Amid the unfurling political crisis over Brexit, a more hopeful news story emerged from the British parliament last month: on January 29, MPs voted unanimously to implement a trial of proxy voting for representatives on parental leave. During this year-long trial period, any MP who has recently become a parent, is about to give birth, or has suffered a miscarriage can designate another MP to vote on their behalf. 

Gender equality advocates welcomed the measure as an important corrective to gender-biases in political institutions. Up until now, British parliamentarians had to rely on an informal “pairing system” whereby political parties coordinated votes to accommodate absentees: if a Conservative MP was on leave, they had to ask the leadership of another party to have one of their members also refrain from voting. Proponents of proxy voting argued that this system was unreliable, outdated, and confusing to the public. As recently as mid-January, Liberal Democrat MP Jo Swinson accused the Conservative Party of breaching a pairing agreement in a high-stakes Brexit vote while she was on maternity leave. Another MP, Tulip Siddiq, chose to delay her planned Caesarean operation by two days in order to cast her vote on Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit deal, noting that she did not trust the pairing system to work.

Saskia Brechenmacher
Saskia Brechenmacher is a PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge and a fellow in Carnegie’s Democracy, Conflict, and Governance Program, where her research focuses on gender, civil society, and democratic governance.
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The decision in favor of proxy voting comes after years of campaigning by MPs and civil society to institute a system of formal parental leave for elected officials. In a recent parliamentary debate, Labour MP Harriet Harman noted that 17 children had been born to British parliamentarians since 2010 alone, yet the body still lacked a formal policy to help parents balance their political and family obligations. This gap particularly burdens women, who are more likely to be the primary caregivers in their families, and often face criticism when they are seen as prioritizing their careers. According to the Fawcett Society, while over 70 percent of male MPs in the UK are fathers, just over half of women MPs are mothers, and most of them do not have young children.

Where does the new UK policy fit in global practice? Parliaments vary widely in their leave provisions. A 2011 survey conducted by the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) found that in around 62 percent of parliaments, maternity leave provisions for parliamentarians are the same as the national law. Fewer parliaments make provisions for fathers, and more than a quarter make no provisions at all. Australia and New Zealand also use proxy voting, though the practice remains rare. In the United States, neither chamber of Congress permits proxy voting on the floor. While the Senate allows proxy voting in committee, it lacks a formal parental leave policy. When Senator Tammy Duckworth in 2018 became the first-ever senator to give birth while in office, she had to push for a change in Senate rules to allow her to bring her baby to the Senate chamber for important votes.

Debates over proxy voting and leave policies highlight that many parliaments remain unrepresentative institutions: their working rules, policies, and norms tend to reflect the traditions and preferences of a narrow (mostly male, upper-class, and white) elite, meaning that they generally were not designed with the needs of mothers or gender-equitable couples in mind. As the number of women elected to political office has increased around the world, these formal and informal practices have come under greater scrutiny, with advocates arguing that they epitomize “a broader failure to embrace and incorporate women’s bodies into the political sphere.”

Proxy voting is not the only policy change that can make political institutions more gender-sensitive. The  IPU and other organizations have done path-breaking work to define and assess the gender-sensitivity of parliaments more broadly: possible measures range from changing sitting hours to avoiding late-night voting, having dedicated childcare facilities, to improving sexual harassment reporting and sanctioning rules. Achieving greater diversity in political life is not just a numbers game: it also means taking institutional change seriously. This week, the UK took a small step towards making its parliament more inclusive. Other countries should follow their lead.

This article was originally published by the Council on Foreign Relations.