We already knew that First Past the Post (FPTP) fails to properly represent women. In the UK, men are much more likely to hold safe seats, for example. Around the world, there is a huge wealth of evidence showing how fewer women are elected under FPTP than under Proportional Representation (PR). But new research suggests that the effect of FPTP is even more pervasive than we realised.

In an article published in the European Journal of Political Research, Dr Mary Nugent of Rutgers University and Dr Daniel Höhmann of the University of Basel analysed the representation of women’s issues using Early Day Motions in the British House of Commons. They found a significant difference between male MPs in safe versus marginal seats, with male MPs who were electorally vulnerable being much more likely to sign women-specific EDMs.

Though it is probably not a surprise that MPs are sometimes motivated by personal gain when deciding how to act in Parliament, this research suggests that not only are male MPs disproportionately likely to hold safe seats, preventing descriptive representation of women, they are also a barrier to substantive representation of women on the issues. Nugent and Höhman argue that there is a “gendered leeway”, with male MPs facing lower expectations than female MPs when it comes to women’s issues. So much for the longstanding pro-FPTP argument that “MPs represent everyone in their constituency”!

As the authors point out, it is difficult to know exactly how this effect translates across different electoral systems, but given how few seats change hands under FPTP, and how national politics eclipse local MPs, the electoral incentives for male MPs to support women’s issues are very low.

Under PR, all votes count equally, no matter where you live or who you vote for. This means there are far fewer safe seats, or none at all, and voters across the country have to be persuaded. It also means better representation of women. The Inter-Parliamentary Union found that countries with PR had 6.5% more women in Parliament on average than FPTP countries. Combined with multi-member or top-up seats, this means voters are much more likely to be represented by at least one woman under PR.

FPTP is the electoral system of the 19th century and for the representation of women it is bound to hold us back. While the struggle for the right for women to vote has been won, the fight for fair votes goes on.

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I know that women, once convinced that they are doing what is right, that their rebellion is just, will go on, no matter what the difficulties, no matter what the dangers, so long as there is a woman alive to hold up the flag of rebellion
— Emmeline Pankhurst