"You mean to tell me it's 2015, and there's only 22% women MP's?
Get outta town, Doc"
This weekend I'm going to my first ever SNP conference and I am equally scunnert and pleased to see that we will be debating and voting on all women short-lists for candidates. I am scunnert that it's necessary- I wish 50-50 would occur naturally. I looked to see if it would this time with Westminster candidates and even had a bet on with my WFI colleague Kathleen on the gender split of SNP parliamentary candidates. I was optimistic, she's been a member a lot longer than I and was less so. I think I owe the charity of Kathleen's choice (WaterAid I think) a tenner.
If things were as they should be no one would ever mention all female short lists, or 50-50 quotas. I personally, like many women, would rather we didn't have to have a debate on whether there should be affirmative action to get more women MPs, MSPs or in the wider society, board members. The fact is, it's STILL not occurring naturally. I feel it's a chicken and egg situation. Things won't start to happen in a way that views women as equal partners in business or politics until there are more women in there making sure they do. What is wrong with this picture? It's 2015 and the percentage of the population that is female is 52% yet only 22% of UK MPs are women, and 35% in Holyrood. We should all think that's weird. Something clearly is very wrong and that's why affirmative action needs to be taken, even if it's just temporary until it sets things on the right course. And I believe that quotas have to be part of a wider strategy if we are to reach a situation where we don't need quotas any more.
When I went for selection there were almost equal amounts of men and women going forward for candidacy in the constituencies I stood in. But when I looked at other constituencies around the country, this wasn't the case in a lot of them. Some constituencies had no women at all going up for selection. This of course, on the surface looks like it's the fault of the women who should have put themselves forward but didn't. But as with most superficial explanations, they are usually hiding the more complex deeper actual reasons. Take this for a wee sociological example; in some cases an oft asked hustings question for women candidates was how they would balance their responsibilities of family and their appointment to Westminster. Few asked the same of the blokes who had families.I could go on.
Here's an argument: having an all female short list would rid us all of the othering of women. It would take away the difference that many perceive to be relevant but in fact isn't. It sounds counter intuitive, but even if for just one term we took away gender difference just for once in the selection process gender wouldn't be an issue as people make up their minds as to who to vote for when they choose their candidates from an all women shortlist. In one fell swoop we'd choose the best candidates from a pool of women and end up with a more fair representation of both genders at Holyrood.
And, and I get that this view might be controversial- it would force the hand of women who should be standing to get in there. An active invitation to women could make women who previously hadn't considered a career in politics seriously think about it. I have to say, I often get frustrated at women's lack of self confidence in arenas like this. Why is that? What came first the system that doesn't encourage women or women's reluctance to enter the system? More chicken and egg stuff.
So if we evened things up a bit by positive action even for a temporary period, then would the knock on effect would be that we'd be unlikely to need positive action again. Would a 50/50 situation just keep going because we would have normalised it?
As with many things I look to other countries to see how it worked for them as a model for how we could do it. More than 30 countries have already have already introduced quotas for women candidates. Even more have introduced incentives and measures to encourage more women into politics. Did the sky fall in?
No, it didn't.
Sweden is often cited as being a model for female participation in politics. I like many folk thought wrongly they had a quota system- at least at one point. But they didn't as such. It was more complex, because the reasons for the gender imbalance are complex.
What happened is that certain parties adopted a range of initiatives to get more women on their candidate lists because they wanted to appeal across the gender divide. For example recommended amounts of women on party lists or alternate men/women candidates on lists showing an equal spread. It wasn't so much a dictat of 50% of all party candidates have to be women as "Our party is going to introduce a range of initiatives including a recommendation of how we can achieve more equal representation."
Of course , what Sweden also had was a socio-economic framework that was and is more progressive than ours in the UK. Even in the 70s they were streets ahead in female parliamentary representation due to a welfare system that encouraged women into full time work. There's that chicken and egg thing again...
At party level the initiatives taken by one party fostered a "contagion" theory. That means that if one party was doing something that encouraged more women candidates, the others didn't want to look behind the curve to their electorate so they followed suit and it became the norm across parties.
The thing is that even with recommendations and a man/woman candidate list its wasn't enough on its own. What we have to look at is what stops women from putting themselves forward. And tackle those issues too. Swedish parties looked at those too. In fact initiatives boiled down to four categories:
- goals and
- additional strategies
Quotas on their own won't work. And if we aren't careful they might breed resentment. We need to look at a range of actions, of which recommended quota could just form a part. I personally wouldn't like to ever be accused of only getting a candidacy because they needed a woman to fill a quota, and I doubt any woman would disagree with me. But if a quota were to provide encouragement for talented women who might not otherwise feel particularly encouraged, then I reckon that's fair enough. The question is not "Should we have quotas?", but "What can we do to encourage talented women to stand?" If part of the answer is "an all women shortlist" or a 50-50 shortlist, then let's give it a whirl.
The fact of the matter is our society is not reflected in our politicians. And it is 2015. Yes, 2015; the year Doc went to in Back to the Future for goodness sakes! We need to do something quite full on. Because society, you've had long enough to sort this out and it STILL isn't the way it should be left to your own devices. Quotas, recommendations, affirmative action, whatever...the sky will not fall in. Bet you a tenner.