Reflections on Women Entering Public Life



Women for Independence had a great National Council in Aberdeen yesterday, Saturday 11th June.  Selma Rahman of the National Committee, who chaired Council, reflects on some of the issues raised.   Selma is third from the left in this photo of some of the women who attended. 

What a day, at our National Council meeting in the Inchgarvie Community Centre, Aberdeen. A real honour for me to chair yesterday, but with all those #audacious women in the hall, the debates around the EU, information on the Bay of Nigg Campaign, TTIP and enthusing more women into public life, the day passed too quickly with the sure knowledge that the debates would continue long past our all leaving.

We heard from Gillian Martin, just one of the new intake MSPs, her experiences in campaigning and, listening to the subsequent discussions, I  look forward to seeing other brave women make the move into public life. I no longer belong to any political party and have no desire to enter politics. But having listened to WFI discussion at local, EdinWFI, National Committee and National Council level, I have great admiration for those who have made that leap or plan to do so.

In Scotland, we introduced a system of proportional representation with single transferable voting (PR STV) in 2007. As part of the lead up to this ‘innovation’, various advocates for change argued this would renew local politics and at the same time provide new opportunities for women to be selected and elected. To be honest, I can’t find any great evidence of sustained programmes and initiatives and to bring this (‘new opportunities’) about.

By dint of (some) research I’ve found that the 2012 Scottish local authority elections saw 297 (24.3%) women elected as councillors. It would appear then that there is (still) a higher number of older, (aged 50+ ) councillors, and more men than women. I’ve also discovered that in Scottish local government the vast majority (93.75%) of council leaders are male according to COSLA, 2013.

But to play devil’s advocate, does this lack of female politicians at this local level matter? (Yes!) Do we need role models? (Yes!) So, do we need more women standing in 2017? YES!  

And listening yesterday to the input, we had a frank discussion around some of the barriers that hold women back in their pursuit of that local political life.

Financial: That same 2007 change brought about the introduction of a councillors ‘wage’, in the region of £16,000.00. Most councillors would tell us it’s a full time job, so for some that’s a very good salary. But if you are in employment, would you be taking a ‘hit’? Might your new role bring about life/home changes that require you to expend more financially on home/family matters in the first instance.

Then, there’s ‘experience’.  Just what is experience? Do you have to be ‘experienced’ and do you have to be ‘political’ to be a politician? We’re all ‘political’ in our own way. Use public transport? That’s political. Many of us will have been through some or all of the educational system, or have children, grandchildren in the system. That’s political. Using your doctor’s surgery, the dentist, the hospital: it’s all political. So we will have some experience of using local services, and possibly contributing at various levels. Look at the volunteering work we do. But think of us, WFI women. All of our campaigns, the engagement, the leafletting, the door knocking, it’s all political and it’s all experience

Since I don’t belong to a political party, I don’t know about their structures: are they entrenched, male, pale and hierarchical? Or are there mechanisms designed to support, nurture and promote? Do parties have training programmes for women and men considering the move into public politics? Or is it sink or swim in the soup of meetings, with subtle nuances that ‘newbies’ find difficult to negotiate? And how long do you have to stay a ‘newbie’?  Sadly yesterday showed again that there are still current examples within parties of old style power bases, sexism and cliques.

We heard directly about the women hating, women baiting, women sniping we see when sisters put their head above the parapet in various forms of public life? Social media and the media in general has such a lot to answer for, How often do we sigh, cry, weep, and yes, fear, as the bad, the very bad, the threats, the criminal, outweighs the good?

In all of this maelstrom I believe there is a role for those of us on the sidelines.When we know a sister needs support, no matter her party, her affiliations, let’s find ways of providing that support. Within all that which we know and see, it’s also good to remember it’s structures, systems, processes, sexism, conditioning (to name but some)  that needs challenged, called out, and changed. Our experiences, our talents, our strengths, our gifts are there, and outweigh the downsides.

But what might be practical support? Courses? In what, where? How ‘local’ would any ‘courses/sessions’ need to be? What length: a few hours, Longer, day time, evening, weekend? Or perhaps internet sessions: chat rooms, seminars, sharing experiences, coping mechanisms. What of shadowing, amd mentoring, and not just confined to the immediate political arena, but across various sectors? After all, all experiences should be used to best advantage, no matter the setting. At the beginning then, I used the words ‘brave’ and ‘admiration’ deliberately. I think you are brave and have nothing but admiration for you.

You decide to make that leap, and let us make every effort to support you where and when we can, where and when you need us. It’s what we all need to do, if we truly want to do politics differently.


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