Under-representation of women in Scottish politics is persistent problem – Martyn McLaughlin

If you happened to glance at a gallery of the redoubtable office holders of Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, you would be forgiven for presuming it to be a snapshot of another organisation’s members. A golf club, perhaps, or the high heidyins of an indoor bowling committee.

Everyone featured is male, with the vast majority of a certain vintage. It is hardly a shining example of 21st century representative democracy, and yet it captures perfectly the local authority’s ignominious status as the only one in Scotland without a female councillor.

Out of 60 candidates who stood at the last local elections, just seven were women. To make matters worse, four stood in one ward. There ought to be no need to underline this dismal state of affairs, yet it is worth pointing out that there were more candidates named McLeod than there were with two X chromosomes.

Now, together with Elect Her, a non-partisan organisation which works to support women to stand for political office, the council is hosting an online workshop next month to provide advice to potential candidates in hope of tackling this inequality.

Hannah Stevens, Elect Her’s director, said it was “fantastic” that the local authority was creating the space for women to have conversations about entering public office. “We need more women in elected office in every sphere of government across Scotland,” she said. “When women have access to political leadership, there are gains for the whole of society, not just women.”

It is to the council’s credit that it recognises the need for solutions. Some of the difficulties faced by women in the Western Isles are particularly pronounced, if not necessarily unique, to the archipelago.

As is the case in Shetland and Orkney, the Western Isles has a long and storied tradition of returning independent councillors. Four years ago, 23 such councillors were returned, compared to just seven SNP members and a sole representative from the Scottish Conservatives.

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The office holders of Comhairle nan Eilean Siar are all men, but the council is making efforts to change that

The upside of this trend is that it liberates elected representatives from the usual weary party politicking that passes for democratic discourse. The downside is that independent candidates do not have access to party support structures. That accounts for why a paltry 18 per cent of independent councillors across Scotland are women.

Another difficulty is that prospective Comhairle nan Eilean Siar councillors are not allowed to retain any employment with the local authority. Given the council has more than 2,100 staff in a population of 26,000, that is a not insignificant quandary, and it disproportionately impacts on women, who make up more than three-quarters (78 per cent) of its workforce.

The reason for such a restriction is understandable, given its primary purpose is to guard against corruption. But if its implementation prevents women playing an active political role in the islands’ life, it could – and should – be amended.

But not all the problems are isolated to the Western Isles. Others are deep-rooted across Scotland, and inextricably linked to the working practices, culture, and remuneration of public office.

A good deal of attention has been paid to the gender gap at Holyrood and Westmister, but across the country, less than one in three councillors (29 per cent) are women, and just six of the 32 local authority leaders are women. Nearly a decade ago, the figure stood at just 24 per cent. There has been progress, but it has been glacial.

Not enough work has been done to scrutinise this, or indeed why women in Scotland remain so poorly represented in local government compared to other parts of the UK. Some 36 per cent of councillors in England are women, and the figure is 40 per cent in the London Assembly. Neither number is anything to boast about, but they indicate a sizable gap compared to Scotland.

Closing it is crucial, and not just for the self-evident purpose of accurately reflecting communities and inspiring new generations of women to look to public office. The services to which local authorities allocate the vast majority of their budgets – education and social care – are largely staffed by women. The failure to have their voices heard when decisions are being made helps no one.

With all eyes on next year’s local elections, questions must also be asked of parties. Back in 2017, the SNP and the Scottish Greens saw their total number of female councillors rise by 15 per cent and 18.5 per cent respectively. However, other parties bucked the trend, with the Scottish Conservatives seeing their number fall by six per cent. There were 21 wards across the country with no women on the ballot paper at all.

That is not good enough, and all parties must commit to ensuring better representation in 2022. A helpful and overdue first step would be to voluntarily publish data on their candidates and prospective candidates to better identify the hurdles faced by women who are considering standing.

Although it would not solve the cultural and structural constraints which hamper the participation of women in political life, and the increased risk of abuse they face, there is undoubtedly a case for gender quotas, a mechanism that has long been championed by Women 50:50.

Indeed, the First Minister’s National Advisory Group on Women and Girls, a body set up to help tackle gender inequality, pointed to the need for legislation to bring about local and national candidate quotas back in 2019.

Since then, there has been chatter of attempts to devolve electoral and equalities law to Holyrood, but little in the way of concerted efforts to do so. That too has to change.

The reality is that any woman selected to stand at next year’s local elections will not only be competing with their opponents on the ballot paper. They will be wrestling with a decades-long legacy of under-representation and exclusion. The longer we allow this historic disadvantage to persist, the greater our collective failure.

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