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Are women unelectable?

Updated: Mar 10, 2023

"Could I interview you for a book I’m writing?" came the rather unusual request.

“It’s about why women remain underrepresented as political leaders. I’d love to get your insights into the relationship between, voice, presence, and electability.”

‘Fascinating,’ I thought, because the way political leaders think, speak and act determines their success in the same way it does for any leader – it’s just politicians are in the spotlight so more visible.

The stats would seem to reinforce the point. 34% of MPs in the UK are women, which broadly mirrors the figure in last month’s Hampton Alexander report for the number of women on FTSE 350 boards.

Lucy Whichelo, Author of 'Unelectable'
Lucy Whichelo, Author of 'Unelectable'

What intrigued me most about this interview request though, was the book’s author, Lucy Whichelo,

a 21-year-old political science student who had sought me out from Canada.

The pandemic’s lockdown had impacted her plans and she was keen to put her time to good use. Instead, she was writing her first book in the hope of providing women with the inspiration to go out there and pursue their political aspirations.

“The book’s going to be called ‘Unelectable’ Lucy told me when we spoke in the Autumn "and it’ll be published in Spring 2021.”

So Spring is finally here and as Lucy’s book launches this Friday, I wanted to turn the tables and put her in the interview hot seat.

Here she shares a little about her brilliant debut book ‘Unelectable’…

Susan: Women are under-represented in all types of leadership, what is it about the political arena that’s so important to you?

Lucy: There’s a grave importance to underrepresentation in the political sphere. If there’s not equal representation of women in those decision-making positions, then there’s a lack of control for women over policies that impact them.

Susan: Does this book offer anything for women not interested in politics?

Lucy: Absolutely. While it’s designed to help young women with political aspirations, there’s lots in here to help people better understand the struggles women face in leadership positions and the practical steps they can take to create change.

Susan: What surprised you most from your research?

Lucy: How much blatant public comment there is about a woman’s appearance. I always knew there was a subtle sexism going on but what surprised me was the level of harsh media criticism women get on their appearance that men don’t necessarily attract in the same way. That greatly moved me. It’s why the opening two chapters of the book are about that pressure on women and the way they appear.

Susan: Are women going to read your book and feel despondent?

Lucy: (Laughter). I’m laughing because when I was researching and writing part one, which looks at the struggles women in politics face, I was disheartened myself. But there’s also an optimistic scope to this book because the story doesn’t have to be this way. That’s why parts two and three offer hope. Part two explores how things are changing and what people are doing to bring about change. This is where the chapter with you Susan comes in. Then part three offers five steps for a female led future. These are practical steps we can take in our everyday lives to create actionable change for more women leaders in the future.

Susan: What’s the top struggle we need to overcome to get more women into leadership?

Lucy: It’s difficult to pick just one because they all reinforce each other but I think it’s probably the way we look at leadership. It’s clouded by stereotypes about what it means to be a man and what it means to be a woman. In general, I think we tend to value the masculine over the feminine and that’s particularly evident in how we judge leadership capabilities and leadership styles. For more women to break into leadership positions, we first need a more inclusive understanding of what leadership is.

Susan: Do you find any evidence in your book that there are any elements of voice that make women more likely to be successful?

Lucy: There’s a chapter in the book called ‘Shrill’. It talks about how there’s a double bind in the standards we use to judge women’s voices. If I give you an example. Margaret Thatcher and Hilary Clinton both had vocal training to deepen their voices. The intention was to help them sound more authoritative, more dominant. But both still came under criticism - their voices sounding too edited, too forced. The best advice seems to me to take hold of that voice you have naturally and take confidence in it. That certainly dovetails with your work Susan – how you help others get to that place where they feel confident in the way they think, speak and act. To get women confidently taking leadership positions – rather than them holding themselves back or being knocked off course by the unwinnable judgements of a double bind.

"The one piece of advice I’d offer as a coach to a woman entering a position of leadership for the first time would be to be clear on their values and boundaries. Keep them front of mind. Live by them. Say yes to them and no to compromise - we teach people how to treat us." Susan Room

Susan: Having written your book, what’s your one piece of advice for women aspiring to become political leaders?

Lucy: Find a support network - those who will encourage you and help you get the confidence you need to seize your full potential. Then just go for it, without looking back. It would be naïve to think you won’t face gender barriers, because they will be there, but knowing you have the people around you and the confidence in yourself to overcome them will help you get through it.

Oh yes, and one other thing if I may… please do buy my book!

‘Unelectable’ by Lucy Whichelo is published by New Degree Press and is available to purchase on Amazon

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