Women’s equality in Parliament
This is an extract from our book of essays ‘Scotland 2021’ (edited by Mike Small and Simon Barrow) available from Word Power books or via Waterstone’s.
Women’s representation was a key political issue during the 2016 Scottish Parliament elections. Commentators told us that we might return to the dizzy heights of 2003 where we had almost 40per cent women MSPs in the debate chamber.
Women 50:50 has worked tirelessly from our creation in 2014, to make fair representation a political priority. Nicola Sturgeon signed up to our campaign and the SNP adopted all women shortlists for the first time in their history. Kezia Dugdale, co-founder of the Women 50:50 campaign and leader of Scottish Labour, who have a 20-year history of all women shortlists, went a step further, and ensured that there were at least 50 per cent women candidates across regions and constituencies.
The Scottish Greens, who have good form on gender equality, fell short of 50 per cent women candidates, but included strong support for quotas in their manifesto. Despite all of this, election night back in May bought us no change whatsoever. Today, we have the same number of women MSPs as we did in the 2011 parliamentary term (and fewer than we have had previously). How did that happen?
Well firstly, the Scottish Conservatives won more seats than anyone had predicted, and this is the one party that has unequivocally rejected fair representation so far. In fact, a mere 16 per cent of their candidates in this election were women – a perfect example of the fact that simply having a woman leader is meaningless unless it is backed up by policy and practice that fights for women’s social justice. Secondly, Scottish Labour’s major losses impacted the number of women in parliament, as they have consistently had the highest overall percentage. Fewer Scottish Labour wins meant fewer women overall. Lastly, the Scottish Liberal Democrats, although small in number, returned only men in the 2016 election, having relegated the only woman with a chance of winning to second place on their list.
However, there still remains a majority support for fair representation. Four out of five party leaders or co-convenors support the Women 50:50 campaign and now is the time for this support to translate into action. What the May 2016 election revealed is that voluntary mechanisms and rhetoric only go so far. We need legislated change and we need all parties to comply. Women’s representation cannot be left to the whim of whoever happens to be in charge of a party.
With a relatively new parliament in place, we need to continue to lobby for action and to push for those who support us to come through to make fair representation a reality.
But there is a misconception that we must address: namely, meritocracy. Quotas, despite what may be published about them, do not put gender before merit. They in fact promote women with the merit and ambition who otherwise would be overlooked or face barriers in getting to the places they deserve to be. Why is it that we do not question the merit on which men are elected? Do we actually believe that men, somehow naturally are 65 per cent more talented? Of course not. True meritocracy does not exist in today’s Scottish Parliament, but it can if we open the doors to more women.
“Quotas, despite what may be published about them, do not put gender before merit. They in fact promote women with the merit and ambition who otherwise would be overlooked or face barriers in getting to the places they deserve to be. Why is it that we do not question the merit on which men are elected? Do we actually believe that men, somehow naturally are 65 per cent more talented? Of course not. True meritocracy does not exist in today’s Scottish Parliament, but it can if we open the doors to more women.”
Over the next five years, we have an opportunity to capitalise on the momentum women’s organisations and Women 50:50 have created. Now more than ever, women’s equality is a top priority, the word ‘feminist’ has never been used more in Scottish politics – but how do we make change for women’s political equality? We need to fight a battle on multiple fronts if we are to overcome generations of institutionalised inequality. In this context, the following five issues need to be tackled:
1. Legislated candidate quotas
Voluntary mechanisms have taken us far, but not far enough. We need legislated candidate quotas. This means that every party would be mandated to put forward at least 50 per cent women candidates. The elected choice will be left to the voter, but from a much more representative ballot paper. This is the same measure used in eight European countries and is a fair way to create equilibrium for women in politics. It is to be hoped that over time, the measure would not be needed, but legislation is the only viable fast track to the equality that women should already have. The way in which it is implemented, however, requires full consultation with all parties and with equalities groups, as we must ensure that intersectionality is at the core of such legislation and that parties do not see this as a tick box, but instead put effort into placing women in winnable seats.
2. Media (mis)representation
Women face more scrutiny and criticism than anyone else in politics. The scrutiny is rarely of their policies, as it should be, but about their personal lives, their appearance and how they will manage their caring responsibilities (if they have any, if not, then the question is why they do not have any). Around the time of the May elections, the Daily Mail ran a “Downing Street Catwalk” with photos of the women in the UK cabinet. Nicola Sturgeon has been depicted in a tartan bikini riding a wrecking ball and Kezia Dugdale was described as an “unattractive accessory” to Jeremy Corbyn. With this level of very public sexism, we cannot be surprised that women do not come forward to put themselves in the spotlight and on the ballot paper. We need to push this Scottish Parliament to hold the media to account and to be vocal in calling out sexism in the press – no matter which woman, from which party, is being unfairly targeted.
3. Tackling sexism within political parties
People in glasshouses should not throw stones. Equally, parties with sexism within them (which is all of them, as microcosms of society) shouldn’t think that passing legislation on women’s representation means that the job is done. All parties need to review their internal practices and ensure that sexism is taken seriously. The language used by parliamentarians, whether in formal writing or social media, needs to be respectful of women. Training in equalities should come as standard for anyone considering representing the people of Scotland. Finally, all political parties need to set up women’s training and development opportunities, reaching out to them, rather than assuming they will come along gradually – an inclusive and open system is needed, rather than the cloak and daggers approach taken too often and putting too many people off being engaged, particularly in larger parties.
4. Gender balanced committees within the Scottish Parliament
In the previous parliamentary session, there were a number of Scottish Parliament committees that were all male. One, in particular, was the Public Petitions Committee. This meant issues from a diverse public being scrutinised by an unrepresentative group. An easy way to create gender equality across the parliament is to seek gender equality in all committees, or at the very least ensure there is gender balance between convenors and deputy convenors. A small act, but a big difference.
5. A women’s caucus
Although American politics is not where many examples of women’s equality come from, there is one notable aspect that would encourage cross party development on fair representation, and that is a women’s caucus. It could work as a multi-party initiative, with women parliamentarians from all parties collaborating together to develop good practice within the parliament itself and pushing for better policy for women across Scotland. This would be one group who can make sure that women’s representation and social justice is on the top of the agenda for every party; and also ensure that the issue is not played as a political football, but rather as an area of policy that everyone feels a responsibility towards.
These initiatives alone will not solve women’s social injustice within five years. We cannot think that ingrained, generational inequality can be erased so easily. But it will put us on the right track to creating a more inclusive parliament and a fairer Scotland for women. Within this parliamentary term, we can and will push for significant change. All that is needed is for rhetoric to translate into action.
Finally, though this chapter has focussed on women’s equality in parliament and in the representative functions of political parties, the challenge remains much wider. Women 50:50 (www.women5050.org) is also concerned with our councils and with all public boards.
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