Caroline McDonald was asked to participate in the #AskHerToStand event at Westminster by her local MP. Here, she writes about her experience and where she is going next.
I was intrigued when my local MP Gavin Newlands invited me along to take part in the #AskHerToStand event in Westminster on Wednesday 21st November 2018. Every MP from across the UK was asked to support this event by inviting a female constituent to parliament to take part in a range of events. Women participants could attend networking opportunities, workshops, panel discussions and even attend a Women and Equalities Committee.
This event was facilitated by the 50:50 Parliament and the Fawcett Society who actively campaign to highlight the lack of elected female representatives in politics and to encourage women to consider standing in parliament. In 2018 men outnumber women 2:1 in the House of Commons and in the House of Lords it’s 3:1. These figures are disappointing considering women account for 51% of the UK population. Therefore, I was curious to learn more about the barriers that prevent women from standing for office across the UK.
On arrival I met Gavin Newlands (MP) at the security entrance to Westminster and to my surprise I was able to observe Prime Ministers Questions. PMQs was interesting, the atmosphere was tense and extremely noisy with lots of parliamentarians talking over one another. It occurred to me that it must have been difficult for MPs to hear anything given the constant noise and jeering at each other. Nevertheless, it certainly got me thinking about how overwhelming the House of Commons could be for new female MPs, as this working environment is like no other. Following PMQs I took part in a photograph opportunity along with many other women who had travelled from all over the UK to attend this event.
My next stop was Portcullis house to attend an event called “Breaking down the barriers”, hosted by various female MPs including Harriet Harman and Vicky Ford. The first few speakers appeared to have experienced excellent opportunities that enabled them to naturally progress to where they are today. However, it occurred to me that many women face barriers in many aspects of life and these women are very much underrepresented in politics, such as working-class women, BAME and disabled women to name a few.
I enjoyed listening to Rosena Allin-Khan MP (Tooting) who shared her background experiences and journey to parliament. Rosena reflected on her working-class roots, the barriers she faced accessing higher education and juggling work with caring commitments.
The most outstanding speaker was Mhairi Black MP (Paisley South) who really challenged women in the audience to consider which political party that they aligned themselves with. In particular, questioning political parties who have imposed policies that have an adverse impact on women and children within communities. Mhairi urged female politicians and future candidates to consider the responsibilities that politicians have in improving life for all women. This event also explored and discussed issues affecting women in politics, such as online harassment, threats and misogyny. Despite these negative experiences, there was a strong sense of determination within the room to challenge these toxic issues and a desire to see more women in elected roles.
Mhairi Black MP (at a WFI event in June 2018)
My first workshop of the afternoon focused on “hard to reach women” facilitated by Aysha Esakji MBE. There was plenty of debates and discussions around how we as women can encourage other women to become involved in grass roots politics. It was agreed that empowering local women in politics could help us to ensure that more women’s voices are heard both locally and nationally. Participants also highlighted obstacles preventing women becoming involved in politics within their own communities due to caring commitments, language barriers and perceptions of gender roles.
The next workshop titled “harnessing the power of women to make a difference in legislation and policy” was facilitated by Shannon O’Connell, Senior Advisor, Gender, Inclusion and Politics at the Westminster Foundation for Democracy. Shannon demonstrated the positive impact that women in political and leadership roles can play in shaping policy and legislation. Shannon outlined the correlation between women in political/leadership roles and how women’s priorities can bring improvements for all citizens in areas such as education, health and infrastructure. During this workshop I reflected on the lack of progress that has been made in respect of gender inequality across the UK, despite having a female Prime Minister.
I found the workshops informative and engaging. I was able to listen to the views of ordinary women from all across the UK, one particular young woman felt aggrieved with the lack of political education in schools in England. Many women spoke passionately about the devastating impact of universal credit, period poverty, gender- based violence and sexual violence. I had travelled from Renfrewshire that morning, therefore I was keen to share my own experiences of women’s issues both personally and professionally from a Scottish perspective.
Above: Caroline with her MP Gavin Newlands
I have learned that women need to build peer networks, educate one another and encourage women to stand. The more women who put themselves forward as candidates and are elected will bring greater equality within politics. This approach can prevent old, male and stale politicians from making decisions on our behalf, instead we should take women’s priorities to the parliament or local chamber and make positive changes for all. Although I enjoyed participating in this event, I do believe that Westminster is archaic and not representative of modern and diverse society.
After my jaunt to Westminster I feel inspired, more knowledgeable and determined. I have subsequently decided to stand for election in the future (hopefully, within an independent Scotland).