Scotland’s Women Stand Proving There is Hope
By Taylor Hendrickson
The year 1999 concluded a momentous century for women: some women first obtained the vote in 1918, women gained increasing social and civil rights, and there was the first female Prime Minister.
But 1999 was only a marginal year of change for women’s political representation. In the UK Parliament, only 18.36 per cent of MPs and a meagre 12.96 per cent in the Northern Ireland Assembly were women. The new devolved bodies led the way in women’s representation, with the National Assembly for Wales comprising 40 per cent women and the Scottish Parliament comprising 37.2 per cent women.
In the twenty years since, the UK has not come far enough. There has been some improvement in Westminster (now 32 per cent women), but current trends indicate there will not be a gender-balanced Parliament for another 50 years. Northern Ireland (31.11 per cent women if it were sitting) and Wales (46.67 per cent) have also seen improvement. Scotland, on the other hand, has witnessed decline and stagnation, from 39.5 per cent women MSPs in Holyrood, which would have made it the fourth most representative legislature in the world, to 35 per cent.
But Scotland is trying to change this. On 7th September, the Parliament Project and the Scottish Government opened the Scottish Parliament to 400 women for Scotland’s Women Stand, a day to both celebrate and increase Scottish women’s representation in local councils, Holyrood and Westminster. I attended alongside Helen Pankhurst, Convener of the Centenary Action Group (CAG), a cross-party coalition of over 100 organisations, politicians, and women’s rights activists working to increase women’s political participation throughout the UK.
We heard from MSPs and councilors how important it was to be encouraged to stand by other female politicians, and about the amazing achievements of these women in their political careers. We also heard about the challenges they faced, including low pay for councilors, balancing caring responsibilities, and facing discrimination.
More stark was that Scottish Parliament has never had a woman MSP of a BAME background or a woman MSP with disabilities. One woman of Indian heritage stated that her constituency "wasn’t ready for someone with [her] skin tone".
Despite this, attendees were dedicated to making politics more representative in whatever way they could and everyone was clear that a woman’s place is in politics.
The Scottish Government has announced several initiatives and several Scottish parties are implementing plans to improve female representation in the Holyrood 2021 election results, including utilizing all-women shortlists and devoting funds to diversity and representation. Most crucially, the Scottish Government has called to #Enact106.
Section 106 of the Equality Act 2010 would require parties to collect and publish diversity data on prospective candidates for elections throughout the UK. CAG and its members have been calling for the UK government to #Enact106, but this proposal has been met with resistance from Government and parties unwilling to publish their data. We were thus excited to see that the Scottish Government is supporting the commencement of section 106 for elections to Holyrood and (potentially) local councils, either through the granting of devolved Equality Act powers or through a Westminster commencement.
Candidate diversity matters. We cannot know how representative politics are if we do not have the basic facts about who is involved. When candidate diversity data is published in a transparent, uniform manner, parties can be held to account and practices can change so that politics becomes more inclusive and representative.
Of course, section 106 will not fix everything. In the first instance, many women need additional encouragement to stand for office. Even women who have managed to make it into politics face disproportionate amounts of online abuse, and women of colour are subjected to online harm at even higher rates. Politics isn’t exactly family friendly either, as women disproportionately take on unpaid care work and political life is often designed around male politicians with few to no family responsibilities.
But if Scotland’s Women Stand proved anything, it is that there is hope. All of the 400 plus women who attended the event in Edinburgh were unwilling to accept the status quo and were passionate about pushing for more progress. All of CAG’s 100 plus members will continue to pressure the Government and parties to do better now, not after the next General Election, not when it is politically convenient. Women across Scotland are standing and people across the UK are #StillMarching for women’s rights and women’s representation. The Government should join them and #Enact106.
Taylor Hendrickson was the Centenary Action Group Campaign Intern at CARE UK this summer. She is currently finishing her undergraduate degree at the University of St Andrews.