Hello, friends. Firing off a quick blog post today in a bid to reach any politically inclined women on the island who are unaware of an event taking place in the Comhairle building tomorrow which they could / should go along to.
It’s a live streaming of a major event taking place in Holyrood tomorrow which is aimed at getting more women into politics and positions of power. Whether it’s to your taste or not, I think we can all agree that women are somewhat underrepresented in Comhairle nan Eilean Siar. I still feel embarrassed when I think that we don’t even have one single woman councillor.
Now we women are not stupid and I think we’d have a lot to bring to decision-making in the Outer Hebrides. And sometimes I think we would make a huge difference because that is one male, pale and stale chamber.
With one or two exceptions for character – and no exceptions for gender – it is extremely homogenous. A few different versions of Angus, Calum, Donald, Iain or John, Kenny, Roddy, Finlay, Paul and Norman… and only a few others.
It is not representative of the diverse population living in the islands. At the most fundamental level, it is not representative of men and women or people identifying as men or women. They are all white males, most of them picking up a pension.
And, in general, I do not think they are doing a very good job. In case you have forgotten, the Outer Hebrides ended up with the worst council settlement in Scotland.
You won’t have forgotten the budget cuts, or the impact they are having, but you have might forgotten that the reason the cuts are so savage is because the Comhairle nan Eilean Siar delegation failed to make a more persuasive case for us getting more money.
Poor show, gents. Poor show.
So, to tomorrow.
The Parliament Project, working with YWCA Scotland – The Young Women’s Movement called Scotland’s Women Stand, is hosting a massive event at the Scottish Parliament, where 400 women from all over Scotland are coming together for an inspirational day of keynote speeches, workshops, and networking.
Demand for the event has been huge. Tickets went within 36 hours of being made available four weeks ago and there are around 300 women on the waiting list.
However, recognising that it’s not practically possible to get everyone to Edinburgh, the project also organised four ‘regional hubs’ across Scotland (it will also be online), giving women the opportunity to participate without having to travel across the country.
One of these hubs is taking place at the Comhairle nan Eilean Siar offices in Stornoway – the others are in Lochgilphead, Aberdeen, and Lerwick – from 9.30am to 12.30pm. (The Scottish Parliament event is running until 3pm but ours is finishing early because no appropriate person could be found to lead the workshops locally in the afternoon.)
The event is completely free to attend and will consist of a live broadcast of the Parliament event with the opportunity for hub participants to ask questions virtually.
Myself and a pal have signed up for this event. I’m interested in this issue and want to find out more. There is still time to sign up and if you too would like to come along then follow this link to register at: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/scotlands-women-stand-stornoway-tickets-66681882305.
Crucially, the event is open to women from all parties or none, with any degree of political experience – including none! You can follow the project on Twitter as @theParliamentP and @ScotWomenStand, hashtagging #ScotWomenStand.
I spoke to Lee Chalmers, founder of the Parliament Project, last night, after their digital engagement assistant, Chloe Halpenny, reached out to me because she had come across previous pieces on my blog, bemoaning our lack of female councillors and encouraging a women’s network in the area.
She was, as would imagine, fascinating to talk to you, with a take on the world that we could all use a bit more of. I’m going to share with you some of the things she said.
First off, when I asked her what were the main barriers facing women getting into politics, she laughed! (In a nice way, of course.) “Everyone always asks about the barriers,” she explained. “That’s the reason I laugh. We’ve known what they are for a long time.”
We decided it was probably best to start with fundamental principles and she said: “The Parliament (Holyrood) is for everyone and we want to encourage women in the whole of the country to get into politics. That’s where the idea of a hub came in.”
Organisers made the offer to a number of local authorities, asking would they like to host a hub for the event. “The Western Isles was one of the councils that said yes but also we had been out to Stornoway a few months ago to run a workshop.” For that, 28 women turned up. “That’s quite a lot,” said Lee. “That was like Edinburgh numbers of Glasgow numbers.”
So. Despite our zero female councillors, it looks like there’s interest.
“It was a lively event,” she added. “Quite a few of the women who were there had stood for election last time and there was a woman there who was standing for Holyrood.”
Lee hoped tomorrow’s hub event “would be able to continue that conversation” – and she said the Comhairle had committed to the project coming back to the islands and holding some workshops in Stornoway, the Uists and Barra.
The origins of the Parliament Project are that Lee was inspired by the White House Project in the US, which ran for about 13 years and brought the realisation that “there’s something that happens to women… where men are more likely to wake up one morning and say, ‘hey, I’m going to be an MP’, women are less likely to do that”. By contrast, the research shows “that women are more likely to run if someone has encouraged them”.
Lee said: “There are not so many role models (although Scotland obviously differs in having a female First Minister while the US has never had a female President) and it’s not so easy for them to look at politics and see people like them. That’s what the research shows and that’s why we decided to set up the organisation.”
Getting into politics, she said, “can be quite mysterious”. How do you choose a party? How do you get involved? What will I be asked to do? What does a community councillor do? What does a local councillor do? How can you stand for Holyrood as a constituency MSP? A list MSP? etc etc.
The Parliament Project is “a very straightforward group” that aims to answer these questions. “It’s not really for women who are already well on their way to getting elected. It’s for the bulk of women who are curious about politics but don’t know where to go to get the answers to their questions.”
Sounds like it’s for us. The women who don’t really know about this stuff.
Lee told me they begin their workshops with a quick question, asking participants to rate how likely they are to stand for a political position on a scale of one to five. They ask again at the end of the workshop and look to see if that score has changed. “There’s usually movement” she said. “An increase of one or two points.”
One key point Lee made is that “politics is a long game” – something people should bear in mind if they’ve “only been going for a few years”. You need to be selected by your party first and it can take “a few election cycles” before you become a candidate.
There is also the fact that in somewhere like the Western Isles, people vote for people. The party system plays a much smaller role – so you need to be out there, knocking the doors and basically getting yourself known. “The reality is that it takes knocking on doors and people meeting you and seeing who you are and understanding that you’re a human being and will do things for them – because that’s what they vote for. It’s about trust.”
In terms of who is in a position to even consider running for council, there are certain complexities in the Western Isles, one of them being that you can’t be a Comhairle nan Eilean Siar councillor if you are a Comhairle employee. “That’s a very tangible thing that applies to the islands,” said Lee, “because the local authority is such a big employer”.
Other barriers may be put up from within. One of the biggest? “I’ve got two small children.”
This is something the project will be talking about. Lee posed the question. “Well, at what point in life is the right time to get into politics? Or, what team or group of women can you get round you that can look after them so you can do this? Childcare is an issue.”
Holyrood is an even bigger animal. Four days away in Edinburgh, two in the constituency.
Keen to get some nugget that I could use to give women who might benefit from – and I know quite a few of them – a bit of a nudge so that they make the jump from just thinking about this to doing something about it, I asked Lee how having women in politics could change it for the better.
She gave me such a good response and one I hadn’t thought of at all.
“I’ve got two different answers to that. One – why does it have to change anything for the better? Nobody ever asks why having men as politicians changes things for the better… 52 per cent of the population are female, girls do very well at school and at university…
“If we live in a meritocracy and people keep saying we do then our best people would be leading and they don’t need to argue why they make things better to be there.”
Secondly, if women are in decision-making positions then the issues that are important to them will be on the table. Like schools, for a start. When committees of only men make decisions, they forget the things that matter to women. Lee gave the example of Apple’s health app. “They launched it and said, ‘this is amazing! We’ve considered everything!’ – and someone said, ‘well, why does it not have anything to track periods?’
“They hadn’t thought of that because there weren’t any women on the design team.”
It’s the same principle for policy and law making.
Some final words from Lee, directly to the women who’re inclined but not quite persuaded.
“If not you, then who? And the time is now… because look at what’s happening! I have women in our workshops saying ‘I don’t know if I’m good enough’ and I have to say to them, look around the world right now at some of the politicians we have – without naming names. You can do it!
“Women are so capable. We have the skills and frankly nobody is going to do it for us. And you don’t need to know everything. You’d have staff!”
Attitudes do remain, of course. “In some areas you still have people saying, ‘well, madam, who is going to cook your husband’s dinner if you’re a councillor? That needs to change. (But) that’s only going to change if we’re in there.
“It’s been 10 years since the Westminster parliament published a massive report on the research into the barriers and nothing has changed. I think we can safely assume that no one is going to change it for us. You’re talking about shifting society’s view of the role of women. For women to be staying at home or be in positions of power? Or both? And how do we shape our political structures so that they can be in both and so men can be in both too?”
Women have “a really important to role to play” in politics, said Lee, and for all the challenges, this is a role “where people can really feel that they can make a difference”.
She said: “I very strongly encourage women to go for it. I’m glad that the hub is going ahead in Stornoway. There’s definitely an energy there.”