In an Era of Soft Power, a Way Forward for Women

Is there a connection between the lack of soft power in public life and the lack of women in top leadership positions? Are women inherently more capable of soft power than men? With soft power increasingly becoming the 'weapon of choice' for international as well as community relations, is it an imperative to bring more women into public life? This was one of the key questions which prompted Lee Chalmers and myself to begin the The Downing Street Project, one year ago.

With 51% of the electorate yet only 19% of MPs in the UK Parliament female, it seemed like a worthwhile exploration. We were both fans of Marie Wilson, founder of The White House Project which is dedicated to getting more women into US politics. So with Marie's blessing, we began The Downing Street Project and set about the tasks of finding, training and mentoring women to enter Parliament.

One year on, where do we find ourselves? With the UK on the brink of an election, our dream of lining up 100 new women to stand seems far away. Despite plenty of excellent candidates, the eye of the needle is selection at party level. There are more women short-listed, but very few that are chosen to run for winnable seats - even where the local selectors are largely women. Why? At the current rate of change, it has been estimated that it will take us another 200 years to reach parity in the British Parliament.

It was our journey into the underlying causes for this stalemate that made the year so valuable. Few would argue that injustice, inequality and institutionalised sexism are at the heart of the matter. But are these the causes of women's marginalisation in politics - or are they the effects of deeper structural and cultural distortions in our society that are affecting everyone? And will we be able to address those deeper factors by focussing only on the quantity of women included, without looking carefully at the quality of their contribution?

Although politics is hugely gender-imbalanced, there is an understanding on the part of both women and men that it should be a gender-neutral space of competition: a simple, though unexamined, meritocracy. Whoever is best at politics, gets chosen. Women accepted that choice because, at that point, they were fighting a battle for equality. Any suggestion of difference would sound like special pleading.

Today, full equality may not be entirely achieved, but at least women's rights are enshrined in the law. We can afford to move into a new cooperation between the sexes. Instead we're choosing to stick to the same old rules of engagement.

Within the meritocracy we have, women cannot - or will not - make any claims for womanly skills or capacities. In politics, what is deemed effective is alpha male behaviour: the ability to perform, to dominate, to make quick, tough decisions and not be distracted by emotion. In addition, the politician has to come free of the baggage of families - willing to put everything aside to give political service, unproblematically, at all hours of the day. At the moment of selection, it is those women who can demonstrate most of these macho qualities that are chosen for office.

Women whose strengths might be in listening and integrating rather than performing, who have an ability to see the bigger picture over the immediate crisis, who use emotional and social intelligence as a primary tool of connecting with the people they serve - these women will be undervalued in such a political culture. Those women who make their child-rearing responsibilities central to the decisions they make about their whole life, including their work - those that are not willing to put their family second to their job - are excluded from the political process. Given that we can see the benefits of these women in numerous other professions - health, care, teaching and increasingly business - society surely misses out by not having them in government.

Is there such a thing as a bottom line in politics - a clear list of deliverable outcomes? Is maintaining fiscal growth, or keeping crime at a manageable level, sufficient grounds for our leaders to proclaim their competence? Or are there other cultural and quality-of-life issues that we feel government could help shape? In their mid-nineties book The War Against Parents, Sylvia Ann Hewlett and Cornel West concluded that parents were particularly excluded by the political agenda. Can we say it's any better today? And if we don't know what our real hopes and expectations are from government, how can we know whether or not we need women in the mix to deliver it?

For that reason, in our second year, The Downing Street Project is going to shift its gaze from equal representation for women, to the much broader question of the gender dynamics of the public sphere and its effect on society. What do women offer politics that is currently missing and would benefit everyone? What do men have to win - and lose - by women sharing that space? How would balanced leadership make a difference to how young people thrive in their public and private lives? Would it deliver a softer, smarter style of governance than the hard-powered style we have come to see as normal?

This is a call for the whole field of gender politics to be expanded, not just shifted in any particular direction. We want more involvement of people - men and those women who never saw themselves as feminist - as a complement to the vital work being done already by women's organisations everywhere. Our plan is to host facilitated spaces for men and women to work together, gender-consciously, on creating a new understanding of how gender impacts the whole of society. We will be experimenting with different kinds of forums for exchange - more dialogue than debate, more play than delivering clear objectives. We'll be starting a model Downing Street cabinet - 51% women, 49% men - giving participants the powers to add or subtract government departments according to how they reflect the priorities of the whole of society - not just the male part. The result should be a growing understanding of what the real opportunities of balanced leadership are in public life and what the benefits would be for everyone.

The Downing Street Project phase 2 is for the men who love women and support change, but also the women who love men and want to maximise the benefits for all. A new journey is about to begin.