On March 3, the cross-party board set up to look at barriers to equal representation and participation at Holyrood published it’s recommendations.
Following this our Centre Director, Kezia Dugdale, wrote a piece for the Herald on Sunday about her experience on gendered politics in Scotland.
Shortly before becoming Leader of the Scottish Labour Party back in 2015, I smartened up my act, literally with a wardrobe refresh. When I walked into work the next week in a new dress and jacket a male, very close colleague remarked that he didn’t know I had legs.
Even from an ally and friend that was discomforting. A few months on, I was sat in a room with a male adviser as he unveiled the details of some internal polling about what the public thought of me. They thought I looked and sounded like a nursery teacher, someone you’d trust your kids with, and this was somehow a bad thing. The polling also showed that men thought I banged on about women’s issues too much – there was me thinking I hadn’t said enough.
Months later, in the rosy afterglow of my first speech to party conference, I opened one of the best-selling newspapers in the country to a double page spread comparing the shoes I was wearing to those of Nicola Sturgeon and Theresa May.
That’s just three tiny examples of some of the gendered aspects that endure across Scottish politics. Examples of everyday sexism that are so embedded they fade into irrelevance, yet the sum-total of their parts persist, creating an image of an institution and a political culture that despite all the progress made is still default designed for men.
Since 2019, I’ve been the Director of the John Smith Centre at the University of Glasgow. We exist to make the positive case for politics and public service. Not always the easiest to argue given what a bruising year it’s been for politics. Trust in those who represent us continues to fall – the latest Ipsos Mori Veracity Index shows trust in politicians had dropped seven percentage points since 2021, making them the least trusted profession in Britain.
That couples with a recent report from the Fawcett Society which found that 69% of women MPs and 49% of all MPs have witnessed sexist behaviour in Parliament in the last five years. It also found that 93% of women MPs said online abuse or harassment has a negative impact on how they feel being an MP. This must stop, and one way is by looking at representation in politics and public service.
We know this matters because who represents us has considerable influence on our voting behaviour and the policy choices that parliamentarians make. It also shapes the issues that are debated in Holyrood and Westminster, and ultimately the policy decisions that are finally taken. An increase in female MPs meant a greater focus on childcare and maternity rights, as well as more focus on how women can drive economic growth. When we see issues that impact us being addressed then it impacts on whether and who we vote for.
With that in mind, we launched a series of online events this year looking at key women in public life. This week we will be joined by Claire Hanna MP and Lisa Nandy MP. Much will be discussed, from topical issues like the new Brexit deal for Northern Ireland, to their own paths to the House of Commons and hope for the future.
We hope that by giving these women a platform to talk in a friendly, inclusive environment we can open politics up to a new generation, and perhaps seek out some new leaders for the future. We hope you can join us.
Kezia Dugdale is the Director of the John Smith Centre