Suzanne Martin: Complacency squanders past victories for gender equality

As the Movement Builder for the Women’s Equality Party in Scotland I really ought to thank Scottish Labour for refusing Jackie Baillie and Pauline McNeill a job share for the Deputy Leader role; added to the catalogue of other failures in Scottish politics, it helps to debunk the myth that we’re on the cusp of achieving gender equality.

Tulip Siddiq MP with her newborn son. Picture: Kirsty O'Connor/PA

This may sound pessimistic. It’s not, it’s a reality check. In 1999, the first election for the Scottish Parliament returned 48 women, who made up 37.2 per cent of all MSPs. This was more women than had been elected to represent Scotland in the House of Commons since 1918, when women were first eligible to stand for political office.

This gender coup was no happy accident. It was the result of years of hard work by women’s organisations across Scotland who pushed for equal representation to be a priority. At the time, Scottish Labour and the SNP answered the call, implementing mechanisms to ensure the selection of female candidates ahead of the election.

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But Scotland’s progress was short-lived. After reaching a high of 51 female MSPs in 2003, we went backwards, and now have fewer than when we started. What went wrong? Equal representation in politics is dependent on providing women with equal opportunities to thrive – something which the Scottish Parliament and Scotland’s political parties have failed to realise.

Take maternity cover. In January 2019 Tulip Siddiq cast the first ever proxy vote in the House of Commons, weeks after giving birth. In November, Stella Creasy became the first MP to take maternity leave covered by a locum. Female MPs can breathe a sigh of relief that they no longer face the prospect of giving up their vote on account of simply having a child.

Female MSPs on the other hand remain frustrated. The Scottish Parliament has no formal policy to ensure they receive maternity cover and individuals are left to make their own arrangements with their party. It is baffling that the Parliament which flung open its doors to women 20 years ago has failed to account for the fact that some of them might get pregnant.

Then there’s the harassment. As the Women’s Equality Party so effectively publicised in their general election campaign, Westminster has been beset by allegations of sexual harassment by male MPs. But the Scottish Parliament hasn’t done much better. In this parliamentary term alone, three male MSPs, from different political parties, have had allegations of harassment brought against them. All the MSPs remain in post.

Moreover, these allegations are backed up by a survey which found that 30 per cent of women working in the Parliament had experienced harassment of some kind, including unwanted physical touching. Unsurprisingly the majority of perpetrators were described as male and holding a position of power. Not exactly an attractive working environment, and that’s without even touching on the online abuse that female politicians invariably face to a greater extent than their male colleagues.

Even when it comes to the positive action on candidate selection that elected 48 women in 1999, Scotland’s political parties have dropped the ball. It has taken the SNP until 2016 to formally implement women-only shortlists, almost 20 years after Labour first introduced them. Not that Labour are doing any better. Richard Leonard has found himself battling with his National Executive Committee just to keep women-only shortlists in place.

As for the Scottish Conservatives, they are wholeheartedly for meritocracy, continuing to labour under the false premise that politicians rise through the ranks on merit alone. But positive action not only works – it’s essential if we’re to challenge the entrenched opinion that women and politics don’t go hand in hand.

Highlighting these barriers does not minimise our achievements: Scotland has elected the first female First Minister of a devolved government; the first ever lesbian woman to lead a UK political party; and the first female Labour leader in the UK. But although these are vital gains, they are also contributing to a feeling of complacency when it comes to equality. To overcome that complacency, we must continue to dismantle the roadblocks still in place on the path to women’s full political participation.

Suzanne Martin is Movement Builder – Scotland, for the Women’s Equality Party