20 March 2009

The Glass Ceiling

Having promised a post on this, I thought this was as good a time as any to deliver. It's the inevitable 'women and politics' post.

Firstly, of course there is something wrong when a group that comprises just over half of Scotland's population could provide only just over one third of MSPs. And I sympathise: the LGBT community has only four 'out' MSPs. By rights, on the most recent figures, there should be eight. On more optimistic figures, there should be thirteen. Four is a bit of a let-down, though not as big a let-down as the zero that Scotland's ethnic minorities have to tolerate since the passing of Bashir Ahmad.

So on the numbers, Holyrood is whiter, straighter and more male than Scotland as a whole. Westminster, despite some ethnic minority presence, is certainly more male and straighter. Nevertheless, we do have to look past the numbers. Frankly, I would be just about happy to put up with a 100% heterosexual Parliament if I could be sure that any LGBT constituent could go to his or her representative and get a fair hearing. Similarly, any heterosexual constituent should be able to call on a gay MSP or MP and be listened to. The job of representing any area in Parliament should not be contingent on your sexual orientation. Or race. Or religion. Or, and this is where my post comes in, gender.

Because the row over the AWS in Airdrie and Shotts has re-ignited that old chestnut about how we engage with women.

As Jeff notes, the cause if equality is not helped if women are less likely to be interested in politics. Certainly that's something borne out in Scottish Roundups passim. Frankly, I think there's a possible chicken-and-egg issue here: women don't often see other women in major roles (and before a certain Prime Minister is brought up, Thatcher was hardly a great advert for Womens' Lib, particularly as she ended up behaving more like a stereotypical male than anyone else in her Cabinet), so don't see "people like them" where it counts, so don't see anything that grabs their attention, so don't get involved, so don't end up in major roles, so don't engage other women.

But Holmesian sociolinguistics comes into play: the politics we see the most of is the quick report from Parliament, with men shouting at each other. That's where the problem lies - Parliamentary debate isn't a big medium for female communication. Janet Holmes argued that men are public speakers, while women are private speakers. Put another way, men are more confrontational; women are more conversational. So right then and there, you have a male, confrontational environment: a sure recipe for women getting turned off.

That said, that's not the be-all-and-end-all of a Parliamentarian's job: he or she has to represent the community, and be a key local figure. Hence things like surgeries, where elected officials invite their constituents to call on them and raise issues affecting them. A lot of the time, this means people coming through the doors with problems, often big ones. To get through this requires no small amount of empathy. And women are better at that then men are. This means that there is a massive need for there to be women in elected posts: the Chamber may be off-putting, but there's more to being in Parliament that that.

So from a principled and a practical point of view, it's right for there to be more women in Parliament than there are.

But are All-Woman Shortlists the way to go?

While Yousuf puts up a thoughtful defence of the approach, I disagree.

Yousuf argues that cliques develop in local parties over tiem, and that means that if your face doesn't fit, you don't get ahead. He may be right, but an AWS doesn't get rid of the clique: all it does is piss off the bulk of your activists, who are saddled with a candidate they don't like. And we need only look to East Lothian to see where that leads. Imposing a woman on a local party by central diktat doesn;t say that women are just as capable as men: it says they need a leg up, a helping hand. Where local cliques are a part of the problem, an AWS isn't part of the solution, as it misses the point: it's not that the candidate is a woman that's the problem. it's that she's not one of the group. A man imposed on the same group would face a similar problem and the only way for either to succeed is to ingratiate themselves with the clique: if you try and break with a group, the group breaks you.

Basically, imposing rules from Headquarters doesn't open things up for anyone, male or female, black or white, gay or straight.

Besides, here's my main beef with AWS: it doesn't deliver equality at all. It merely aims for parity. True equality is only achieved when we stop focusing on the numbers, and when a candidate's gender, race or orientation isn't what we think about. Yes, I accept that women have faced centuries of prejudice in politics: even when women had the vote, attitudes like "You're a woman, how could you possibly represent X?" prevailed. I don't see how replacing that with "We think we need a woman to represent X, so no men allowed!" actually changes anything. It's still discrimination, it's still prejudice, it's still patronising, and more importantly, it's still seeing the gender first and the person second. We need to get past that.

So it's reasonable for people in Airdrie and in Blaenau Gwent to bristle at the thought of a woman being parachuted in from elsewhere. It stand to reason that a man from Airdrie will have a better feel for the community than a woman from elsewhere. Therefore, for as long as we have a constituency system, the Airdrie man is a better candidate for the seat than a woman from somewhere else.

But conversely, if there's a local woman who has a shot at things, and the only alternative is a man parachuted in from another part of the country, then for the same reasons that a local man is preferable to a woman from outside the area, the local woman is a better option than a guy from elsewhere.

And if there's a local man and a local woman, then it's for local Party members, who know them both, to judge who's the better candidate. And the better prospective Parliamentarian. It's not for the centre to decide that the woman needs a leg-up simply because she's a woman.

That's why I oppose the AWS approach: it doesn't prevent cliques shutting out anyone in a local party who they don't like, it doesn't bring true equality, it simply reduces the whole notion of Equal Opportunities to a box-ticking exercise, with the female candidate reduced to the status of Trophy Woman.

Yes, politics would be better served with more women are involved, but not like this. We need to find another way.


Grogipher said...

Couldn't agree more!

You bring up a lot of good points - I was gonna run with the democratic credentials of enforcing choices on the local party, but I'd already had a rant on Yousuf's page.. I didn't want to go too OTT!!

Still though, with an issue like this, I think I really have to. When I was the interim Equalities Officer of a National Student Body (:P) I once put a motion in condemning the use of positive discrimination. I think it took some people back a bit, as they assumed I'd be all for it.

Anyways, I've added my rant on his blog below, for your perusal, and no doubt deconstruction.


I'm sorry, but I cannot agree with this post at all.

I cannot accept 'positive' discrimination. It is still, by definition, discrimination, and should be removed from our society wherever possible - and most certainly from our legislature.

I have a female Constituency MSP. She does a power of work. She will, more than likely, be reselected, and continue to fight for my neighbours and me as she has done since 1999. My MP is a man, and he has done the same since his election. Their gender makes no difference.

My MSP was born in England, does that mean she can't represent me, because I'm not?

Neither my MP or MSP are homosexual - does that mean they don't represent me?

Should we make sure something is done so that we have 13 Queer MSPs rather than the four 'out' gay members we have just now?


As members of minority groups ourselves, we have a duty to stop discrimination. Those who are elected to represent us, by definition, must represent everyone in their constituency, or they will not be re-elected. The whole idea of ensuring the chamber is representative in such micro-detail is a white elephant.

Of course we must investigate and tackle why women/muslims/gays/whoever do not want to enter politics - brute force tactics like this are not the answer however. All female shortlists will indeed cure the symptoms - can you put your hand on your heart though, and say that they will cure the underlying issue?


Will said...

Amen. To all of it!

Constituency representatives are just that - they represent everyone in their area: their own background shouldn't come into it at all if they're capable of doing that job!

It's always tempting to describe women/LGBT/BME communities as 'vulnerable' minorites - that overlooks that women make up 51% of the population and we, as members of a minority are only vulnerable if we allow ourselves to be...

Aye We Can ! said...


Well argued, but i'v have heard the argument dozens of times.

All women shortlists are easy to attack for all the reasons you list, and probably a few more. But the main argument in their favour? - they work.

You write as though this is a new issue. But those who oppose all women shortlists (if not you personally) have had close on 30 years now to come up with the empowerment/inclusive model that breaks down cliques, opens things up for all on an "equal" basis and have failed.

Inversely, all women shortlists, despite their "anti democratic" tag, despite the blatant manipulation of them by the Blairite control freaks ( but they manipulate everything else including the Law of the land, so should we abolish that too?), despite Anne Moffat ( what oboot Mike watson, Lod Foulkes, Michael Martin - prodocts of open shortlists - lack of space prevents me listing the other 500!); despite all their shortcomng AWS in 1999 did more than any one thing in 50 years to advance the cause and profile of women in Scottish Politcs. No, make that 100 years.

Of course it aint enough. of course its only a start. of course in an ideal world, a perfect world they would not be needed

But this aint no perfect world. This aint no perfect scotland. And political parties -every last one of them - are run by cliques, mostly male ones

So well done the sisters - youve beaten them at their own game, and now they are a bleating. To me that means they've youve suceeded -found a practical, deliverable way of beating the male cliques.

And gay straifgt or bi, in or out -the brothers dinna like it. But it wisnae done for them, and who cartes oif fior once.

And, just once, they feel discriminated against. It will broaden their outlook.

And what's your beef, Will? - you got a pal in Aidrie who fancies the seat? No doubt a real revolutionary - but a male one

Aye We Can ! said...

And can I ad some stats? If you want a local candidate, there are over 20,000 women in Airdie and Shots to chose from. If you aint that fussed, 25 million across the UK.

Yet are you telling me with such a choice Airdie and Scotts Labour Party could not come up with a Better candidate than Dr John Reid?

I could find you one at the local school run of any school in the constituency.

Or in Corton Vale for that matter -criminals, but not war criminals

Grogipher said...

No, Yi Cannae...

As I already said, it takes away the symptoms, but does it really get to the cause? How long will we have to have all women shortlists?

Will I then get an all-queer shortlist?

Or an all-BME shortlist?

Or shortlists composed of single denominations?

Will we then get to the stage where every seat's candidate is selected on some mass statistical thing so that everything's represented?

What a load of guff, really. I'd much rather my political parties concentrated on the bigger issues, than the resources that would take. And of course you argument against folk like Reid or Foulkes being dropped in are correct, but that's an argument against any dropping in of candidates that I agree with, not an argument against AWS.

PFI builds schools, it doesn't make it right.
AWS give you female politicians, it doesn't make it right.

Will said...

Aye We Can - of course the AWS gets women into Parliament: I think the phrase to describe that is "No shit, Sherlock". And you overlook other people who made it in the open era, not just in Scotland but beyond it: Diane Abbott pre-dates open shortlists, as does Margaret Beckett; Nicola Sturgeon and Shona Robison come from a party that doesn't use them. Winnie Ewing pre-dated the concept by decades. So did the late Margaret Bain. And Shirley Williams. And Barbara Castle. And Betty Boothroyd. Margo MacDonald is, of course, now a one-woman shortlist, but she didn't need any measure like this to win the Govan By-Election. Are you seriously telling me that women like these haven't done as much to promote their gender as Anne Moffat or Maggie Jones?

And are you seriously telling me that getting a patronising leg-up from the NEC is 'beating the brothers at their own game'? No, that's for the Sturgeons, the Boothroyds, the Castles and their ilk, who've taken on men directly - and won!

As I said - if you actually read my post properly you would get this - I have a beef against any parachuted candidate, such as John Reid. You're right that there are far more viable local candidates but your first comment was nonsense. Indeed, to turn some of it around, people who support the measure have had years to tackle the root issue but still seem content to tinker round the edges, and accuse anyone who believes in real equality of sexism. As evidenced by your pretty desperate ad hominem at the end.