Reflections on Women in Politics and True Representation

16th December 2021

Standards in public life have peppered the front pages over the last year. With a clear impetus for reform of how our elected representatives conduct themselves, it seems an appropriate time to reflect on other areas of political life that are also in need of revision.

The imbalance of societal attitudes towards female elected representatives in comparison to their male counterparts is one such area.

While in the UK,  women have formally won the fight for political rights, cultural and societal barriers to the full execution of these rights remain.  And yet, we seek government that reflects the society we live in and politicians who are respected for their skill and value, as well as their gender.  In the UK, we have had two female Prime Ministers, one female First Minister of Scotland, one female First Minister of Northern Ireland and one female Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland.

For what has sometimes been called ‘one of the best democracies in the world’ having only five women in positions of power over the course of centuries of government, ‘best’ seems like a bit of a stretch.  Looking just at UK Prime Ministers, two out of 55 doesn’t scream equal.

Securing election into these top positions is only the first part of the struggle. Once in office, the media plays a significant role in shaping the image of women in power, with notable differences between the reporting of male compared to female representatives.

Theresa May was consistently referred to as ‘the next Thatcher’. Howeve,  with completely different political philosophies, styles and attitude, it was not wrong to assume that this comparison was heavily based on May’s gender, rather than her leadership style.  Furthermore, the papers consistently focused and reported on her fashion choices.  The famous kitten heels saga highlighted the media’s need to present a female politician through emphasising appearance – the surface – while overlooking the substance, namely May’s political agenda.

This was also extremely apparent when Theresa May and Nicola Sturgeon, the two most politically powerful women in the UK at the time, met to discuss Brexit back in 2017.  The Daily Mail ran with the headline ‘Never mind Brexit, who won legs-it!’ accompanying a front page photo of the two leaders, both of whom were wearing skirts at the time.

In Scotland, we have increased female representation at the top levels of political leadership: Nicola Sturgeon, Ruth Davidson and Kezia Dugdale at one time were arguably the triumvirate, female powerhouse of Scottish politics. Furthermore, Davidson and Dugdale also represented the underrepresented LGBTQ community. Fast forward to the present day and only Sturgeon is still standing and excepting the co-leader of the Green party Lorna Slater, all the other political parties are – once again – being led by men.

Was this crack in the glass ceiling temporary, and have we just returned to ‘business as usual’ and  the time-honoured dominance of men?

With many parties facilitating different methods to help women enter the political area such as women-only shortlists and seats reserved for female candidates, it is clear the parties feel women need support where men do not.  While these tactics may provide access for women into politics (which I am sure we all support whole heartedly), it could also hinder gender-equal attitudes by further underlining that politics remains, fundamentally, a male dominated arena.  It calls into question whether women actually need this sort of help and why our system retains its belief that politics and power belong to men.  The answer surely is that we need true representation and we also need good representation.

Speaking for half the population, women often bring different interests, priorities and focus.  This is not to say that men cannot support the same views or have the same priorities as women, but that agendas are best served when handled by a mix of genders.  As with all policy debate, it is crucial that lived experiences inform the policy issues being discussed and that decisions are made by a truly representational cross section of society.

When MSP Monica Lennon introduced the Period Products (Free Provision) (Scotland) Bill it enjoyed both cross-party and male support.  There was no doubt that it was welcomed by all, but the debate was better received and more robust because it included the views of females who have lived experience of the issue.  It is the experiences, the political beliefs and the values that all genders bring, which will ultimately give us genuinely representative government.

As things stand, it is hard to avoid the belief that we live in a world where societal norms and speech continue to encapsulate the world as inherently male.  While the treatment of gender in society has undergone significant change over recent years, we still have big steps to take in order to achieve full gender equality, not just in politics but in our everyday lives.