Why we must strengthen women’s voice in government

30 11 2011

Scotland has a new political leader with Ruth Davidson winning the election for leadership of the Conservative Party in Scotland. This is not a huge step forward, as Annabel Goldie has led the Scottish tories for many years and being head of the 4th party in Scotland is unlikely to lead to any real powers , but it does mean, at least, that another backward step in the representation of women at the heart of government has been avoided. When Wendy Alexander stood down at the last Scottish elections in order to spend more time with her young family the country lost, whatever you think of her policies, an elequent and active parliamentarian.

The scarcity of women in government is a scandal that needs to be addressed.

Currently at Westminster only one in five members of parliament are women. When it comes to the centre of government, only one in six members of the Cabinet are women. To state the obvious, one in two of the population are women and this lack of women’s representation at the heart of our political system needs to be addresses in order to ensure that women have equal influence in decisions that affect our everyday lives and the society in which we live.
It is almost a hundred years since women won the right to vote but at the current rate of change; the number of women MPs increased by just 2.5% at the 2010 general election and has increased by only 4% since 1997. it will be almost as long again before there is equal representation in parliament, this is despite the fact that our political system is founded on the core principles of liberty, equality and democracy. To set this in a global context, over 50 countries around the world have parliaments that are now more representative than the Westminster Parliament.

So what? Why does it matter that there are so few women in Government?

In my opinion it is fundamentally a matter of fairness. As women we pay the same taxes as men but do not have an equal voice in determining how those taxes are spent on the public services that we all use. And as with boards of corporate bodies where evidence emerges daily that greater diversity improves performance, a more diverse Parliament will lead to better governance as women bring different experiences and different approaches to decision-making than men.

The Davies Report makes a number of recommendations to improve diversity in the boardroom, all based on the improved performance and profitability that will accrue from having more women in senior, decision-making roles yet FTSE 100 companies are reluctant to take up these recommendations. The government should take the leade. Parliament has huge symbolic power: where they lead, others will follow.

So, why aren’t there more women in politics?
In order to illustrate the problems that face women in politics I will use the experience of one woman who has made it into the centre of government, Roseanna Cunningham MSP. Roseanna is my local MSP and has spoke about her career in earlier editions of the3rdimagazine.

Firstly, some of the practical barriers that continue to perpetuate women’s exclusion from political life need to be broken down. The most persistant of these pertain to childcare. In talking to Roseanna earlier this year she mentioned that the parliament at Holyrood was coming under pressure from taxpayers to close the creche. Pressure was being brought to bear as it was considered inappropraite that taxpayers money should fund a “perk” for MSP’s that many working women do not have access to in their own workplaces. This pressure should be resisted. Roseanna doesn’t have children and expressed the opinion that the job, as currently constituted, would be impossible to do if she did have a family. Closing services that help women with children to take a role in parliament cannot be right. On the contrary, we should be doing all we can to support working mothers in parliament and across the board. The antisocial hours and bizzarely structured parliamentary day needs to be changed to work for women, rather than women working to fit into outdated working practices. These changes would benefit all MP’s, surely?

Media portrayals of female politicians need to be changed. Again with reference to Roseanna’s experience, what she is wearing is often commented upon in press reports before what she has to say. Not withstanding David Cameron’s cuddlefest with Mumsnet, in the 2010 general election little coverage was given to women’s presence in British politics and how issues will affect women. We can already see how the austerity measures introduced by the coalition government is disproportionately affecting women in the workforce.

In order to change the numbers in government then more women need to be chosen by the political parties to stand for election. Put simply, if the political parties are serious about increasing women’s representation, they can do this just by standing more women candidates in winnable seats.

We all have a responsibilty here. If we want more women in positions of power in government then we all need to take action. Counting Women in have a campaign to increase representation and I recommend that you take a look and sign the petition.

But is that enough? I think not.
I am a member of a political party, the co-operative party which, a fact I wasn’t aware of when I joined, is affiliated in government to the Labour Party. The meetings are dire, turgid affairs. The local branch is exclusively male. I am 50 and it is the only group I attend where I am the youngest person there – probably by a good 15 years! The processes are archane. I am old enough to remember a TV show called “the Wheeltapper’s and Shunter’s Social Club”. If you are too then you have a good feel for the co-op party meetings. The language of composites and motions is straight out of the 1970′s. In addition I am consistently excluded from communications. I hand over my e-mail address at every meeting as it has mysteriously dissappeared from the database. This usually means that I get notice of the next meeting but then my contact details disappear again. After a few months I contact the local organiser, find out what is happening, what I have missed and arrange to attend the next meeting, where I hand over my e-mail address and the whole cycle starts over again. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that my exclusion is deliberate, though some incompetence is also at work within the organisation.

I ask difficult questions, I challenge the status quo and raise concerns about the composition of the party at local, Scottish and National level. I might never make a difference locally but I know that there is more chance of influencing decisions if I am there than if I’m not.

So this is the challenge – to join together and campaign through petition and protest but also to take personal responsibility and take individual action.



One response

27 01 2012

You make some very good points. I’m sorry that you didn’t have a good impression of your local branch of the co-operative party. As a 30 year old woman i share your concern about age and gender in politics but the co-op party has no worse stats than any other party. The co-op party is affiliated to the labour party but there is no expection that you have to believe in labour policies – in fact i’m a member of the co-op party only.
Co-operativism attracts me as a social democrat and a feminist. The impressive history of the Co-operative Womans Guild in the 1900’s where 210,000 women
campaigned for woman’s sufferage and they created the white poppy to campaign against war on rememberance sunday.
Today the Co-operative Movment itself recognises there’s a long way to go so it set up 2020 Co-operative Womans Challenge to make co-op business models and get more involved in the democratic structures.

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