In 2021 the Scottish Parliament arrived at what commentators call ‘the parity zone’. For gender equality advocates, this means that the make-up of our parliament dipped its toe into equality – not yet 50:50 representation, but reaching – for the first time – 45% of its representatives being women. Among the women elected were Scotland’s first women of colour and parliament’s first permanent wheelchair user.
Can we call a politics that has taken over 20 years to see even minimal gender parity a healthy one? Is representation the same as equality? Are we confident that our progress can be sustained?
The US Supreme Court Justice, the inimitable Ruth Bader Ginsburg, was once asked when there would be enough women on the nine-member court. Famously she responded “when there are nine.” Of course, there are long histories of courts all around the world consisting of 100% men, so too there have been – and even in Scotland today – elected institutions without a single woman among their numbers. What this of course means is hundreds of years of lawmaking and legal interpretation designed and built by men for men. Much of the legislation in force today was never voted on by a single woman. While women have been present in the Scottish Parliament since its creation, however those women have all be white and largely (though not exclusively) middle class and non-disabled.
Diversity is widely acknowledged as good for institutions – businesses with more diverse boards make better decisions. Parity between women and men offers opportunity for gendered perspectives and experiences of the world to be heard, the expertise available to make law that works for more people and to ensure that issues affective marginalized communities a given space in the democratic agenda.
However, representation is no guarantee of feminist output. Firstly, not every woman elected to parliament will have the same perspectives on what is needed to advance equality between the sexes and ensure that women are safer, more secure and empowered. Secondly, women MSPs should not be expected to be the sole advocate for equality, especially when they remain in the minority. And thirdly, all women MSPs are entering an institution created by men, with formal and informal social rules. How often do we hear women politicians’ “likability” debated or credentials questions? Women’s appearances are dissected (remember “legs-it”?) more often than their policy proposals and women are subject to more personalized forms of criticism, harassment and violence (often highly sexualized) in a world where men’s violence against women is endemic. In this context, expecting even the most ardent proponent of gender equality to deliver change is unreasonable and unrealistic. It also creates the real prospect of regression, as women leave public life earlier than intended.
Democracy that continues to ignore the gendered hierarchies that underpin parliament’s day to day functioning will never serve the population equally. Parliament that fails to understand its own deeply rooted power imbalances will never correct them and will never create laws that realise equality for all women. Intersectional understanding how these power structures between women and men intersect with other forms of exclusion and bias is vital.
For all these reasons, Engender has warmly welcomed the Presiding Officer’s A Parliament For All initiative. At its heart, the project learns much from the gender audit methodology developed by the Inter-Parliamentary Union and gender experts around the world. The process requires parliamentarians to examine reflectively access to the institution, the formal and informal rules of procedure, the content of the debates and laws produced, views of women working throughout the parliament and the success of measures to integrate gendered expertise from inside and outside the institution.
Because a gender audit is a traditionally reflective exercise this creates a challenge given the historic relative homogeneity of women who have been elected to date. Although the current group is more diverse, it still falls below the national average and in no way addresses decades of exclusion. As a result, the Parliament For All project has added new dimensions to an analysis of gender-sensitivity, creating space for outside experts to explore necessary changes to the inner workings of the institution. An oversight board of cross-party representatives, Engender’s gender mainstreaming work and academics working on gender and institutional reform has been established to consider the research and make recommendations for change.
The project has only just begun but expects to report by the end of the year. If Parliament can be brave and ambitious, there is an opportunity to build an institution that serves all women, those working within it and all of us who are governed by it. Parliament that creates systems and feedback loops that force all members and functionaries to proactively redistribute attention, funding and parliamentary time towards women’s needs and lives, for example investing in the care economy creates opportunities for all women to access economic, social and political opportunities, contributing to more representative institutions in a cycle of progress. Some changes will be iterative as new lessons are learnt, but dismantling thousands of years of gendered inequalities in public life must start now.
The first step is acknowledging the need for change. The second is accepting change is our responsibility – and our opportunity.
Eilidh Dicksons is the former Policy and Parliamentary Manager for Engender one of Scotland’s leading feminist policy and advocacy organisations.