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.