Sex and Power

Bella_Caledonia007Juliet Swann is a feminist & environmentalist who passionately hopes that the independence debate can change the lives of women in Scotland for the better.

International Women’s Day – why gender equality in politics matters

Despite women making up more than half the population, the current political system fails to ensure their equal representation in our political institutions. Even the youthful Scottish Parliament has seen gender representation drop rather than increase. It is a shocking fact that if we allow progress to continue unassisted, a child born today will be drawing her pension by the time she stands any chance of being equally represented across the UK parliaments. Indeed, the recent ‘Sex and Power’ audit of women’s participation in public life found that in other senior roles outside of politics the situation is the same – women are routinely excluded from decision-making roles in our society. And, an article in the Independent on Thursday 7th March reveals that female graduates can expect to earn thousands of pounds less than their male counterparts, even when they have graduated with the same degree.

Research shows that under-represented groups are more likely to participate when they see members of their group succeeding. US academics, Burns, Schlozman and Verba found that women seeking or holding elected office in American politics have an impact upon the political participation of women at the mass level – boosting women’s political interest, knowledge of candidates and sense of political efficacy. They reason that visible women in politics act as role models sending signals to women citizens that politics is an arena open to them. Additionally, the presence of women in public office might suggest to women that their interests will be reflected in the policy-making process. And Electoral Commission research has shown that in the UK, in seats where a woman MP was elected to Parliament, female turnout was 4% higher than male turnout – a modest but statistically significantly difference. By contrast, in seats where a male MP was elected to Parliament there was no gender gap in turnout.

So how do we persuade women that they can make a difference? That their voice will be listened to? That their opinion is important?

The Sex and Power report makes six extremely reasonable recommendations which seek to improve women’s representation in public life. Perhaps the most straight-forward of these is for organisations to take steps to ensure that at meetings and events, in broadcast and print contributions, in comment opportunities and on panels, women are present. Individuals should be encouraged to object to men only panels.

Certainly, this attempt to provide women with examples of women participating is a vital step towards encouraging women to participate in political life. And it is shocking how often women fail to feature in influential public arenas – meetings, debate panels, current affairs shows, radio reports, newspaper bylines.

But it isn’t just a question of being seen. Women have to be heard. As women. We have to stop assuming that gravitas is a requirement of success; that qualities associated with being male are necessary factors for people to make a valid contribution to public life. We have to refuse to engage with discussions about women’s hair and outfits when we rarely discuss men’s clothing and grooming. We have to accept that with progress being so slow, maybe positive measures are necessary to encourage women, and to break the stranglehold men, and white men at that, have on our systems of power and decision making. It doesn’t make women’s success less merit based, it makes men’s success less based on historical gender stereotypes and would finally allow women to start being seen and heard in the corridors of power.

Political parties must do more, much more, to ensure women succeed in being elected. Quotas have been routinely derided as discriminatory and preventing the ‘best person’ from being selected, but that would suggest our current crop of politicians are the best we can have.

In Catalonia, political parties adopted quotas for female representation, and within a relatively short time period, quotas requiring no more than 60% of men and no less than 40% of women in parliament have become statutory.

I’m not suggesting decisions would be made differently if our political institutions were genuinely equal, or that society would change overnight and violence against women would cease. I am suggesting that the bodies that seek to represent us, who spend public money, and who make decisions on our behalf would be made up of a better representative sample of the population. And all evidence suggests that once women are seen to be listened to and involved, more women will have the confidence to take part. Women from all socio-economic backgrounds.

And who knows, once women are better represented, maybe we’ll accept that we should be making a similar effort towards the better representation of other under-represented groups who struggle as much, if not more, to be seen and heard.


Comments (17)

Join the Discussion

Your email address will not be published.

  1. There appears to be a very long way to go, if events at Glasgow University Union are anything to go by entrenched misogyny/sexism facing women taking part in debates.

  2. annie says:

    Yes, I also listened to the account on Radio 4’s Women’s Hour. Shameful, just shameful. Who are these twats?

    1. Ray Bell says:

      Done some research on these folk… reportedly controlled by life members, didn’t admit women until c 1985, used to hold porno eveningS….

      Mind boggles…

  3. annie says:

    Actually, more importantly, why does the ‘culture’ of Glasgow Uni debating society accept and normalize the twats?

  4. Reblogged this on BurlesquePress and commented:
    Sex and Power by Juliet Swann

  5. Ray Bell says:

    The trouble with regional party lists and quotas of any kind is that they often produce quantity over quality.

    There is a surplus of careerists, mandarins and dull machine politicians around these days. Folk who are uninspiring, bland non-entities and have little life experience outwith politics. Most of them are male, of course, but there are some dismal female examples too some of whom have come through the quota system.

    How do we manage to combine better representation of women in parliaments with better female politicians?

    Actually if we’re talking stereotypes, don’t certain female politicians perpetuate them? I seem to recall Jo Swinson claiming for eyeliner and make up on expenses, and I’m sure others probably claim for expensive dresses etc. That said, some men claimed for haircuts. Jim Murphy and Alex Salmond’s appearance attracts frequent comment too. Usually about their weight.

  6. tartanfever says:

    Let’s not get carried away here and find ourselves in the ‘indispensable bankers’ scenario. (ie, they have to be paid their bonuses otherwise they’ll all bugger off to Asia and we won’t have any ‘talent’ left)
    Being a politician is a job like any other. You learn routines, you learn facts and you memorise them. Politicians are led by party policy, very often made up by a handful of party mandarins which then the vast majority of MP’s/MSP’s then go out and regurgitate. Thats it. They have training in ‘media skills’ which anyone can learn.
    It’s hardly rocket science, and does not require the IQ of Einstein.
    Anyone using the excuse about ‘excluding the best’ or other ‘diminishing competition’ is basically talking out their arse and most likely have a vested interest.
    Lesley Riddoch has been very vocal about this over the last few months, even to the point of refusing to take part in a debate because it was all male. I’m sure she did an excellent podcast about it a few months back, it’s well worth digging through them on her website to have a listen.

  7. wanvote says:

    I would love to read Kirsten Stirling’s book but can’t afford to buy it. The front cover is intriguing though. Bella Caledonia – the nation, the woman, the text.
    I see the systematic distortion, deception and denials towards Bella, the nation as being no different from those that Bella, the woman has to face everwhere, every day. Pursuing gender equality is the right thing to do. Now is the time for men in Scotland to really get behind this in the name of Independence. Women are not the enemy, never were!

  8. Ray Bell says:

    I don’t have any vested interest, apart from as a voter. I don’t even belong to a political party these days.

    Politicians are there to represent us, so for that reason alone, there should be a fair representation of women. However, if they come without life experience or are party drones they don’t represent us. My experience of party lists is that they produce loyal party followers but not good politicians.
    Politicians are not supposed to be moulded/brainwashed by the party. Thhey should have their own personalities. We’ve seen some decent female politicians sidelined by party machines – Margo MacDonald, Susan Deacon, Annabel Goldie etc because they either didn’t fit in or were held responsible for things that weren’t their fault. Anne Lorne Gillies and Linda Fabiani are two SNP politicians who I consider superior to certain serving ministers.

    Call me old fashioned but I like to know who my politicians are, and have a chance to reject certain people. Unfortunately, if you reject someone on the constituency they come back on the list! My Lib Dem MSP got back in that way but has since resigned. She wasn’t a good MSP.

  9. tartanfever says:

    Ray – ‘if they come without life experience or are party drones they don’t represent us.’

    A term that would apply to both genders of politicians I would have thought. Fortunately or unfortunately, most politicians do follow the party line and of course they are moulded by their respective parties, otherwise I would suspect we would have many more independent politicians.

  10. Ray Bell says:

    Of course it applies to both genders, but I think these quota lists tend to produce them.

    There’s got to be a better way, which can combine more female representation, with better general reprresentation.

    Holyrood’s much better than Westminster… but still a long way to go.

  11. John Souter says:

    If women make up more than half of the demographic mix then it’s up to them to get a proportionate share of representation.

    To try to achieve that through tinkering with selection lists etc., merely gives a false effect to a negative approach and embellishes and continues the control of the political establishments.

    Perhaps women should set up their own political party?

    Few would argue the height of the bar set by their opposite gender would be too high for them not to improve on.

  12. Jim says:

    I remember some years ago when the representation of women in government and parliament, or lack of it, was a major talking point in society and in the media.

    At that time (25-30 years ago) Scotland had only four female MP’s at Westminster from a Scottish contingent of 72MP’s. At Regional Council level in Scotland (we had nine regions and three island authorities) women’s representation stood at about 18% and at District Council level (we had about 59 District Councils at a guess) female representation was at 26%.

    Geography, or land mass, played and still plays a large part in the lack of representation of women.

    Obviously, like it or not, women are still largely the “carer” sex in society with many feeling the obligation to look after their children or an elderly relative etc. as their primary role, with their profession or work place coming second.

    They could therefore get to and from council and committee meetings etc at district level in most LA’s and manage to combine that role with their home life, thus the highest percentage of women involved.

    The situation was similar at some smaller regional councils but not at the larger ones. Highland region was and remains a big region, but so too were most of the other regions and even more women felt that being a councillor at this level was too demanding and exhausting of their time when they felt they had other pressing commitments at home.

    Traveling to and from London to represent people at Westminster just wasn’t, and isn’t, logistically possible for many women. It meant, and still means, not getting home at night due to meetings running into the wee small hours and often not getting home at weekends.

    Easier and quicker modes of transport has helped, the introduction of 9am-5pm council/government business has helped. However, the time commitment including traveling time is still a barrier to many women (and some men!).

    There is also the point that some local branches of political parties have difficulty in persuading some female activists to stand for election due to the aforementioned family and home commitments. Some are happy to stand, but many do not want to.

    Obviously time commitment and traveling is a major problem for many women (and some men). Devolved government being physically and geographically nearer to women has helped. Devolving those Westminster departments that have reserved powers over Scotland, will help still further. It is really only then that the women of Scotland will be in a position to be involved in greater numbers in all departments of government, although even then there will be much remaining to be done.

  13. This begins, and to an extent ends, with childcare and how parental responsibilities are shared. Sort that, and much else will follow.

    When a man can give up paid work to look after children, and not be scorned for it, we will be getting somewhere.

Help keep our journalism independent

We don’t take any advertising, we don’t hide behind a pay wall and we don’t keep harassing you for crowd-funding. We’re entirely dependent on our readers to support us.

Subscribe to regular bella in your inbox

Don’t miss a single article. Enter your email address on our subscribe page by clicking the button below. It is completely free and you can easily unsubscribe at any time.