A new British Council report on women’s political participation, power, leadership and empowerment in the UK and internationally highlights progress made to date and key challenges and future priorities. Saoirse Docherty has been digging into the detail and here gives a summary with a Scottish focus.

The research engaged people and organisations in the UK and internationally around six themes which covered the key enablers and barriers to women’s political progress. Participants were also asked about what changes they would like to see over the next ten years; the consensus is that action is needed now.

Theme 1: Women’s Activism and Sisterhood

Participants were clear that the role of women’s activism and sisterhood over the last 100 years has been fundamental in progressing women’s access to power and politics, women’s influence on the political agenda and the way politics is conducted. The growing number of women in politics has led to greater cross-party working, which suggests that women are more open to this approach than men. Success in changing dynamics in the Parliaments of Scotland and Wales were attributed in part to women’s tenacity and collective action in driving changes to political institutions.

The establishment of a formal women’s lobby in the UK would help amplify women’s voices. The report recognises that the Women’s National Commission partly fulfilled this role until it was closed it in 2010, which has resulted in the lack of a standing platform for consulting women across the UK. By contrast, the Scottish Government funds both the Scottish Women’s Convention and Engender, Scotland’s national feminist organisation; and it established the First Minister’s National Advisory Council on Women and Girls (NACWG). Scotland’s Women 50:50 is also listed in the increasing number of initiatives boosting women’s participation in politics.

Notably, the report states that we ‘"must seize opportunities to design women into political workplaces and systems like in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales." 

Theme 2: The Rules

Participants noted many momentous legal changes over the last 100 years in supporting women’s political progress. But they also reflected a continued need to change the rules of the political system and their implementation. There were strong demands for legislated temporary special measures to deliver 50:50 parity in representation across parliaments & local government; a call that echoes the work of Scotland’s Women 50:50.

The closure of the Access to Elected Office Fund was cited as severely restricting opportunities for disabled women to stand as candidates for election. However, it was noted that Inclusion Scotland announced in May 2018 the re-opening of a Scottish disabled candidate fund.

On regional mechanisms for women in the European Union, the report notes the historic importance of the EU’s role in pushing for progress in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. It was also noted that the UK’s exit from the EU could see the loss of influence of this kind of regional mechanism and subsequent risks.

Theme 3: The Political Workplace

Consideration of the culture, norms and practices of the political workplace focused on how political institutions can welcome or put off women entering politics. Notably, the report states that "Opportunities to design women into political workplaces and systems, as seen in the devolution of political powers to the nations of Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, should be seized".The Scottish Parliament is highlighted for its provision of free childcare for MSPs and visitors.

The establishment of devolved legislatures in the UK is seen as crucial in enabling civil society organisations in particular to gain access to political spaces and kick-start equal political participation. However, in local government women account for just 24% of Scotland's elected councillors, compared to 32% in England, 26% in Wales and 35% in Northern Ireland. There was agreement that it would be beneficial for local authorities to follow a common model to women’s participation, rather than continue with the current varied approach. The report also noted the Local Governance Review in Scotland which is ongoing and may have scope to help address the gap.

Theme 4: Leadership

The growing number and importance of women in leadership roles within politics across the UK was a key discussion point. At the time of writing, women lead or co-lead half of the political parties in the UK and Devolved Parliaments. But the issue is about more than just being female; it is about diversity too. For example, Ruth Davidson, leader of the Scottish Conservative Party, is cited in a growing list of diverse women leaders for being openly gay.

Theme 5: Results

Participants spoke about what has flowed from women’s increasing political power and participation and how far this has shaped the lives of women and girls in the UK and internationally.

Commenting on the maturity of the policy making process, one participant noted that “You see in Scotland a governmental unit stacked with qualified statisticians and social science knowledge that can interpret with a gendered lens; a very unique and important set of skills.”

Countries making the greatest progress are those accepting both women’s inequality and the need to address it with policy. On gender budgeting, it is noted that while the UK Government has piloted tools, it has not adopted mainstream approach. The Welsh Assembly has also tested methods and the Scottish Government has commenced a gender budget pilot.

Violence against women and girls is regarded as the most extreme manifestation of female inequality. Both Wales and Scotland are recognised as having led the way internationally in delivering legislation to address the issue. In Scotland for example, participants noted that within the first week of the Scottish Parliament there was a Members’ debate about domestic abuse; this was seen as having captured a shift in society where it felt like activists for women's rights were part of the national legislature.

Theme 6: A Changing World

The last of the report’s themes covers progress for women in politics more broadly, and the impact this has had on women’s lives. In Scotland participants felt that women’s progress remains inextricably linked to forces in the wider changing world. Enablers and barriers include: public attitudes to equality, economic freedom, the role of education, the cultural sector and technology – so these are the areas where the focus should fall in the future.

Overall the report is a welcome addition to a broad, urgent and vital debate which spans all societal and geographic boundaries. In shining a light on the contexts of the UK nations and the UK as a whole as part of a varied international picture, its findings offer new directions for all members of society, organisations and political actors to follow, wherever they are in the world.

For the team at British Council Scotland the publication of this report could not be more prescient, as we have just committed to support the NACWG mission to tackle gender inequality in Scotland.

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