How does the UK compare internationally?

At present, 28% of House of Lords members are women. The House of Lords ranks in joint 29th place out of 80 among second chambers globally for representation of women, sharing the spot with Afghanistan’s House of Elders. Second chambers in Australia and Canada, which also have Westminster parliamentary systems, have roughly equal numbers of women and men. Some European countries, such as Belgium, Spain and Ireland, have 40% or more women in their second chambers, while many others—such as France, Germany and Italy—have between 30% and 40%. In some second chambers members are directly elected. Other methods of selection include indirect election (for example, by members of the other house) and appointment. Some chambers use a combination of these methods.

Sixty years of change

Before 1958, the House of Lords was entirely male. Most members were male hereditary peers, with law lords (appointed for their lifetime) and bishops comprising the remainder.

Change to the number of women in the House of Lords came gradually over almost 60 years. The Life Peerages Act 1958 allowed women to become members of the House of Lords for the first time. A few years later, the Peerage Act 1963 permitted some female hereditary peers to take their seats. The Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 had removed the bar on women serving in the judiciary, but it was not until 2004 that a female law lord was appointed. More recently, a female bishop joined the House of Lords for the first time in 2015 as a result of the Lords Spiritual (Women) Act 2015.

Appointments

Most peerages created under the Life Peerages Act 1958 are political appointments recommended by the prime minister. When recommending political peerages for parties other than their own, prime ministers take advice from the leader of that party. Prime ministers also recommend non-party political appointments to the crossbenches.

The House of Lords Appointments Commission makes recommendations to the prime minister for crossbench peers as well. The people it recommends for peerages are chosen from among those nominated to it.

More men than women have received peerages under every prime minister since the Life Peerages Act 1958 came into force. The following table shows life peerage creations broken down by the prime minister in office at the time of the creation, and the percentage of those peerages that were given to women. These figures include a small number of non-political peerages recommended by the Appointments Commission after 2000.

Prime Minister Total Of which women Percentage women
Harold Macmillan 47 7 15%
Sir Alec Douglas-Home 16 2 12%
Harold Wilson 135 14 10%
Edward Heath 45 8 18%
Harold Wilson 80 11 14%
James Callaghan 58 5 9%
Margaret Thatcher 201 27 13%
John Major 160 29 18%
Tony Blair 374 88 23%
Gordon Brown 34 10 29%
David Cameron 245 83 34%
Theresa May 43 17 39%
Boris Johnson 79 20 25%

Why haven’t more women been appointed?

In its 2018 UK Gender-Sensitive Parliament Audit, the Inter-Parliamentary Union suggested that the low proportion of political peerages given to women might be related to the fact that there are fewer women than men in the House of Commons:

The gender imbalance in party-political appointments may be in part a historical legacy of the lower levels of representation of women in the Commons, given the number of appointees who are former MPs, although it is difficult to establish a clear cause and effect in this regard.

The Government asked the Appointments Commission upon its establishment to take account of “the impact of an individual’s nomination on the composition and balance of the House”. This was in relation to several characteristics, including gender. Since the Appointments Commission was established in 2000, 70 peers have been appointed based on its recommendation. Of these, 39 percent have been women. The commission has noted that it receives many more nominations for peerages for men than women.

In the 2018 UK Gender-Sensitive Parliament Audit, the Inter-Parliamentary Union noted several factors that may discourage women from entering politics, either by standing as an MP or putting themselves forward to the House of Lords Appointments Commission. These included:

  • the culture of Parliament, as highlighted in recent reports of bullying and harassment, and sexual harassment;
  • the challenges that working in Parliament poses for family life, including the unpredictability of business and potential long hours; and
  • online threats and threats to physical security, in particular gender-based intimidation, harassment and violence against female parliamentarians and female candidates.

A 2018 report into women and politics in the UK by the British Council found that electoral systems, party structures, and the culture of the political workplace can all act as barriers to women entering politics at all levels.

Hereditary peers

The Peerage Act 1963 allowed female hereditary peers to become members of the House of Lords. While there were some female peers in their own right before this, they did not receive a writ of summons from the Crown and so did not sit as members of the House of Lords.

In spite of this reform, very few women have entered the House of Lords this way. Fewer than 90 peerages can be inherited by a female heir. Between 1963 and 1999, 25 female hereditary peers in their own right became members of the House of Lords. In 1999, reforms saw all but 92 hereditary peers removed from the House. Of the 92 that remained, five were women. The last of the female hereditary peers who remained in the House after the reforms, the Countess of Mar, retired from the House in 2020. To date, no female hereditary peers in their own right have been admitted to the House through the by-election process used to replace any departing hereditary peers.

In February 2021, the Times reported that the Government was considering introducing legislation to abolish male primogeniture.

Bishops

The Lords Spiritual (Women) Act 2015 made provision for female bishops to be fast-tracked to the House of Lords, bypassing the previous seniority-based system. This will last for ten years from its introduction, until 2025. The first female bishop in the House of Lords, the Lord Bishop of Gloucester, was appointed in October 2015. Of the 26 bishops currently in the House, five are women.

Law lords

Baroness Hale of Richmond was appointed a lord of appeal in ordinary in 2004, becoming the first female law lord. She remains the only female peer to have entered the House of Lords by virtue of her appointment as a law lord under the Appellate Jurisdiction Act 1876. Baroness Hale gave a speech in 2004 which considered whether the legality of her appointment could be open to a challenge because the Appellate Jurisdiction Act 1876 was passed “when women could not join either branch of the legal profession let alone become judges”. Following the creation of the Supreme Court in 2009 no more law lords will be created, although justices may receive life peerages in their own right.

Cover image: Copyright House of Lords 2019 / Photography by Roger Harris.