It took an academic with little interest in politics to show the Conservative Party how to give more women a shot at Parliament, writes Huw Richards
Academic expertise can take lives in unexpected directions. Jo Silvester, professor of occupational psychology at Goldsmiths College, University of London, has been, in her words, "working with organisations for the whole of my career". It never occurred to her, though, that those organisations might include the Conservative Party.
It is not that Silvester, 40, had any predisposition against the Tories - while declining to state her personal political preferences, she explains that she simply was not interested in party politics: "Previously, I was pretty much disengaged from the political process, tending to regard it more as just a bunch of men arguing rather than anything I wanted to be involved with."
Nor perhaps might one have expected the Tories to look to Goldsmiths for help. The college's high-profile political figures have generally been more associated with the left - warden Ben Pimlott is by discipline a Labour historian and biographer, and has been for many years a major figure in the party's in-house think-tank, the Fabian Society, while media sociologist James Curran edited New Socialist during the Labour monthly's brief heyday in the 1980s.
But it was Silvester's expertise on candidate selection, not her location or her personal opinions, that attracted the Conservatives. They were seeking a solution to the perennially intractable problem of getting female candidates chosen for winnable seats, and they hoped Silvester might be able to help. Margaret Thatcher may have been Britain's first female party leader but the Conservative Party in the House of Commons is still 92 per cent male.
Christina Dykes, the party's director of development and candidates, recalls this as "a rumbling minor issue" at the 2001 general election. Not least of the Conservatives' problems was that the only proven method for pushing large numbers of women into Parliament - Labour's imposition of all-female shortlists before the 1997 election - had hit legal objections.
It is also inherently distasteful to Conservatives and is not without collateral drawbacks. Silvester says: "It worked in that it got a large number of women into Parliament. But it contributes to an impression that women are incapable of getting there on their own merits."
Getting people chosen on their merits is Silvester's expertise, which she developed in partnership with companies such as Boots in an academic career that has taken her from Leeds to Swansea to City before her present post last September.
Her speciality is "developing selection systems that are more transparent, fairer and better predictors of performance in the job". Far from being opposed to discrimination, she is positively in favour in one very specific sense: "The aim is to discriminate in favour of the right person for the job. But you have to do it fairly and transparently. If you do this, most people will accept the outcomes even if they are disappointed by them."
Finding the right person means going through an assessment based on an analysis of the skills needed for a job rather than relying on traditional assumptions. If those assumptions go unchallenged, Silvester says, they become self-fulfilling and self-perpetuating. "Stereotypes are formed through our observation of successful people already occupying roles.
Where, as in business or politics, these roles have been historically occupied by men, women are particularly disadvantaged."
Yet research by her and others has found that "when women are assessed for leadership positions using objective criteria and rigorous and fair selection criteria, based on an objective analysis of the skills needed, they do just as well as men".
Her research on the difficulties faced by female managers in selection processes drew Tory attention. Dykes has written: "I was prompted into thinking that, if business and the professions could successfully recruit more women, why shouldn't a political party be able to do it as well?"
When Silvester went to work on the party's selection procedures, she found that being a political ingenue was not without its advantages. "I couldn't have told you how the Conservative Party goes about selecting its candidates," she says. "It meant that I could ask the sort of questions that someone with political experience would regard as stupid but that would get at the issue of what the process is trying to accomplish."
She found a selection method based on Sandhurst's model for recruiting army officers, that had changed little in 30 years. Silvester says: "Politics was seen as remote from any other occupation, and there is no doubt that it is different in some ways. But that does not mean there are no parallels with other jobs or lessons to be learnt. I was struck by how little knowledge there was of ideas and concepts that are now generally understood in company human-resources departments."
In particular, she found little had been done to match the selection process to the demands of the job. "It had a heavy emphasis on public-speaking skills," she says. "While speaking in the House of Commons is an important part of the job, it is only part of it. Little work had been done on analysing the job and identifying the competences that predict successful performance."
Consultation with senior party members, MPs and focus groups produced a list of six core competences - communication skills, intellectual skills, relating to people, leading and motivating, resilience and drive, and political conviction.
The next step was devising ways to test these competences. Silvester says:
"There are group exercises, public speaking, an in-tray exercise, an interview and role playing using actors who follow a script. All of these test abilities in different parts of the job." Today's is not the first generation of Conservatives to be trained though role play. Iain Macleod, a leading minister under Harold Macmillan and Edward Heath, performed the role of a Labour councillor so effectively at one Conservative training school that his adversaries lost their tempers.
The final part of the process is an assessment carried out by two MPs and two leading members of local Conservative associations, each trained in the competency model, fair assessment practices and bias awareness.
By the end of 2002, more than 400 prospective candidates had gone through the process. The outcomes were what Silvester expected. "There is absolutely no difference between ratings for male and female applicants."
Caroline Spelman, shadow minister for women, hailed the results as "at lastI objective evidence that women are as competent as men at the skills needed to be a member of Parliament".
While her work was done for and funded by the Conservative Party, it has potential importance across the political spectrum, addressing a problem all parties share - women make up only 18 per cent of the Commons, compared with 44 per cent in Sweden's parliament, 32 per cent in Germany's and 28 per cent in Spain's. Furthermore, numbers fell at the 2001 general election.
While Labour's pre-1997 solution produced more female MPs, it left in place the structures and the culture that had blocked them before. The Tories have introduced fundamental changes aimed not only at recruiting more women but also at raising the standard and suitability of candidates as a whole.
As Silvester admits, change has a way to go. The candidates generated by the new processes still have to win selection meetings that remain the jealously guarded preserve of constituency Conservative associations.
Silvester is optimistic that the training given to senior party members as assessors will percolate through to their local associations. She argues, with what some might say is an optimistic view of the Conservative Party:
"I don't think anyone ever consciously set out to discriminate against women or ethnic minorities."
Silvester's role is now "pretty hands off". As well as learning about party politics, she has gained some experience of the vagaries of tabloid political journalism, being described in one memorably off-target headline as a "shrink". She is not, contrary to some reports, offering advice as a visiting speaker to local Conservative associations.
Her current work focuses more on other projects, such as an Economic and Social Research Council-funded study on empathy in doctors - another group whose initial selection criteria (academic performance) may be a mismatch with the demands of their profession.
She was, however, delighted to be able to apply occupational psychology to a new area, successfully deriving best practice from research. She says:
"I've no doubt that there's considerably more scope for research on politics and on how decisions are made." Although aware that her Conservative connection might make other parties wary, at least initially, she would be interested in comparative studies.
But whether or not it happens, it is possible that Silvester has already made a vital contribution to changing not only the Tories, but also the British political system as a whole.