On Wednesday night I had the privilege of speaking at the inaugural meeting of the Edinburgh branch of Women 50:50. The campaign, both nationally and locally, is calling for gender quotas in politics and on public boards to be made law. Here’s what I said…
Tonight I’m going to talk about some of the barriers – structural and cultural – which are holding women back from being politically active. And I’ll talk about the greens and some of the pros and cons of our own structures and cultures. Much of what I’m going to say has been crowdsourced from fellow feminists in the party so thank you to them. I want to start by sharing a conversation I had with my partner at the weekend.
As you might have noticed, I’m a feminist. I’m also a young white woman. My partner is a young black man. In the three years we’ve been together we’ve had a LOT of conversations about whether it’s women or BME people who have it worse in our society. I’m not going to attempt to resolve that question here! But in the latest iteration of this conversation at the weekend, we got to talking about tonight and about why so few women run for office.
I suggested that our political systems aren’t set up to encourage and support women into politics.
I suggested that our entire culture is patriarchal – that women are to be seen (and touched) but not heard. And I suggested that for the few women who manage to overcome those barriers, the sight of our first minister being diminished to a tartan clad Miley Cyrus or a headless cleavage might just put them off.
Nat was adamant that in the face of all that, the natural instinct is to stand up and fight back. To call out the bullshit and to prove everyone wrong. It’s a nice idea, but then perhaps that’s easier for a man to say?
For many women in this room, the idea of fighting – again – is exhausting because we do it every single day. This quote from fellow green and feminist blogger F-MOB sums it up for me;
It’s perfectly simple. Men in politics are being swept along comfortably in a system set up by men, for men, with generations of precedent and privilege behind them – they don’t have to be superb, or out-of-the-box talented, they just need to be good enough, and go with the flow. Women are working against the tide; those few who make it into positions of real power have to be fucking exceptional swimmers.
So – are women in the Green party just really good at swimming? To some extent, yes, but we have some good structures and cultures to help turn the tide.
As far as structures go, there’s a lot going for the Scottish Green Party. We have gender balancing mechanisms throughout our selection processes for candidates, ensuring that women are selected in winnable seats; our party doesn’t have one leader but two co-conveners, one male one female, engraining gender equality at the top of the party; and our Women’s Network is a fantastic hub of support, encouragement, training and empowerment.
But we still struggle with these structures. The Women’s Network is taking a deep breath and making plans for change after the party grew to five times its size in just six months. Despite being an equal to Patrick Harvie, Maggie Chapman rarely gets the same media coverage or opportunities in debates. Perhaps the media struggle to grasp the idea that the man isn’t automatically the “leader”. And for many, gender balancing can be so complex that it’s hard to understand, to critique and to feel confident about.
On the cultural side of things, like every party we have a way to go, but for me there are definitely some really positive things happening. There’s a proactive encouragement of women in the party – by other women but also by men. Almost all of the people who’ve encouraged me to stand are men. In meetings, we’ve all experienced the phenomenon where when it’s a man’s hand that shoots up to ask a question while the women stay silent. In the party, many of us, both men and women, have been making a proactive effort to seek out women’s voices in these public spaces.
But as many women in the Women’s Network pointed out, many women can’t even get in the room, never mind asking a question. Holding meetings on week nights at the time when wee children are put to bed means that many women (who, let’s face it, are still by and large the primary caregivers) can’t access that public space.
As one woman activist said to me, “weekend meetings would be lifesaver. I’ve stood for election but have had to quit as I just can’t manage the required time at meetings, and who’d vote for someone they never see?” And if you do manage to get to meetings, as another activist said “even at committee level I feel an obligation to organise, take notes, justify why I’ve made a point.”
For me, what all of this shows is that structural fixes are great and important, but are not enough on their own. We need to tackle the cultural barriers to women’s participation in politics, from accessible meetings to calling out mansplaining and the infuriating habit of a woman’s idea not having relevance until a man repeats it. We all have a role to play in making that change happen and I think meetings like this are a great step along that road.