How do we fix the gender deficit in our political culture?

We should be thankful, I suppose, for small gains.  The excellent website, Gender Politics, has pored over the results from the local government elections and found that it’s all now a little “less male, pale and stale“.

In 2007, just over 1 in 5 councillors elected were women;  in 2011, it rose to nearly 1 in 4.  As Drs Meryl Kenny and Fiona Mackay suggest, “these numbers represent a marked improvement on previous elections – and a record performance since the mid 1990s..” but “… the general trend remains one of stalled progress“.

While all progress is good towards achieving equal represenation, it is also worth considering how many women occupy high profile positions in local politics.  How many female council leaders will we have?  A mental tally suggests very few.  We might, though, end up with a female Lord Provost (sic) in Glasgow in Cllr Sadie Docherty and the key Edinburgh positions are yet to be determined.

Elsewhere, women’s voices in the Scottish political domain are muted.  In both of Scotland’s national Sunday newspapers yesterday, much of the comment and analysis on topical political issues was provided by men.  And while it was a joy to read and to mull over the thoughts and wisdom of Iain McWhirter and Euan McColm (the latter especially, whose own distinct voice has been missing for too long from the political scene), it would be nice, just occasionally, to be able to read what a woman (a non partisan one) thinks of the big issues of the day.

There are more women opining in the blogosphere – Caron’s Musings, Village Aunties, the Shoogly Peg, and maself of course – and theirs are some of the blogs I always make a point of reading, alongside a host of ones written by men.  Because often, I get a different take on things.

Women see things differently, they vote slightly differently, different issues (sometimes only be degrees) influence them.  We are a 50-50 population and that should be reflected in our political population, from who represents us at all levels to who provides analysis.

Of course, views and opinions are not split on gender lines, just as they are not necessarily split by geographical location, age, ability, sexual orientation or identity or ethnic background.  People with a range of characteristics, often poles apart, can and do have similar views and political standpoints.

But the fact remains that a healthy democracy is a diverse one, and our democracy and all its component parts should reflect that.

We could simply pass a law insisting upon 50-50 representation and while the stick approach might be the quickest way to solve the problem, by itself, it would not work.  We also need a cultural shift:  we need parties to see that they have to change in order to encourage women into front line politics.

There are many within our parties who see positive discrimination as undesirable.  Yet, left to their own devices, parties have an innate ability to prefer blokes.  Labour’s policy of twinning constituencies in 1999 achieved gender balance in their MSP group, but it was a one off measure.  In 2011, when there was a significant turnover of constituency candidates, in every single seat previously held by a woman, the local parties chose men to replace them.  Indeed, somewhat ironically, the scale of the defeat to Labour in the constituencies resulted in more women being elected through the regional lists than everyone had expected.

Even the SNP, which has long resisted deliberate measures to achieve gender balance in its elected ranks, has moved to try and increase the number of women candidates coming forward.  NEC member, Julie Hepburn, has been put in charge of developing an equality strategy and it will be interesting to see what she brings forward.

One party, the Scottish Greens, is committed to equal representation and provides a 50-50 split of candidates.  But even their approach is not foolproof, with more men than women being elected as councillors.  Still, we should all look at what the Scottish Green Party does and learn, if not copy, its approach.

All this is good.  But it is not enough.  Other things need to change if more women are to be encouraged to become actively involved in politics and to become elected representatives.

Key to that is asking women – and men – for their views.  Do women treat politics differently?  Do they access news and views differently?  Do they read any of the political comment in our newspapers?  Do they march, protest, write letters, read blogs?  What influences how they vote and who they vote for?

What do people think are the reasons why fewer women get involved in party politics?  What might change that?

It’s not enough for the parties to try and address these thorny issues internally;  the women, after all, who are currently active in politics (myself included) are probably not very representative of the wider population.  So talk to women and men whose sole engagement with politics is to vote.

One of the key conundrums is that women are usually pretty engaged in their local communities.  It’s not that they’re not active, they’re just not active in political parties.  Women – or at least, more than in parties – are to be found engaged in a wide range of community interests:  churches, schools, galas, playgroups, book groups, halls, youth groups.  Ask them why they are prepared to get involved in running, fundraising, advocating on behalf of such community interests but have never considered getting involved in party politics.

And maybe therein lies one of the solutions.  The configuration of party politics, how it engages members and supporters, identifies candidates, supports and trains them, is perhaps one of the problems.  Are there things that parties can learn from other organisations which provide more welcome spaces for women  (culturally as well as literally) and enable women to represent them in as many numbers as men?

There’s no quick fix to all of this.  For too long, we’ve been in denial that there’s a problem, yet over a decade of elections in wholly Scottish elections at parliament and local government show that progress, if evident at all, is slow.  Indeed, there are also fewer women political journalists in Scotland than there ever were, yet more women in journalism generally.  What’s that about?

The lack of women candidates and elected women representatives are issues intrinsically linked to the wider problems of disengagement and disenfranchisement from our political culture.  For too long, in the parties and in the media, politics has been something practised by a relatively small group of people, most of them men.

It’s not healthy at any level and we need to do all we can to change it.


19 thoughts on “How do we fix the gender deficit in our political culture?

  1. Thanks, both for the interesting post and the link. Your point about the wide range of activities that women are involved in has got me thinking. If we really wanted to be creative about this, why would we continue to insist that the only answer lies in getting more women into politics through the traditional route of parties? What if women simply put themselves forward as candidates representing their existing constituencies: like you say, churches, schools, galas, playgroups, book groups, halls, youth groups etc?

    Is there anywhere in the world where this happens, do you think? Is it a completely silly idea, or worth thinking about?

    • I think that’s an excellent idea! Most communities would want to vote for a person who wants to truly represent their community. Very refreshing approach. Sometimes its the actual politics involved in politics that puts people off. And, let’s face it, politicians aren’t exactly high on the list of people we admire generally given the failure of so many to actually focus on the needs of the people they’re actually asking to elect them.

    • I agree with Jo 🙂 It is a great idea and I wonder if the realignment some of us hope for post the referendum, whatever the result, might throw up whole new political groupings and routes. We can but hope and dream.

    • In essence this is how many people get into politics now – being the secretary of the tenants’ association or chairing the playgroup committee or being in a campaign to save your children’s school, builds people’s confidence and gets them noticed by parties and communities. However the problem still remains that many women coming through this route (and it is mostly women) are excluded by traditional male run structures.

  2. Subsidiarity. Ah well. The avowed intention of every administration as it signs the oath of office and carries off the new BlackBerry to programme in the contacts. The aspiration lasts just as long as it takes for the first opposition supported pressure group to demand something unpopular with the ruling group. It takes a very mature, confident set of elected members to deal with a proper devolution of power. Proportional representation was meant to give us more grown up, consensual politics. I think it will take many more years of coalition to get us there. And the squeeze on budgets is leading to greater centralisation – training contracts, single police and fire.

    • Indeed. It’s a timely reminder that our politics is rather nascent. But we can look and learn at how others do it and try to speed up the process. I agree re the centralisation and the necessity angle. But bizarrely, things that could be centralised or at least, shared to remove duplication and unnecessary expense – the backroom functions – are the bits of empire still largely untouched. Despite chat for years now about reform.

      Or is it just inevitable that when money gets tight, we always suck services into the centre. Or do away with them first?

  3. I don’t agree with specific numbers/ratios for any gender / colour / race / sexualtiy. It should be based on ability, and that does not necessarily mean graduates only either.

    I like Billy Connolly’s take on politicians, that the desire to be a politician should instantly bar someone from doing so!

    Look at some of the female politicians who have turned out good: Sturgeon, Fabiani and even Lamont, someone who I feel is probably than the nationalist character assassination squad make out. Then there are the numpties: Christine Grahame (not alway mind), Ms Cunninghame and of course Bendy Wendy.

    True, we could also be here all night with a list of male politicians both good and bad.

    The point is that we should judge someone by their abilities, not by a preconceived idea.

    • …. and on that basis it should be at least 50/50 women. Unless you believe that they are in some way inferior?

    • Agreed Barb. We should also remember Thatcher is female.

      I don’t do gender stuff in politics, positive discrimination and all that jazz. It ignores the most important thing which is ability and the best candidate regardless of gender. You are imposing candidates on the electorate and, for me, that itself is unfair.

      The point raised about women being more involved in community areas is, however, a valid one. I think the difference there is that they want things done and the sooner the better. Politics is a talking shop where little changes quickly and one could be strangled in red tape so many times during one single day that most women could not be bothered with the hassle of it. The other thing, and this applied to me personally during all the years I was active in my own community groups, is that women very often do not want to wear political labels. I was invited by every Party to join them at different times and I resisted because for me a political label restricted me. Most Parties require members to follow the Party line and in communities that just doesn’t work when there are things that must be changed. If you are a member of the ruling Council Party it isn’t going to be easy going after them or challenging them. Also if you are seen as belonging to a particular Party then you can alienate yourself from others in the community through political differences. I always found it far better to do community politics rather than Party Politics: its cleaner too.

      • This is the ‘colour blind’ argument. “I don’t care what colour anyone is, it shouldn’t make any difference.” This didn’t/doesn’t work for race and it won’t work for gender. How long are you prepared to wait until the current unjust situation corrects itself? How long is it acceptable for the exclusion of all that talent and insight to continue?

        We don’t have open primaries for candidate selection in this country, so every candidate is imposed on the electorate. The strength of organised politics is that if its any good (big if I know), then it gets things done and it can be held to account if it doesn’t. The challenge of the ‘active citizenship’ that you describe is accountability. You can vote out your councillor, but how do you deal with the individual who has become an informal local representative on the back of a campaign to save the local park from development and who turns out to be an advocate of eugenics?

        You are describing the challenges of post-modern politics. The risk of your approach is that it turns politics into a series of single issues with no linking narrative.

        And indeed Thatcher was female. Jim Callaghan, Harold Wilson, Jeremy Thorpe, Anthony Eden and Richard Nixon were not.

      • Dr F, I take on board what you are saying although I disagree with the picture you paint of the committed community activist who is free of the Party politics we see here today which holds so many things back and halts progress simply because one Party is not prepared to back an idea which came from another Party and not them. That is what “organised politics” often stands for. I dislike that intensely. People are also very much disengaged from it: they are disillusioned with politics and moreso politicians.

        The expenses lark was bad enough but the changes we were promised did not come and the upshot of the expenses scandal was that half a dozen, if that, faced real penalties yet hundreds and hundreds of MPs were guilty. Many who had stolen, yes stolen, thousands got off with it and were allowed to pay it back and not as much as a slap on the wrist. That was OUR money, not theirs. And the rackets continue even now. They are still buying houses courtesy of the taxpayer and when that house in London, or Edinburgh, is sold at a profit the MP/MSP still keeps the profit. If the property isn’t bought with their own money then that property is NOT theirs, it is the taxpayer’s and WE should get the profit. Despite the pages and broadcasting time taken up by that scandal they have still managed to keep their main rackets intact! That shows a contempt for the electorate. Look at the likes of Eric Joyce, whose constituents cannot even have him removed. He will pick up his salary and continue claiming his expenses until the next election. That is the system “organised politics” has imposed on us. The answers to these and other problems isn’t, for me, simply to impose all women short lists. Women were at the trough just as men were.

        I think you also misunderstood what I mean by community politics. The role of the community activist is about a lot more than saving the local park. Committed community groups (take Community Councils) will know every area of their communities and every issue within each. Other groups within communities will be affiliated to the Community Council and have input there, and a vote. And all office bearers on Community Council ARE accountable to their communities. They too can be voted off. They are the people who do a lot of the ground work that is taken to local Councillors and to MSPs/MPs. And they do it all for nothing!

  4. For all the valid concern, I’m nervous when anyone proposes a blanket 50/50 ‘solution’. That, as much anything, scuppered Labour ten years ago. It gave them a phalanx of sweetie-chewing Karens whose contributions to their party and its advancement were deeply questionable, if not downright negative.

    It also doesn’t necessarily do much good even when advances in numbers are made. Over 150 MPs are female but it’s still ruled by procedural dinosaurs and the various women in the so-called ‘upper’ house make me boke even more than the men.

    I accept it sounds fatalistic (and won’t go down well with the burn-the-bra brigade) but the females that impress me most are the ones I’m not particularly conscious of being female. The Lesley Riddochs/Orla Guerins/Nicola Sturgeons/Angela Merkels of the world are just so palpably good at what they do that gender becomes irrelevant—as I believe it should.

    • The ‘burn-the-bra brigade’? Have you just been thawed out of a glacier in the Alps?

    • i always think the response to these kind of arguments is that they start from a viewpoint that we cannot possibly have more women unless they are good women just like all the men currently filling the positions and doing the job? We have so many duff men in all levels of government but they get to stay where they are until men decide that the women are good enough to be allowed in. We have a long way to go…

  5. If politics, politicians and institutions look too white, then black and Asian people don’t see the relevance to their lives and don’t get involved. Ditto for women and young people if they look too male or too old. The most significant change in the Commons happened when Labour introduced women only short-lists and paired them to make sure that female candidates were selected in winnable seats and not marginalised by the old boy/TU network. This caused enormous resentment in some sections of the party, but it made a real difference. I remain convinced that unless there is some sort of quota, then change will be glacial. I am always disappointed when a sister manages to get inside the tent and then denounces quotas as demeaning. After all its not as if all the male candidates have had to pass exhaustive tests with very hard sums to get where they are. Or if they have, then there must be some very sympathetic markers out there.

  6. After almost 20 years as a female elected member (Council Leader/MSP/EU Committee of Regions Equality Spokesperson) it was clear that a number of factors affected how well I could do the job. First was support at home – husband prepared to put his activities to one side so I could do the meetings, paperwork and 16 hour days needed, no matter how family friendly the hours were intended to be. Second was a determination to make some family time a priority – refusing to stay at work between end of day’s meetings and start of evening meetings. Time to make the tea and eat with family was jealously guarded and not easy. Third was supportive employers – at one stage I had two part-time jobs as well as being Council Leader. Fourth was supportive colleagues, elected and at work. Latterly improved mobile technology made life easier, but only insofar as you got to do more of the work during what had previously been ‘me’ time – in the car, train or watching tv.
    It was true that the easiest political involvement I had was at the old District Council level. Meetings and facilities were relatively close to home, and elected life could be combined with work and young family. Following local government reorganisation, life became more difficult.
    The EU experience was more interesting in that many member states had a very traditional view of what constituted equality. It was very definitely confined to women’s rights. When questioned on support for single fathers, disabled groups or minority communities to enable them to participate in elected politics, there was little recognition that their absence was an issue.
    Finally, in the sea of Greek men in suits which have paraded on our screens over the past few days, I recall speaking in Athens to a conference of Greek women politicians. Over 800 some from across Greece all elected to their local councils. Perhaps it is the case that the more local the democratic institution is, the more women are likely to be found taking an interest in and standing for election to it.

    • Yes Christine, some of what you describe reminded me of my experience. And I had 150 mile round trips to council meetings to factor in!

      I think you’re on to something with the localism issue. For all the cries of us being over-governed, compared to many other states, all our governance is still quite remote and devolution has been rather centrist, despite everyone’s best intentions. What ever happened to old fashioned notions of subsidiarity?

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