one.

So they do, and that canary dies.

As does the third, and the fourth.

Well word gets round the local canary flock, and when they see the miners coming they make themselves scarce. Now the miners really have a problem.

“I know”, says one of them; “for every five of us who go down, we will reserve another five spaces for canaries.”

“We’ll fill them from all canary shortlists.”

Slowly the miners all get unpleasant health problems, because canary targets don’t clean up toxic air.

I served four years as a councillor. At the end of my term, I feel like I discovered a dirty little secret. I ended my term on antidepressants and so, it seems did a statistically implausible number of my colleagues, in all parties.

Some of us ended up comparing notes: Citalopram or Mirtazapine, which has worse side effects? That sort of thing. How messed up is that?

Maybe we need a spent canaries support group.

Studies show that men often overestimate or overstate their abilities and women underestimate and understate them, and this is reflected in how different genders tend to respond in toxic environments, be it investment banking or be it politics.

We ask a lot of our candidates: organise deliverers, run campaigns, spend x nights a week knocking on y hundred doors. Our local parties often ask for more time than is reasonable. Men will quite often sign up, and then just not do it all. Women, who tend to have less free time to start with, will look at the expected workload and become stressed.

I’m no expert in why the response here is gendered; but it is, and we in all parties have built an environment that unconsciously selects men by tailoring it towards male-typical responses to stress. That’s a bad thing for the men too, by the way, they just tend to respond differently to it.

The problem is not with the women. The problem is with the toxicity of the environment. If we learned anything from New Labour’s love of targets and quotas, it’s that they provide simple solutions to the wrong problem.

Don’t get more canaries. Fix the toxicity.

4 thoughts on “My Lib Dem Spring Conference 2016 Speech on All Women Shortlists

  1. This may not just be politics.

    When I, as a graduate student, started giving supervisions, I set my supervisees about three times as much homework as I wanted them to do. (Without telling them what the expectations were.)

    Why did I do that? Because when I was an undergraduate, my supervisors set me about three times as much homework as I felt was reasonable to fit into the time available, so I only did a third of it, which I had to guess for myself as I wasn’t, of course, told what the expectations were. And I took away from this that undergraduates only do a third of what you tell them to, so as a supervisor you’d better set them three times as much as you actually want them to do.

    And you’ve now made me wonder whether there is a gendered response to this type of pressure as well – as an undergraduate I only had the very occasional female supervision partner or supervisor, and as a supervisor I wasn’t allowed anywhere near the female students (there was an unwritten rule in the lab that the married supervisors got all the girls – these days no doubt the unwritten rule has been replaced by a 287-page “safeguarding policy”).

    So, did/do female students react differently to being told to do three times as much work as makes any sense? Do they actually panic, or get stressed, or stay up all night trying to do the work, instead of just doing what’s reasonable and not worrying about it?

    • A bunch of people approached me afterwards and said, yes, this DOES have more general applicability. Men and women seem to treat expectations very differently, and this really does stress women out.

  2. All-[insert minority here] shortlists can be insulting to folk from minority groups. Even if that person is more than capable of doing the job, they’ll end up feeling like they only got it because of the quota, and other people will assume the same.

  3. Pingback: Where Next for Diversity in the Liberal Democrats? | Jazz Hands, Serious Business

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