A (Nearly) 50-50 Gender Split in the U.K.’s New Government. It’s About Time.

Research shows that more diverse teams perform better. Will the new U.K. government prove the point?

A (Nearly) 50-50 Gender Split in the U.K.’s New Government. It’s About Time.
Illustration by Alena Berger.

No matter your politics, the outcome of the U.K.’s general election, which took place last Thursday, should be watched with keen interest.

Over the weekend, Keir Starmer, Britain's new center-left prime minister, launched a sort of social experiment, installing the most women-heavy leadership team of any British government in history. With women occupying 12 of the 25 top roles in government, and 41 percent of the 650 seats in parliament, it’s a meaningful shift toward gender parity.

Research has illustrated time and again that companies with gender-balanced executive teams are more profitable than those without. To wit, this study showing nations with more women in leadership are more prosperous than those with fewer (and the regulations those nations bring in pave the way for more women to move up the social chain, too).

And women-led countries are good for the planet—nations with more women at the top have stricter climate policies and are more likely to ratify international climate treaties. It isn’t just data nerds who think so. A survey of 17,000 citizens around the world has found that 70 percent of people believe countries led by women are better managed

Of course Starmer assumes the top post in what has been a very long line of men. Of the 58 prime ministers the U.K. has had, just three have been women: Margaret Thatcher (who once famously said “I owe nothing to women’s lib;”) Theresa May (who has, rightly, been credited for her work to bring more women into politics) and Liz Truss (the less said of whom, the better). 

Having a woman in power is not the same as having women in power.

But having a woman in power is not the same as having women in power. Thatcher appointed just one female cabinet member during her 11 years as prime minister; May has been criticized for “going quiet” on the issue of women in politics when she was prime minister. And although Truss didn’t get much done during her 45 days in office (10 of which were a public mourning period for the Queen), the massive cuts to public services that she proposed would have led to many thousands of women, who make up the majority of public service workers, losing their jobs. (She also appointed a man as her minister for equalities, dropping the women part of the ministerial title altogether.)

Consider, then, some of the women in power, as of this weekend:

Rachel Reeves, the first woman to hold the nine-century-old office of chancellor of the exchequer (the U.K.’s equivalent of treasury secretary)—a woman whose master’s degree in economics and six years as an economist at the Bank of England makes her eminently qualified for the job. 

In the dual roles of deputy prime minister and minister for leveling up, housing and communities—in short, social mobility—is Angela Rayner, a 44-year-old grandmother whose ascension out of poverty is the stuff of British political legend

And there are others: the new home secretary, Yvette Cooper, who began her career as an economist; the education secretary, Bridget Phillipson, who overcame poverty and childhood bullying to get into Oxford University; the justice secretary, Shabana Mahmood, one the first female Muslim members of parliament. 

Rayner’s story, in particular, is noteworthy, because it is so radically different from the private school-then-Oxbridge background that political leaders in the U.K. so often have. She grew up poor, on an estate in Stockport, in the North West of England, with a mother who was unable to read or write and who suffered from bipolar disorder. Rayner became one of her mother’s main carers—then fell pregnant at 16. 

Rayner is resilient and outspoken (she has described herself as “mouthy”) and often finds herself at the sharp end of media storms when she describes things as she sees them (calling her Conservative party rivals “scum,” for instance).

She is also a little hubristic. In an interview with the New Statesman in 2022, when asked what she would have done if she hadn’t hadn’t been elected, Rayner, who was at the time still in opposition, said, “I think I would have been the secretary general of Unison [the British trade union].” The response elicited gales of laughter from her aides, mocking her for her lofty ambitions. “Does that sound arrogant?” she asked. Sure—in a way that should be celebrated, because women don’t often express that kind of ambition

Back at 10 Downing Street, the pomp and celebration of installing a new leader are behind us. Now begins the gritty work of actually running a (very dissatisfied) country. There are still gaps in the cabinet: At the time of writing, only three members of the cabinet are from ethnic minority backgrounds—that’s 12.5 percent of the cabinet, compared with 18 percent of the British population who come from non-white backgrounds.

Despite these gaps, the gender split really is a first. But is it as big a deal as it sounds? 

I took the question to my friend Lyanne Nicholl, who is also the chief executive of 50:50 Parliament, an organization campaigning for a gender-balanced parliament. 

“We haven’t seen a gender-balanced cabinet before,” said Nicholl. “We have never been given the opportunity to see how gender balance could positively affect our society,” she says. 

I agree: It has been nice, after all the cut and thrust of the six-week campaign, to spend the weekend wondering about the sheer what might be of it all. “This is a historic day,” added Nicholl. “I am excited.” 

I have to admit, so am I.

More from The Persistent.

Yes, Women Are Ambitious. Why Is That Such a Surprise?

When It Comes to the Gender Pay Gap, the Laws Are There. The Culture is Not.

The Complicated Relationship Between Justice and Gender