Where have all the women gone?

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Yesterday, the Herald Society Insight article posed the question, What kind of democracy overlooks what women have to say?  No one, it would appear, has any answers.  Yet, 52% of the population continues to be denied access to platforms and panels and more importantly, is not being allowed a voice, a say on a wide range of topical issues.

Some of us got fed up with broadcast media fielding all-male panels on current affairs programmes, particularly on the forthcoming independence referendum.  So we made a noise.  The answers were illuminating.  There aren’t enough women willing or capable, said some.  So, Lesley Riddoch published a list of names of women who might be willing to come on to programmes with a wide range of knowledge and experience to offer.  For a time, it was clear that efforts were being made.

But just as soon as we all shut up – off doing some dusting I shouldn’t wonder – the old ways crept back.  Men, men and more men.  No media outlet can claim anything like moral high ground here, though our two quality newspapers do better at including a range of women columnists week in, week out.  And very good they are too.  For the likes of me, they are a must read:  they cover different topics and they often take a different perspective on hot topics.  They add something to the mix – who knew?

Women, in informal and immediate ways, are fed up and beginning to take a stand.  Yesterday’s Herald article highlighted that a number of women who are fed up with institutions and agencies which organise conferences, seminars and events doing so with nary a glance towards gender balance, beginning to call them out. Hurrah!

And the current focus is on CoSLA’s new commission established to “renew local democracy”.  Announced with some fanfare last week, look at its membership and weep.  Four women out of twenty men.  No one from a black and ethnic minority background.  One person with a disability (or at least, prepared to identify themselves as such).  No one under 21.  No one over 65.  Indeed, all the people and groups largely excluded from local government representation posted missing.  And given that one of the issues hampering local democracy is its tendency to be “male, pale and stale” what better way to examine how to fix it by creating a panel that is largely “male, pale and stale”.

It’s also incredibly politically unbalanced, with Labour hogging more of the places than any other party, both in terms of actual elected representatives and the backgrounds of some of the non-elected participants.  It might as well exist in a parallel universe, one where STV doesn’t exist – and if some of the Labour members have their way, that might be one recommendation for the future.  A return to first past the post voting so that normal service of Labour dominance can be resumed.  Why the SNP is legitimising this by taking up a token place is beyond me.

Apparently, the original proposed panel had only one woman on it, until folk made noises off.  Now there are four.  This, it would appear, is progress to some.

Everywhere you look and listen in Scottish public life, women are as rare as pregnant pandas.  Except one.

Having set itself the goal of increasing the number of women selected for public appointments, the Scottish Government has made progress, real progress.  Last year, nearly 31% of women applied for a public appointment and 39% were appointed.  It’s still nothing like 50 – 50 but it’s better, because they are focusing on fixing it.  Not just with a token, temporary filip but with systemic measures designed to attract more women applicants and to ensure that as many women who are “best candidates” succeed as men.  The outcome is that now, 35% of all appointments to public bodies are women.  One hurrah then for the Scottish Government.  And an approach others can learn from.

Less helpful is the evidence that equal pay is still something of a goal rather than an achievement in NDPBs and indeed, within Scottish Government.  Unsurprisingly, the gap widens at the top.  Why and how it is acceptable for civil servants on the same grade, doing the same job to be paid differently in this day and age is a mystery – and in some cases, men are being paid less than women.  Why no harmonisation?  Why no equal pay claims supported by unions?

And kudos to all the political parties which selected a woman candidate to stand in the Dunfermline by-election.  Dunfermline’s next MSP is likely to be a woman, helping to improve the gender balance of our Parliament.  Two hurrahs.  By small steps, gains are made.  Though what we need are strategic approaches and indeed, positive action, to ensure that more women stand in elections at all levels.  It’s not women’s job to do this, but political parties.  Just as it is for media and public bodies and government at all levels to pay more than lip service to equality duties (in law for some) and moral responsibilities.

Because wherever we look in Scottish life, women are being discriminated against.  In public life, in allowing their voice and experience to be heard in the debates of the day, in pay and in representation.  This is Scotland in the 21st Century, a country which prides itself in its egalitarian outlook, where the reality is somewhat divorced from the spin.  It’s shameful.

Sisters need to do it for themselves

First, we had the Yes Scotland launch where the Yes wimmin of Scotland were represented by Liz Lochhead, Lou Hickey and Elaine C Smith, who had to be beamed in by video from Cardiff.  Which, given her commitment over the years to the Scottish Independence Convention and the cause, was a bit of an insult that they couldn’t wait and hold the launch when she was in town.

Then, we had the analysis.  Both Scotland Tonight and Newsnicht had panels discussing the launch of the Yes campaign.  Sadly, the talkin’ heids – all seven of them – were grey, male ones.  Not a single woman in the entirety of Scotland to be found with a trenchant view or lancing insight to offer on any of it.  It’s scarcely credible.

Thank goodness, though, for Lesley Riddoch.  But why wasn’t she on the airwaves adding her tuppence worth? She was clearly around, writing and podcasting on it all.

Scotland Tonight decided another wee looky was in order last night, discussing the Yes Campaign’s harnessing of the might of social media and online tools to build its consensus.  Three commentators, three blokes.  And because some wimmin commented on this on twitter, we got the usual excuses.  Women might not be available; they don’t have much time to sort these things; just cos there’s a three person panel doesn’t mean we’re trying to represent the whole nation; there are lots of powerful women on the telly; we shouldn’t have quotas, but the best people for the job.

And I’ve nearly run out of responses.  I sit most of the time slack-jawed in wonder at this kind of thing, in 21st Century Scotland, when the biggest question ever to be put to the Scottish people is devoid, almost utterly, of female voices outwith the parties.

But of course, nearly run out doesn’t mean completely run out.

I think I had my first feminist thoughts when I was far too young to realise they were feminist, or indeed egalitarian.  I recall seeing my wee gran, all five foot nothing of her, dishing up the tea to a cast of thousands, a meal made out of nothing very much and watching her heap the men in her life’s plates up and give herself scarcely a tattie and a scraping of mince.  Time after time, I watched her do it.  She went without her fair share of square meals to give her menfolk more.

And each and every time I saw it, inside I blanched.  She worked just as hard as they did in a full time job and keeping the house, with darn little help from them – that was another feminist observation which I didn’t really understand at the time.

And I vowed never to do it myself, but of course I did.  When we lived on benefits, I regularly used to just make the big chicklet’s tea and eat his leftovers.  Women and mothers across the globe have been doing it for centuries:  going without so their weans don’t.

But all the time, burning inside with the injustice of it and remembering my gran spending a lifetime doing it and vowing not to, any longer than I had to.

So, a feminist since I was old enough to yap basically.  All the way through life, I’ve seen it:  women being  excluded and marginalised, for the pure and simple fact they are women.  And here we are, on the run-in to our big constitutional moment, and the men who run things – parties, media, debates – are keeping it all cosy for themselves.  If we didn’t have the estimable Nicola Sturgeon as Depute SNP leader, I doubt we would be hearing a female voice promoting independence at all.

Which is not to say that the SNP, the Greens, the SSP and indeed, the cause do not have some great female proponents, because they do.  And in particular, when I stray far from the SNP crowd – which is often these days – nothing reins me in more than sitting with some of the fine women of the SNP – those who have beat the drum for decades – and listening to their views on it all, on their journey and what they believe in.  Frankly, more of them, telling their personal stories, in their own words would do much to make the emotional and practical case for a Yes vote, sadly lacking right now.

And because there are two sides to every coin, there’s plenty room for female Naysayers too.  I’d just like to hear a different tone, reason and cadence in this debate.

Even though we are in the campaigns’ earliest days, one thing has become clear.  The sisters can not rely on the blokes to invite them in.  We’ve tried tapping on their door politely;  we’ve even called ahead to check they were in.  And their response has been to turn the lights off and sit in the dark and hope we’ll go away before too long.

So it’s time for positive action, to demand a say in this debate.  And while we’re at it, to demand our share of seats at other tables too.

Which is why I hope Jenny Marra MSP’s amendment to the Police and Fire Reform (Scotland) bill proposing 40% quotas on police and fire boards for women succeeds.  Not quite full equality, but it’ll do.  It’s a start.  Which is why feminists everywhere – men and women – need to lobby their MSPs to support it.

Because once we’ve got 40% on these public boards, there’s nothing to stop 40% – and higher- female representation on other public bodies.

Just in case it doesn’t happen, we can always follow the Norwegian route and put a law in place requiring it to.  Norway’s gender quota – a laboratory for the advancement of women, if you like – means that 40% of the seats on boards of market-listed companies have to be filled by women.  And get this:  the sky has not fallen in.

Of course, we don’t have the power to do this in Scotland.  Yet.

In the meantime, we can require it for public appointments to quangoes and the like, and there would be nothing to stop a member’s bill in this regard.

And for me, these are the sorts of reasons to vote yes to independence.  So, we can insist upon equal representation here, there and everywhere.  And where by virtue of a written constitution, 50-50 becomes the norm.

It will be a start – a very important one – to creating an equal society and economy.  One where women no longer have to go without and do without.  One where women are seen and most definitely heard.

Why?  Because if half of the population is excluded, we simply don’t have the best people.

Why Scots’ support for EU membership is going down

One of the most interesting findings (to this burd anyhow) of a recent poll on independence was that fewer Scots now support membership of the EU.  In 2008,  40% of people polled wanted the UK to continue to represent Scotland’s interests in the UK, after independence and a further 40% wanted to be a separate member of the EU – a clear majority then in favour of some way of continuing with EU membership and only 13% wanted to leave the EU altogether.

When the poll was repeated at the end of February, 39% wanted the UK to continue to represent an independent Scotland in the EU but support for “independence in Europe” had fallen to 29%.  Meanwhile, support for leaving the EU altogether had risen to 21%.

The question is why?  What could behind this shift away from one of the cornerstones of the SNP’s approach to independence?

No doubt, the reasons are multifarious and complex.  But a press hostile to the EU and almost non-existent broadcast media coverage of what goes on in Brussels and Strasbourg plays a role.

Take this splash from Monday’s Daily Express.  It forms part of its recently launched campaign to persuade (“get”) Britain to leave (“out of”) the European Union.  “From now on, our energies will be directed to furthering the cause of those who believe Britain is Better Off Out…. After far too many years as the victims of Brussels larceny, bullying, over-regulation and all-round interference, the time has come for the British people to win back their country and restore legitimacy and accountability to their political process.”

Oh boy.  Thus, the headline on Monday screamed:  “Now EU bans plastic bags”.  Only it hasn’t.  Compare and contrast the treatment of the same story in Der Spiegel, which produced the headline – Bagging It: EU Wants to Reduce Plastic Shopping Bag Use.  A very different proposition, I’m sure you’ll agree, so which is right?

Well, the story is that the EU is exploring how to reduce the usage of thin, single usage plastic bags.  A report has been prepared considering a range of options and – funnily enough – it has concluded that the option to ban their use altogether has already been discounted, partly because it would be a “blunt instrument” but essentially because it would conflict with international trade law and internal EU market rules.

Clearly the Express piece is nonsense and highlights the appalling misinformation that some press sources in the UK propagate about the EU to whomever is unfortunate enough to read their blatts.  This is because of their own editorial peccadilloes which are often politically hostile to EU membership or at best, agnostic.  The sort of scare stories which appear in too many newspapers, and have done for some years now, are one reason why support for the EU is falling in Scotland.

Another reason is the lack of coverage at all.  Some might recall some recent wittering by me about a European report into the gender pay gap and the measures being proposed to tackle it.  Yet, it received zilch coverage from the mainstream media.  So I asked a European Parliament official about it.

Not for the lack of trying, was the response.  To coincide with the publication of that report, a debate was hosted by Europe House in London.  About 80 journalists were invited – social affairs correspondents, women’s pages editors, magazine editors – journalists you might have thought would be interested in the gender pay gap in the UK and elsewhere in Europe.

Not a single one turned up.  Hence, no coverage.  All they had to do was stagger across London (most of them) and still they couldn’t find the time or inclination.

Increasingly – like many – the European Parliament is turning to social media to get its message out, especially in the UK.  For that same debate, an #EUwomendebate Twitter hashtag was created and used in the run up to the event.  Two Twitter walls were built inside the room of the debate and attendees received wifi passwords, encouraging participants to tweet using the hashtag. Approximately 250 tweets appeared on the wall during the debate, with several people joining the debate online.  The result?  45,000 people reached through Twitter.  Other social media, such as blogging and Facebook, were used as well.

According to the same official:  “this should give us food for thought: the people speaking that day (just ahead of the consultation on quotas for company boards was announced by the European Commission) are the ones with some real power to change things for women but old media is not going to stir unless it’s a sex or money scandal. So if I want to inform women about what is being done for them in Europe (totally one-sidedly, you could argue) I have to go to women citizens journalists directly. Isn’t this a sad state of affairs?”

That consultation is now underway and there is a real chance that the European Parliament will vote for compulsory female quotas in the boardroom.  Which would explain some of the blethers a few months ago from big business about how they are all working hard to improve women’s representation. It was clearly an attempt to head off the prospect of legislative compulsion.  Too late, I hope.  Scotland has nothing to crow about on this issue, as evidenced by the rather excellent detective work by Kenneth Roy at Scottish Review.

This is actually an exciting time for European matters, especially for those of us who care about gender equality.  We should be lobbying our representatives in the European Parliament and responding to this consultation – whether or not we support the proposals for compulsion – but how can we when barely anyone who is PAID to cover this sort of news cannot be bothered to do their job and inform the public?

No doubt, once big business shifts from its torpor and pokes the media, we will get a rash of negative headlines and scare stories on this.  It will be news then and yet another opportunity for the media to improve people’s view of what goes on in Europe will have been lost.  As usual, we will be invited to see the worst side, especially if, like the Express, news outlets take licence with the verity.

And yet, given the debate on Scotland’s constitutional future, it has never been more important for us to understand the workings of the European Union and to receive information about the good it does for Scotland and many people living here.  Shame we cannot rely on the fourth estate to provide it.