Picture of the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh

On June 15, MSPs gathered to debate the Scottish Parliament Gender Sensitive Audit. They were considering the findings of the recent audit looking at barriers to women’s representation and participation in Holyrood, and the subsequent report by the audit’s cross-party board, A Parliament for All, which published its recommendations for change in March 2023. The resulting discussion was hailed as an example of what “consensual” and respectful politics could look like and held up as an example of “Parliament at its best”. This reflected the aspirations of what a gender sensitive parliament (GSP) could – and should – be in terms of engagement in the Chamber and beyond.

Rightly, there was celebration of the progress of women in the Parliament as it approaches its 25th anniversary in 2024, with representation currently at its highest, 45%, compared to 37% back in 1999, as well as positive shifts in terms of diversity of membership. But the debate also focused on the gendered and intersectional inequalities and barriers that still persist. As the audit highlights, there have been fluctuations over time in women’s participation and representation, showing this equality is not always guaranteed. Members reflected on data that showed that men are more likely to have their interventions accepted (both by other men and by women), focusing on the often intimidating and sexist comments and behaviour from male MSPs in the Chamber and Committees. Other discussion questioned whether the Parliament was “family friendly” – or indeed “life friendly”; the need for further progress on gender parity in committees; and sexist behaviour, ranging from day-to-day microaggressions to outright harassment and abuse. Members documented not just general examples but drew on their own experiences, outlining the impact of these behaviours on women’s health, wellbeing and confidence.

There has already been extensive research on gender-sensitive parliaments: indeed, the concept of a GSP is not a new one. For more than two decades, efforts in this vein have been supported and led by international and regional organisations, including the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU), the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, the European Institute for Gender Equality, and UN Women. According to the IPU, a GSP is a political institution that responds to the ‘needs and interests’ of both women and men in terms of its ‘structures, operations, methods and work’ and has removed the ‘barriers to women’s full participation’ and offers ‘a positive example or model to society at large’.

The gender sensitive audit of the Scottish Parliament was initiated a year ago by the Presiding Officer (PO), the Rt Hon Alison Johnstone MSP, to follow other gender sensitising audits in countries such as Turkey, Uganda, Bangladesh, Argentina and the United Kingdom. The Board, chaired by the PO, comprised of representatives from the political parties, parliamentary officials and external experts. Eilidh Dickson, then of Engender, wrote for the John Smith Centre to outline the responsibility and opportunities that could result from undertaking such an audit in the Scottish context.

When I undertook the audit, the research focused on four main themes: women’s representation in Parliament, their participation in Parliament and Parliamentary business, the overall culture and the policies of the Parliament; and how gender is, and could be, mainstreamed into scrutiny and other Parliamentary work. This involved the analysis of various data including standing orders, reports and procedural guidance, documents, and collated information from the Scottish Parliament Information Centre (SPICe). This was coupled with 13 semi-structured interviews with current and former members exploring their experiences, attitudes and opinions of the Scottish Parliament, as well as informal discussions with other Parliamentary staff.

The data and analysis of this report acted as the basis from which the Board made its proposals for change, presented in the final report. This outlined 34 wide-reaching recommendations that target the aforementioned themes of participation, representation, parliamentary culture, and gender equality mainstreaming. Writing in their blog for the Centre on Constitutional Change, Board-members Professor Sarah Childs, Dr Meryl Kenny and Professor Fiona Mackay, of the University of Edinburgh, press that reform efforts need to work across all of the inter-dependent dimensions explored in the audit. And indeed, members acknowledged in the debate the ongoing and continued work that is required in this session, the next one, and beyond.

In the debate, MSPs also alluded to inequalities of wider scope, including in pipeline professions, such as local council; male dominance and sexism in the media; and the disproportionate and often sexualised forms of abuse women Members experience on social media. This points to not just the ongoing work of the Parliament within its own institutional realm, but also how it engages with parties, organisation and the wider public to promote gender equality and inclusivity for the next 25 years and beyond.

Fiona McKay is Lecturer of Journalism, Media and Communication at the University of Strathclyde. 







A Parliament For All: A Gender Sensitive Review of the Scottish Parliament

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 parliaments 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.

Parliamentary Assistants and the Quest for Trust: What to expect and how to become one

Parliament is a unique workplace, and each parliamentarian will organise their part of this workplace differently. Although those workplaces within the parliamentary setting differ wildly, they do have something in common: the importance of trust. Trust is not just shaping how a parliamentary assistant works, but it also determines whether they will be able to get and keep the job. 

Parliamentary Assistants and the Importance of Trust 

There has been some research done on parliamentary assistants and aides of politicians. However, those studies often focus on “high-profile” politicians or elections. The following is based on the findings of my research project focused on communication-related day-to-day activities of parliamentary assistants (PAs) covering backbenchers and frontbenchers of all parties. The study was interview-based, and around fifty interviewees agreed to participate, among them former and current parliamentarians and their assistants. 

Throughout those interviews, the importance of trust became quickly apparent. While interviewees usually don’t explicitly refer to the concept of trust or explain its meaning, in their descriptions of work-related situations in which trust matters, it becomes clear what “trust” means to them. It is not only about being able to fulfil the outlined tasks in the job description, which is, by the way, more often than not vague and undefined. There are also implicit expectations about the willingness “to go the extra mile” outside the working hours and the explicit ask not to undermine the parliamentarian’s re-election prospects. 

Parliamentary Assistants: The Role 

The role of a parliamentary assistant is difficult to specify, and what it entails is primarily up to the individual parliamentarian. However, while specialised PAs exist, they are “jacks-of-all-trades” with a wide range of duties involving research, communication, or even casework. While it is helpful in an application to show experiences in those areas, they are not a “must-have”. First, necessary skills are often acquired “on the job”. Second, flexibility, enthusiasm and willingness to put in an extra effort are often more important. 

Fulfilling this role of a PA often means acting on behalf of the parliamentarian: the tasks must be completed aligned with their values and ways of dealing with the issues at hand. This can come down to anticipating a preferred wording of a press statement or a post on Facebook. Having the ability to resonate with the expectation of the MP or MSP saves not just time and workload for both but also decreases the potential for a frustrating working experience. 

Are you prepared to go the extra mile? 

Another aspect which interested PA candidates need to be aware of is the workload and the usually somewhat limited pay. While interviewees highlighted that the parliament as a working environment is a perk in its own right, the long working hours limit the available free time outside the workplace. Therefore, the relatively high staff turnover among parliamentary assistants should not be surprising. Many interviewees confirmed this, either by directly addressing it or, indirectly, by outlining their plans for the future outside the parliament.  

During my research, it has become increasingly clear that distinguishing between political activism from formally assigned duties is very difficult. There is often an implicit expectation toward parliamentary assistants to participate in campaigning activities. While parliamentarians do not always ask for this and, for legal reasons, this is not part of the formal working agreement, the tendency among my interviewees has been that canvassing or visits to the local party branch in their free time is not unusual. Successful PAs need to tolerate the blurry line between work life and “voluntary” political activism. Ultimately, the trust of the parliamentarian in this tolerance by the parliamentary assistant is critical. Can the PA be trusted to put their energy into supporting the re-election efforts of the parliamentarian, even though those campaigning activities are legally not part of their job? 

It also needs to be said that the re-election is not just about making sure that the MP or MSP keeps their seat. If the MP or MSP loses their mandate, the parliamentary assistant also loses their job. Obviously, if the unsuccessful parliamentarian is from one of the bigger parties (SNP, Labour or Conservatives), there is a chance to get hired by another parliamentarian from the same party. However, there is no guarantee. 

How to become a Parliamentary Assistant? 

Ultimately there is no guaranteed, single way to become a Parliamentary Assistant. Each parliamentarian is, within legal boundaries, free to organise the hiring process as they see fit. However, there are characteristics that most of those recruitments have in common. Successful applicants usually provide the following 

  1. Substantial working experience or completed their undergraduate degree, and either of those should broadly address the duties outlined in the job description.  
  2. Track record of campaigning activities and party political engagement. Some also consider non-affiliated applicants on their shortlist, but alignment to fundamental values and beliefs of the parliamentarian and their party is necessary. 
  3. It is beneficial that the parliamentarian knows the candidate and their work. To be recognised by the parliamentarian can be achieved by helping out in campaigning activities involving the MP/MSP. An internship with the parliamentarian can also provide an opportunity to become a parliamentary assistant.  

All those points combined – activism, close contact, supportive academic and professional background – provide the most potent argument for being a successful candidate. 

Sebastian Ludwicki-Ziegler, PhD researcher at the University of Stirling. His research project is on parliamentary assistants’ role in political communication of Scottish MPs and MSPs.