Yesterday I met a redoutable 87 year old woman who was the primary carer of her 90 year old husband of 63 years. We chatted about the weather and her garden before getting down to business. Which party does she normally identify with? That would be Labour. She and her husband had voted Labour all their days, and voted No in the referendum, despite the exhortations of her Yes-daft “laddie” (he’s in his fifties). And who would she be voting for in the UK election in May? That would be the SNP. Or not exactly the SNP but “thon wee lassie”. She meant Nicola Sturgeon.
She had never been a fan of “him” she said but this lassie was of different mettle and there was a lot to like. She’s shaking things up a bit and with her in charge, the SNP will shake up a whole lot more, down there and here. We need things all shook up, she reckoned. And I like how she’s putting women first, she said.
Anyone wondering what difference Nicola Sturgeon has made in the early days of her leadership of her party and of Scotland, that’s it there in a nutshell. For every person opting positively to choose the SNP over Labour in this Westminster election, there is a minority – a significant minority, I’d hazard – who have been attracted to the SNP and what it stands for because of its leader and what she stands for. They like what they’ve heard so far and it shows in the polls too.
Most still show a continued gender gap among those who intend to vote SNP in May (such as in this Survation poll for Unison Scotland), but some show that gap having narrowed considerably (the most recent YouGov Scottish poll).
The First Minister has made no secret of her desire to deliver equality for women in Scotland. Her argument – that if you are good enough and work hard enough, being a woman should be no barrier to achieving success at work and in life – is the most explicit commitment made by any party leader in post-devolution Scotland to creating a fairer, better society for women. Implicit in her approach is the need to remove any barriers and plenty still exist.
Not least within her own party. Which explains the resolutions on the agenda for debate at the party’s Spring conference next weekend to create formal mechanisms to ensure a higher number of women candidates standing for the SNP and more of them elected.
I should declare an interest here – I’ve been a longtime proponent within the SNP of positive discrimination measures. The last time the party debated it (in 1998 I think), I was on the pro side of zipping male and female candidates on the regional list selections. That debate for me was characterised by the number of bright, young women speaking against the idea, adamant that they would get there under their own steam, thanks very much. Only one of them ever did.
So bravo for the new party leadership (and I include in this the NEC) for bringing the issue back for further, long overdue debate. This time, I hope the measures win the day.
Last time round, such is the contrary nature of the SNP membership, it more or less zipped anyway with a significant number of women elected to the Scottish Parliament. But without the issue being kept in focus, the numbers slipped. And have never been anything like balanced, let alone equal, for Westminster and local election selections.
As ever, there will be opposition. The same old, tired old arguments will be trotted out. It should be the best candidate who gets selected – which assumes that is usually a man – and there will no doubt be a coterie of women who shore that up by insisting on the right to do it for themselves, not wanting – ever – to feel they were chosen just because they are a woman. It won’t be until they are rejected as a candidate precisely because they are a woman that they will get it.
The party can rightly point to the progress made in recent times. There are more women than ever before selected for Westminster seats and that’s testament not just to the formidable talent in the ranks of approved candidates but also to the willingness of local party organisations to select the best person to represent them in their constituencies in this contest. But women still make up under 40% of the total candidates standing for Westminster and it will only be if we get into landslide territory on May 7th that signiificant numbers of them will be elected.
More women have joined the SNP creating a much more balanced membership; it has a 50-50 Cabinet; it has committed to changing the face of public boards and is encouraging private sector and charitable ones to do the same. All of this has come about – partly – because it has a female leader, because of what the party now stands for under her leadership and the policies it espouses.
A breakthrough was signalled at last party conference, when despite fierce opposition, a resolution was passed on gender balance in public life. I sat at home watching it all unfold and cried buckets at the conclusion, for it represented such a milestone.
Next Saturday, the SNP has the chance to show that it’s not just its leader who has mettle. That this is a party in tune with the mood abroad, prepared to lead on changing the nature of society by beginning with reforming its own structures. Before voting on this vital resolution and all the amendments, delegates should pause and consider where Scotland stands, what their party – and especially, their leader – stand for and where she and they want to lead their country to.
The SNP is at a juncture – is it thirled to it (and Scotland’s) past, stuck in the present or focussed on the future and creating a different party (and country) for the next generation to inherit? After all, a better, fairer society for all means exactly that, in all structures and circumstances.
To coin a phrase, moments like this in party histories are like “poppies spread”. They can choose to “seize the flower” before “its bloom is shed”. And in doing so, delegates might want to remember that “nae man can tether time nor tide”.
We had to select a candidate from a panel with a 75% male to 25% female ratio. A woman was selected. I am in my 50’s and very used to women in positions of authority. The gender of the candidates was of zero interest to me. I was interested in their length of membership. Their residency in the constituency. Their ability to think on their feet. Their presentation ability.
In the end a woman was selected by our members to fight our seat.
I have reservations about gender quota. What we really need is role models like Nicola. We need women to put themselves up for selection.
Our local party machine has several extremely able women. I would admit to an extent its run by women. Our very capable MSP is a woman.
So please don’t assume it is sexism, or old fashioned ideas of gender roles that is the greatest obstacle to gender equality. You have to stand for selection if you want to stand for election. Quota are a sign of weakness. If you insist on them they should have strict sunset clauses applied.
You say the 1998 party debate “was characterised by the number of bright, young women speaking against the idea, adamant that they would get there under their own steam, thanks very much. Only one of them ever did.”
So one made it out of how many? A number – what number? And why didn’t the others make it? Why exactly? All for the same reason? All because they were women? Did you bother to ask?
Because otherwise, you just sound like the prosecution in a kangaroo court. I can respect your views on gender equality but your presentational argument needs work.
I agree with the positive discrimination argument …the Greens have embraced it and it is now ‘the norm’ for them.
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That’s a fair point to some extent, Peter. I certainly agree that any positive action should be reviewed periodically to ensure it’s actually achieving what it’s meant to achieve. But the comment about “assuming it’s a man” is pretty much spot on. A man’s gender doesn’t get mentioned when he gets selected. No-one thinks to ask if all the men in our gender-balanced cabinet got there on merit or just because they happened to have been Alex Salmond’s buddies and Sturgeon didn’t want to kick them ALL out. If our default position wasn’t that men are generally the people to do these jobs then more women would already have positions of power.
My point was that simply insisting on the best person for the job does not, of itself, imply any assumption about whether that person is male or female. Any more than advocating positive discrimination implies that one is prepared to settle for less than the best in order to shoehorn a woman into the job.
That the system is inherently biased in favour of men is a fact too glaringly obvious to be in dispute. Nor is there any question but that there are still a lot of unthinkingly sexist men around. (And not a few sexist women.) But the bias in the system cannot be entirely explained by a conspiracy of sexist males at a time when increasing numbers of men are every bit as intent on reform as women – simply for reasons of good democracy, good politics and good governance.
In large part, the sexist bias in the system is a legacy of a time when the socially defined roles of men and women were very different from what they are today. At which point it is worth noting that the generality of men had no more choice in the roles assigned to them than did women. And women have always been active players in the process by which social roles are assigned. A fact to which I can testify having been on the receiving end of some pretty vicious sexist abuse when, in the early 1970s, I was the only male taking our baby son to the local clinic.
The third factor in creating and maintaining bias in the system is organisational/managerial. To put it simply, institutions and procedures which were set up at a time when gender balance was not an issue are unlikely to be appropriate for the purpose of rectifying this social imbalance. Organisations are resistant to change. Power begets power. Where an organisation is dominated by a particular group that dominance is likely to be perpetuated, not because of any formal “conspiracy”, but simply due to inertia.
Which is where positive discrimination measures come into play. Used artfully, positive discrimination can break the self-perpetuating cycle by subtly altering the power relationships at a point in the cycle where the intervention will be most effective in altering the system as a whole.
My further point was that, once the system is altered so that it naturally produces gender balanced outcomes, the positive discrimination measures become redundant, and possibly deleterious.
“This obviously heartfelt and persuasive plea for gender balance in politics is rather spoiled by the petulant-sounding remark about the argument that the best candidate should always be chosen “assumes that is usually a man”. It doesn’t. There is absolutely nothing in this argument which implies such an assumption.
This remark betrays a contrived sense of victimhood which adds nothing to the case for equality. A case whose merits are as self-evident as the case for choosing the best candidate regardless of sex. There is no conspiracy to keep women down. Men are not the “enemy”. Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of this issue is that inequality persists despite the goodwill of increasing numbers of men.”
Peter, it’s like you decided to write a parody of a male response as a satirical piece but forgot to change the headline (and tone) from the earlier one you were doing on something serious.
Two very simple points, firstly the argument that the best candidate is usually a man can be logically induced from the 400 years of evidence of how of modern system of capitalism works. It is a perfectly reasonable statement for the writer to assert that when we here “best candidate” that this will usually mean a man. The justification for the assertion is simply a raised eye browed point at reality. Precious few of those women types with power.
Secondly you assert that positive discrimination is an “extraordinary measure”, you’re right it most certainly is, but if employing such a measure requires extraordinary justification then it is extraordinarily easy to find it. 40 years after the introduction of the equal pay act women’s pay is still 10% behind male earnings in similar sectors. Our parliament with its highest ever amount of women has more women that ALL other parliaments in history combined, so far from positive discrimination being extraordinary, surely it is fantastically mild next to the countless generations of powerless exploited women who have lived and died as the oppressed. Positive discrimination is extraordinary, but it pales next to the scale of what the exploitation of 51% of the population could be framed as. I recommend we ban men from politics, guns, money and sharp things for a century. The world would be a far better place.
Stevie, a bloke supporting women
Wholeheartedly agree, Kate: let the SNP set the pace here and show not just Scottish politics but UK politics that equality is long overdue and until it exists, we need positive discrimination.
Of course it takes a man to reply that there is no conspiracy to keep women down, and as a woman that’s all I needed to be told to get back in my place. But, wait a minute, like it or not we recognise that living in a patriarchy, we will always hear male voices telling us how things are from their perspective. But this isn’t about you, this is about us and we want change, we want a greater say. We are the 52% who are fed up being under-represented and I see positive discrimination as the best way to achieve this.
This obviously heartfelt and persuasive plea for gender balance in politics is rather spoiled by the petulant-sounding remark about the argument that the best candidate should always be chosen “assumes that is usually a man”. It doesn’t. There is absolutely nothing in this argument which implies such an assumption.
This remark betrays a contrived sense of victimhood which adds nothing to the case for equality. A case whose merits are as self-evident as the case for choosing the best candidate regardless of sex. There is no conspiracy to keep women down. Men are not the “enemy”. Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of this issue is that inequality persists despite the goodwill of increasing numbers of men.
Positive discrimination is an extraordinary measure. It is essentially undemocratic. It therefore has to be thoroughly justified. People must be assured that such an extraordinary measure will not have unintended and unfortunate consequences. They need to be assured that it will not be an obstacle to choosing the best candidate.
Most of all, people need to be assured that positive discrimination does not become part of the problem. Extraordinary as it is, positive discrimination can readily be justified as a means by which to address entrenched, self-reinforcing and self-perpetuating social imbalances. It’s purpose is defeated if comes to be – or to be perceived as – a cause of inequity itself.
If positive discrimination works as intended, there should come a point when it is no longer required. Systemic social imbalance having been rectified, the new state of the system should be self-sustaining. If it isn’t, then this suggests that there are factors at play which cannot be addressed by positive discrimination.
For this reason, I am firmly persuaded that all positive discrimination measures should have a “sunset clause” – either in terms of a fixed duration or, preferably, in terms of a clearly defined target. Such a limitation would, I feel, go a long way towards addressing the concerns of opponents.
Careful consideration should also be given to the way positive discrimination measures are designed. Rather than crude “rigging” of candidate lists or imposed quotas, which may be regarded as excessively distorting the selection process, a more subtle and effective approach might be to ensure that selection panels are balanced, but weight the votes of female panel members by an amount directly related to the degree of imbalance to be addressed.
Positive discrimination can be a powerful tool for shaping more equal representation. Like any tool it must be used with the appropriate amount of caution and creativity.
Nice one Kate. Good luck next weekend!
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