The major political parties still suffer from "very deep-rooted discriminatory attitudes", with local selection committees reluctant to choose female candidates, according to new research, writes Olga Wojtas.
Figures compiled by the Centre for the Advancement of Women in Politics at Queen's University Belfast show that the goal of equal representation in Westminster remains a distant one. Although the 2005 general election saw the largest proportion of women ever to be selected as candidates, this was only 23 per cent of the total, the centre found.
Labour fielded the largest proportion of women, per cent, compared with 20 per cent for the Conservatives and 23 per cent for the Liberal Democrats. The percentage of female candidates for the Green Party (22 per cent) and Plaid Cymru (15 per cent) fell compared with the 2001 election, and the percentage for the Scottish National Party (22 per cent) remained static.
Yvonne Galligan, the centre's director, said that the low proportion of female candidates persisted despite research showing that the electorate was equally happy to vote for women or men.
"While any improvement is welcome, what is disquieting is the very slow progress towards gender balance in political life," Dr Galligan said. "This is not good enough in a modern society that prides itself on its democratic record. And the gender imbalance in politics deprives our country of the equal contribution of women to decision-making.
"While the Labour Party has made progress in bringing more women into political life, other parties have a lot more to do, and all could do significantly better."
The centre is set to investigate how many of the new female intake were already MPs. Dr Galligan said that apart from high-profile exceptions, women tended not to stay as long as men in political life.
"I think sometimes women get a little bit frustrated when they can't achieve very much in parliaments, and think they might be able to achieve more through single-issue or NGO (non-governmental organisation) activities."
Dr Galligan rejected the suggestion it was women's fault for not putting themselves forward for a career in politics. Debates often brought out aggressive attitudes that made many women feel uncomfortable, she said.
"If women see that is the kind of environment they are going to let themselves in for, they say: 'This is not what I want, my career is improving my community and society, getting things done that enrich the lives of the people I work with,'" she said. "There would be more women in politics if politics was more open to women."