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. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Picture of Big Ben at night with lights from passing traffic

Are women in parliament more responsive to public priorities?

The list of benefits from having more women in parliament is long and well-documented. Whether it’s increasing political engagement with the female electorate or negotiating more equitable trade policies⁠, the health and legitimacy of democracy depends on having women in positions of power. Earlier understandings of women in politics argued that increasing the number of women in parliament would lead to substantive benefits in the form of greater representation for women in the electorate. The line of reasoning was that women have a shared set of interests and deeper understanding of the women they represent. Therefore, by creating an environment in which more women were ‘at the table’ throughout deliberations, women’s interests that might otherwise go overlooked by men may be reflected in political outcomes. 

My current research takes the claim that women provide greater substantive representation to the women they represent a step further by asking whether women MPs provide greater representation to voters of all genders. Findings in the US and India have shown that voters consistently underestimate the qualifications of female candidates in politics. Consequently, the bar for success for women candidates in aggregate is higher than it is for male candidates. My research tests that proposition in the context of the UK by examining how MPs respond to the issues that are important to the electorate. Using a combination of hundreds of public opinion surveys that asked the British public ‘What is the most important issue facing the country?’, I mapped the level of importance attributed to top issues in the UK, which can be seen in Figure 1 below. 

Around the time of the start of the pandemic in March, voters understandably grew concerned with health and the economy. These fears later were transferred to the issue of education as many parents had to accommodate school closings and uncertainty around lockdowns. Interestingly, issues like crime, immigration and defense became much less important amidst the myriad problems of the pandemic. 

Public issue priorities in the United Kingdom, 2018-2022

To explore the relationship between the issue presented in Figure 1 above and MPs’ attention to those issues, I turned to MPs’ social media activity on Twitter. Nearly every MP has an active Twitter account and they regularly use Twitter to communicate with constituents and emphasise the issues and policies that are important to voters. Data collection for this step included around 1.8 million tweets (MPs tweet a lot!), but included each tweet sent from an MP account between 2018 and 2021. Using machine learning to identify tweets about each issue, attention was ultimately calculated as a proportion of the number of tweets MPs sent in a given two-week time period to match the survey dates. Performing this analysis on all the tweets sent by MPs for a four year period and for each issue yielded dynamic measures of MPs’ attention, displayed in Figure 2 below.

 

Parliamentarians’ issue attention in the UK, 2018-2022

As we can see from charting MPs’ attention, there are gendered differences in the issues that are important to MPs as well. Women in parliament give greater attention to crime, the environment, health and education, while men in parliament give greater attention to defense, tax, and the economy. We can also see that parliamentarians exhibited a similar increase as voters in attention to health and the economy around the time of the outbreak of COVID-19, while issues like crime and immigration appear to decrease in importance. 

It would be near-impossible to take away from these figures alone whether men or women MPs were more responsiveness to shifts in voters’ priorities, so data were further analysed statistically. The results demonstrate that women in parliament are not only more responsive to shifts in the level of importance devoted to the issues in aggregate by voters, they are also more responsive to the issue priorities of male voters specifically as well (You can find the full statistical results and further details of the data collection and modelling strategies on my website). 

Electing more women into politics has long been a goal of feminists and advocates of equality alike, yet the benefits women representatives provide have been understood solely in the context of other women. Although the findings presented here are limited to social media, they provide evidence that voters of all genders pay a price in the form of responsiveness to their policy priorities when they let gender shape their decisions at the ballot box. Whether posts on social media amount to legislative changes is a question for a future project, but we know that long before MPs can respond to the electorate through changes in public policy, they must first respond to and emphasise voters’ issue priorities. The findings presented here show that when it comes to emphasising the issues that are most important to voters, women do it better. 

Zachary Dickson is a PhD candidate in politics at the University of Glasgow and a postdoctoral researcher at the London School of Economics. His research utilises computational methods and social data to examine legislative behaviour in liberal democracies. You can read more about his research at http://z-dickson.github.io/home/

A line of television cameras on tripods at news event

Gender Gaps in the Media Visibility of Politicians 

The most recent UN report (2022) on the sustainable development goals makes it clear that the world is far from reaching gender equality; in fact, the report states the world needs 286 years to remove discriminatory laws and close prevailing gaps in legal protections for women and girls, 140 years to achieve gender-equal representation in leadership positions in the workplace, and 40 years for gender-equal representation in national parliaments. Although the report focuses heavily on some of the most gender-unequal parts of the world, it also includes assessments of gender equality related to advanced democracies. Unsurprisingly, advanced democracies have fared a lot better than other parts of the world when it comes to gender equality. Despite this, however, democracies in Europe and Northern America were able to meet only one of the many targets related to gender equality, and it is clear from the report that there is still much work to do regarding the political representation of women. 

Political science research shows that one of the challenges facing women in politics is their unequal representation in the media, and this bias of media coverage shows no sign of abating even in advanced democracies (Van der Pas and Aaldering 2020). In our latest research published in American Political Science Review (Thesen and Yildirim 2022), we analyzed the media appearances of members of parliament who served at least one term in the House of Commons from 2000 to 2016 to produce a detailed picture of some potential biases in the media. More specifically, we collected and coded over 1.5 million news stories published in the Guardian, the Times, and the Sun over 16 years, and then queried the news corpus to find out the frequency with which politicians appeared in the news. This left us with nearly 400,000 news stories in which at least a politician was mentioned. 

We estimated empirical modelsled that predicted the media visibility of politicians with demographic and political factors, including age, gender, electoral safety, political work, and partisan characteristics, among others. Raw data clearly show that women in politics lag behind their male counterparts in the frequency with which they appear in the news. Without looking at some potentially confounding factors, however, this figure is not enough to reach a conclusion about gendered patterns in media visibility. This is mainly because women in the House of Commons have, on average, less political experience and electoral safety, and participate less in legislative activities than their male colleagues, and these factors are known to collectively influence one’s potential for media coverage. Our models showed that the gender gap documented in the raw data was mainly due to men’s initial advantage in political experience, political work, and other relevant factors. Once these factors are controlled for in the model, the gender gap in the media coverage of politicians disappears completely.  

In the other country-case under investigation in our study, Norway, we found gender gaps that did not disappear when controlling for various power resources such as dominance in parliamentary activities, political experience, and electoral safety. We believe that the reason why this gloomy finding does not hold in the UK is due partly to electoral systems. Although the UK’s first-past-the-post system is not particularly conducive to producing a diverse parliament, it minimizes potential biases in journalist-politician relationships simply because each electoral district produces only one winner. Stated differently, when political journalists are interested in covering a political story related to a constituency, they do not have a list of politicians to choose from when preparing the story. Instead, there is only one politician to be contacted for each electoral district. Additionally, as majoritarian electoral systems are often more competitive for groups traditionally underrepresented in politics, women elected through such systems are also those who managed to overcome various challenges facing women in politics. This implies that women in politics who are elected through the first-past-the-post systems are likely have strong qualities (such as established connections with journalists) that make them appear more in the news, relative their counterparts in countries with proportional electoral system.  

British politics is and will likely be gender-unequal in the foreseeable future as far as the media coverage of politicians is concerned. However, unlike in Norway, the gender gap in news visibility in the UK can be attributed to men’s initial advantage in power relations in the system. Our findings suggest that equalizing those factors will contribute greatly toward women’s presence in political news stories. That is, the gender gap in the media will likely disappear when the share of women politicians in the parliament, women’s overall political experience, and their participation in parliamentary activities are no less than those of men. This certainly implies that there is still a lot of work for women in politics to do to overcome the challenges facing them, although our results suggest that gender equality in the British news media is achievable.  

Gunnar Thesen is Professor of Political Science at the University of Stavanger, Norway. His research focuses on party competition, electoral behaviour and political communication.
 
Tevfik Murat Yildirim is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Stavanger, Norway. His research focuses on legislative studies, gender and politics, and political representation.

References 

UN Report (2022) https://www.unwomen.org/sites/default/files/2022-09/Progress-on-the-sustainable-development-goals-the-gender-snapshot-2022-en.pdf 

Thesen, Gunnar., and Tevfik Murat Yildirim. 2022. “Electoral Systems and Gender Inequality in Political News: Analyzing the News Visibility of Members of Parliament in Norway and the UK.” American Political Science Review 

Van der Pas, Daphne J., and Loes Aaldering. 2020. “Gender Differences in Political Media Coverage: A MetaAnalysis.” Journal of Communication 70 (1): 114–43.  

Diversity in Elected Office  –  Why it Matters 

There are decisions being made daily in councils across Scotland which will directly impact the lives of individuals and communities. Some of these decisions, bluntly, will be about helping people to both heat and eat.  

As the resources available to councils are becoming increasingly scarce, it is imperative that they are targeted most effectively.  To do this, we must ensure that we really understand need, both that which is apparent and that which is hidden.    

There is appreciation that the inequalities which existed before Covid, were exacerbated during the pandemic and that under-represented communities are suffering the greatest poverties, economically, socially and in terms of well-being. Moreover, the differences between rural and urban poverty are now being unpicked. As a result of all this, there is an increasing sense that things must be done differently. 

We have had some notable sparks of change and insights into what could be when, for example, some of the third of Scottish councillors who are women have worked to promote issues around family leave, gender budgeting and period dignity, thereby helping to empower women in the workplace and so enable their skills and experiences to contribute to achieving better outcomes.    

However, we haven’t learned from this – collectively we still haven’t placed enough priority on addressing the overall lack of diversity at our council decision making tables. We haven’t managed to attract additional voices of lived experience who could better reflect the needs of our communities as policies are set. Too often, councillors are still making strategic decisions for people rather than with people, and scrutinising outcomes for the organisation, without considering a person-centred approach.    

Councils have set up numerous forums of lived experience and consult on particular issues which they select and for which they control the agenda. Those in positions of power are deciding the matters on which people from our communities can express a view. However, it is within the democratic structures of Local Government themselves that those voices of lived experience would be best, most widely and most consistently heard. Here they would be voted in, representative and accountable to their communities.  

There is an urgent need to fully overhaul political participation in council policy making across Scotland. This work fundamentally includes ensuring that councillors are properly remunerated for the work they do, and that terms and conditions better reflect the role of a 2020s councillor.  A COSLA survey of councillors published in January 2021 found that a councillor works on average 38.5 hours per week but receives less than the Real Living Wage in return [1]. This is not going to encourage people from currently under-represented groups to step forward for election. By remunerating councillors as we do, we are preserving a system whereby those of independent means can more easily contemplate standing for election – this is damaging to our local democracy. The Scottish Government and COSLA made a commitment in March 2022 to work at pace on councillor remuneration and this remains key [2]. We need to be confident that remuneration won’t still be a barrier to people considering standing in the next Local Government elections.   

In addition, there are councils which still do not have policies for Family Leave for councillors, which makes the role very difficult for younger people or for those with wider caring responsibilities. There is no consistency across Scottish councils about the level of support which all councillors, but particularly disabled councillors, might expect to receive. Assumptions are made about the digital literacy of councillors and about their access to safe spaces for home working.  We are only just developing awareness that councillors do much lone working and can face abusive and hostile situations in person and on-line. Only very recently has partnership work with Police Scotland been initiated to give more support to our councillors and there is more work to be done on this. And in many areas, we have not started to address the culture which creates barriers to potential representatives from ethnic minorities.  

All this matters. The role of a councillor has evolved considerably since I was first elected in 2012. Councils remain the sphere of government closest to our communities, but the experience of the pandemic and the ever-deepening cost of living crisis has underlined the importance of making decisions as close as possible to the communities impacted. Councillors now have to engage more locally and to better represent all parts of their communities. More people are becoming dependent on the essential services of the council just as resources are becoming ever scarcer and there is a responsibility to maximise their impact locally.   

Yet achieving all this remains aspiration unless we hasten our continuing journey to local democracy, giving meaningful voice to people from right across our communities. We cannot afford not to act.  

[1] Councillor Remuneration Survey Results Public Documents | COSLA

[2] Increasing the Diversity of Local Councillors Public Documents | COSLA

Cllr Alison Evison was President of COSLA 2017-22, leading a diverse organisation and developing partnerships across the Public and Third Sectors, representing Local Government in the formulation of the Covid response and recovery strategies at a national level and working to achieve support across the Scottish Parliament for the European Charter for Local Self Government. Chair of the Improvement Service 2017-22 during a time of organisational change.  Recognised for supporting diversity in office and for encouraging inclusion for all.  Appointed by care experienced young people in Aberdeenshire as their champion 2015.  Previously Co-Leader of Aberdeenshire Council. A local councillor, engaging regularly with people across the communities of the Mearns and focusing on community planning with local partners. Honorary Lecturer, University of Aberdeen. Recently appointed Chair of NHS Grampian. 

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.