Analysis of the women selected and elected by quota in Ireland dispel the myth that they were under-qualified

A great analysis of candidates in the recent Irish elections from Fiona Buckley and Claire McGing in this recent Democratic Audit blog


The introduction of legal gender quotas for the 2016 general election in Ireland resulted in a marked improvement in the number of women candidates selected and TDs (parliamentarian) elected.  Howe…

Source: Analysis of the women selected and elected by quota in Ireland dispel the myth that they were under-qualified

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Madam Secretary-General?

With pressure mounting for the next UN Secretary General to be a woman, is it too much to ask that she also be a feminist? Blog by Anne Marie Goetz for OpenDemocracy

Source: Madam Secretary-General?

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On teaching political theory to undergraduates

Great blog from Manjeet Ramgotra (SOAS) on her efforts to open up and include more female and non-white thinkers into introductory political theory courses.

UK PSA Women & Politics Specialist Group

By Manjeet Ramgotra

The recent Department for Education proposal on the theory component of the Politics A-Levels raises the question as to what counts as knowledge. The proposal more or less excises women and non-white men from the curriculum and limits understandings of what politics is, who produces knowledge and the type of knowledge that is produced. These questions are not limited to secondary education curricula. They are relevant to undergraduate introductory courses to politics.

How we form young minds matters. What we teach students to consider as knowledge structures and justifies social and political institutions. If we want to create greater gender and racial equality, we ought to reflect on this and what we are doing when we teach political theory. Most first year introduction to political theory courses do consider this. Some courses are structured conceptually and include the study of liberalism, socialism, feminism, multiculturalism and/or post-colonialism. Others…

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You Can’t Study Politics Without Women

UK PSA Women & Politics Specialist Group

The PSA Women and Politics Specialist Group Response to the Department for Education’s A-Level Politics Consultation

PSAWomenPollogoWhile the PSA Women and Politics Group welcomes the inclusion of ‘Political Ideas’ as a compulsory topic within the DfE’s draft AS and A-Level Politics subject content, we are deeply troubled by the exclusion of feminism as a political ideology and the inclusion of only one woman political thinker across the entire curriculum.

The proposed new curriculum omits both the greatly important social changes that have resulted from women’s movement activism in the past century, and a hugely significant body of literature dealing with gender, politics and political change. Indeed, there is only one mention of women or gender in the entire draft content – with the suffragettes awkwardly shoehorned in under the banner of ‘pressure groups’. With Mary Wollstonecraft the only female ‘key thinker’ named, the document also overlooks a number of extremely influential women thinkers…

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The Women’s Equality Party will struggle to win seats, but it can push women’s issues up the political agenda

Interesting analysis from Kimberly Cowell-Meyers on the potential impact of the Women’s Equality Party.

UK PSA Women & Politics Specialist Group

The Women’s Equality Party was founded earlier this year with the aim of promoting gender equality for the benefit of all. But what are its long term political prospects, and what hopes does it have of influencing those parties more likely to hold office? Kimberly Cowell-Meyers argues that while it may struggle to make an impact in an electoral sense, it may be able to use its significant media savvy – as evidenced by the presence of people like Catherine Mayer and Sandi Toksvig in its upper echelons – to push women’s issues up the political agenda.

This blog was originally posted on Democratic Audit UK.

The TV host and WEP leading light Sandi Toksvig (Credit: CC BY 2.0)

When the UK’s new Women’s Equality Party released its party manifesto last week, at least one article about the party appeared in almost every mainstream newspaper in the UK with The Independent running six separate pieces and The Guardian four.  Even The Mirror and 

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Devolving abortion law: a positive step or cause for concern?

With powers over abortion legislation set to be devolved to Holyrood, Jennifer Thomson asks whether this presents an opportunity or a potential setback for women’s rights in Scotland.

mage © Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body – 2012. Licensed under the Open Scottish Parliament Licence v1.0

mage © Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body – 2012. Licensed under the Open Scottish Parliament Licence v1.0

Powers over abortion are set to be devolved from Westminster to Edinburgh. The news, breaking last week, was surprising, given that there had been little intimation from national government that this was to happen, and little encouragement to devolve this issue from any of the Scottish parties. Scotland is not the first of the devolved regions to be allowed to decide on this issue separately from central government. The 1967 Abortion Act, which continues to allow for legal terminations in England, Scotland and Wales, has never been extended to Northern Ireland, and the procedure there continues to be strictly prohibited.

Yet the unexpected decision to move this issue from central government to the Scottish Parliament raises several key political questions. What does this decision by Westminster tell us about the gendered nature of devolution in the contemporary UK? Should feminists and women’s civil society in Scotland be worried that this move might rally calls for more conservative legislation north of the border? Or does this allow what is already a very feminised political sphere in Scotland a chance to further reiterate its commitment to women’s rights and introduce more liberal laws?

Devolution of abortion laws: a potential positive movement for women’s rights?

Feminists have long pointed out fundamental problems with the 1967 Abortion Act. Unlike in some other jurisdictions (most of the Nordic countries and South Africa for example), abortion is not available in the UK at the woman’s request. Doctors remain gatekeepers to the procedure. Although evidence of medical professionals refusing to refer women for terminations is rare, legally women still require the permission of not one, but two doctors, before they may have an abortion. Whilst nurses and midwives are now allowed to play a key role in providing services, overall control of the procedure still remains with doctors. Women having terminations via medical rather than surgical procedure (the so-called ‘abortion pill’) have to do so in medical facilities, rather than their own home, despite the relative safety of such medication, and the inconvenience caused.

Devolving abortion to Scotland potentially allows the country to address some of these issues. In the increasingly feminised environment of Scottish politics (with three major parties lead by women, a consciously feminist First Minister, and a gender equal Cabinet) it is difficult to imagine Edinburgh taking a conservative line on such a hot-button women’s issue. Instead, it might be possible that Scotland move towards a more liberal position such as that of Canada, where abortion is removed from the criminal code entirely, or for restrictions around the ‘abortion pill’ and the role of nurses and midwives to be loosened. Indeed, one SNP MP has declared that “I want this power not just because I want all powers to come to Scotland but I want to improve and protect a woman’s right to choose and to access quality healthcare.” A motion affirming women’s rights to reproductive healthcare has already been tabled in the Scottish Parliament by the co-convenor of the Scottish Greens, and the British Pregnancy Advisory Service have urged Scottish parliamentarians to use this as an opportunity for positive change.

Even if more liberal laws are not created as a result of this move, at one level, this suggests a normalisation of political attitudes around abortion. As Secretary of State for Scotland, David Mundell said “there is no reason why the Scottish parliament should not be able to decide an issue of this significance because it has demonstrated its ability to do so on numerous other significant issues.” From this line of reasoning, abortion is part of wider reproductive healthcare – why shouldn’t it be devolved like anything else which concerns the NHS? From the perspective of women’s rights, this can be read as a positive decision, treating abortion as a normal policy issue and as part of the broader spectrum of healthcare.

The Northern Irish case: cause for concern in Scotland?

However, turning to the one part of the United Kingdom where abortion laws were previously devolved, the result has not been positive. Northern Ireland has never been covered by the 1967 Abortion Act. As such, terminations are incredibly restricted, legal only where there is serious, long-term threat to the life or health of the women involved. Even in cases of fatal foetal abnormality, where the pregnancy will likely not go full term, or the baby will die shortly after birth, terminations are still not allowed.

Political movements to encourage liberalisation of these strict abortion laws have been all but non-existent, with the issue instead encouraging unusual links across Northern Ireland’s divided politics. Furthermore, devolution in this case has opened up a regional space which allows for religious and pro-life forces to mobilise against liberalising change. Pro-life organisations in Northern Ireland are incredibly well organised, with key links to influential politicians and sizeable funding. Precious Life, the main pro-life lobbying organisation in the province, organise daily protests outside both the Family Planning Association and the Marie Stopes clinics in central Belfast. In addition to this, they have also recently opened a competing ‘pro-life’ healthcare facility, conveniently located between the two clinics.

The particular blend of religion and politics that is enjoyed in Northern Ireland remains largely unique to the province in comparison to the rest of the UK. It seems unlikely that similar scenes will occur in Scotland. Yet by devolving this legislation, a new space for potential change is opened up, and the pro-life movement may find room for manoeuvre. Alex Salmond, former First Minister and current MP, is on record as supporting a lower time limit for abortions. A Motion in the Scottish Parliament has already been proposed to discuss in part “the fundamental rights of babies to be protected both before and after birth”. Conservative forces are as able to use this legislative movement as more liberal voices.

What is abortion an issue of?

Regardless of what direction (if any) abortion policy in Scotland is now taken, a more fundamental question needs to be asked: why remove control around abortion from central government in the first place?

In the case of Northern Ireland, the perceived different sensibilities around this issue have long been used to justify difference around this issue. Equally, politicians continually refer to the issue as one of the few points of unity in the region’s divided politics, and the cross-party nature of several attempts to greater restrict abortion in the province reflects this. Repeatedly Westminster politicians (both Northern Irish and from the rest of the UK) have argued that the people of Northern Ireland feel differently about abortion, and that the democratic will of the Northern Irish people in this regard should be respected. Such political statements remain very much out of line with contemporary survey data from the province, which suggests strong support for liberalisation.

Not only does this difference of opinion argument appear to be lacking in the Scottish case, but why is it considered valid in the first place? Why should opinion, rather than evidence, play such a role here? Why is abortion not considered a fundamental aspect of sexual and reproductive healthcare, and part of the individual’s basic right to bodily autonomy?

Attempts to establish abortion within a rights discourse have continually suffered difficulties, in many different locales. The UK is a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and is examined every four years by its Committee. The CEDAW Committee have repeatedly raised the issue of the discrepancy in abortion law with regards to Northern Ireland, but this has excited little interest from Westminster. As part of the 2013 examination, where the Committee urged the UK once again to expedite the decriminalisation of abortion in Northern Ireland, central government response was brief: “There are no plans to change the law on abortion in Northern Ireland.” Using a human rights based argument to force movement on the issue of abortion has gained little ground.

Without the backing of central government, or a strong rights based argument underlying the discourse around the issue, abortion laws do appear vulnerable to change. At present, it is difficult to tell which direction (if any) Scotland might move in. A new arena for conservative challenges to women’s rights has been made available, however, and opposing views on the matter are already making themselves known. Women’s rights activists and politicians must be vigilant.

Jennifer Thomson is a PhD candidate in Politics and International Relations at Queen Mary, University of London.

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Has the Tide Turned for Women’s Representation in Scotland?

Scotland has a female First Minister, who competes in Holyrood with a female Leader of the Scottish Labour Party, as well as a female leader of the Scottish Conservatives. While this should be welcomed, we should not assume that the problem of women’s under representation is solved for good, and instead look at what statutory measures could do to achieve lasting positive change, argue Meryl KennyFiona Mackay, and Cera Murtagh.

Credit: Ninian Reid, CC BY 2.0

The past year has heralded a series of ‘firsts’ for women in Scottish politics – including the election of Nicola Sturgeon as the first female First Minister in November of last year, followed by the announcement that her Cabinet would be 50/50 women and men. One year later, the three largest parties in the Scottish Parliament are all led by women, – including not only Sturgeon, but also Ruth Davidson, leader of the Scottish Conservatives, and Kezia Dugdale, the newly elected leader of Scottish Labour. The Scottish Green Party also has a gender-balanced convenor team of Patrick Harvie and Maggie Chapman.

This ‘female face’ of political leadership in Scotland provides a powerful image of an apparent breakthrough on women’s representation, pointing to a potential shattering of the political glass ceiling and the apparent normalisation of equal sharing of executive power.

Yet, we need to place these achievements within a broader context. Women continue to be under-represented at all political levels in Scotland – men are 76% of local councillors; 83% of Scottish MEPs, and 66% of MSPs and Scottish MPs. Meanwhile, those gains that have been made on women’s representation thus far have been achieved more by accident than by design. Thus, while the upcoming 2016 Scottish Parliament elections may well prove to be a step change for women’s representation in Scotland, the 50/50 mark still appears some way beyond reach.

Trends in Women’s Representation in Scotland

 What explains women’s continuing under-representation in Scottish politics? The research evidence in Scotland and the UK is clear, highlighting the key role of political parties as the central ‘gatekeepers’ to political office. When parties have adopted measures aimed at promoting women’s representation – including gender quotas – the proportion of women in politics has increased.

We can see the effects of these measures in the first elections to the Scottish Parliament in 1999, where just over 37% of MSPs elected were women. These numbers were the result of Scottish Labour’s use of formal gender quotas – in the form of a mechanism called ‘twinning’ for constituency seats and gender balancing on the regional lists – as well as informal measures adopted by the SNP, including favourable placement for women candidates on the regional lists.

Over time, however, the numbers of women in the Scottish Parliament have stalled or fallen, and progress at other levels has been slow, raising questions as to whether equal representation was still on the political agenda. The use of gender quotas by political parties has been largely one-sided to date, and there has been little sign, until recently, that quotas have ‘caught on’ in Scottish politics, either across political parties or different political levels. In 2003, the percentage of women in the Scottish Parliament almost reached the 40% threshold – more than twelve years on, this remains the ‘high tide’ of women’s representation in Scotland at any level.

Women’s representation: catching on in 2016?

 The 2014 independence referendum and the 2015 General Election have shifted the political contours of Scotland, while also signalling a potential step change in debates over women’s voice and place in political life. Having women in the ‘top jobs’ has certainly made a difference – Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale is a co-founder of Women 5050, and has pledged that half of the party’s new candidates for the 2016 Scottish Parliament elections will be women. Nicola Sturgeon, meanwhile, has pushed for the SNP to adopt quota measures, including all-women shortlists, and has also publicly supported the Women 5050 campaign.

Scottish politics is also changing from the bottom up, including a surge in political engagement and grassroots activism during and after the referendum. All the pro-independence parties have seen their membership soar post referendum and this is likely to impact on the outcome of the 2016 elections.What do the numbers look like so far? At time of writing, many selections have yet to be completed. However, preliminary analysis of those selections finalised so far suggests that women’s representation is starting to ‘catch on’ again as a matter of party competition and that gender quotas are back on the political agenda.

Yet, we can also see significant disparities between parties in terms of the numbers of women they have selected and are likely to elect. Turning first to the SNP, which is on course for a landslide victory at Holyrood, women make up 30 out of 73 constituency candidates (41%). This represents a substantial increase from 2011 (up from 29%), and reflects the party’s implementation, for the first time, of strong gender quota measures in the form of all-women shortlists (AWS) in constituencies with retiring incumbent SNP MSPs. In the run-up to the 2016 elections, AWS have been implemented in nine seats with an incumbent SNP MSP stepping down; six of these retiring MSPs are male and three are female. The party also voted in favour of ‘softer’ gender-balancing measures, including the aim that in any constituency in which more than one candidate is nominated, at least one candidate must be a woman – although this measure does not appear to have been applied in all cases.

The SNP’s numbers are particularly significant given that they have been achieved in the context of fierce intra-party competition for constituency seats as a result of the party’s electoral success and rising membership. In a new trend for the SNP, this has seen a number of incumbent SNP MSPs challenged in internal selection processes, a number of whom were subsequently de-selected (including Nigel Don in Angus North and Colin Keir in Edinburgh Western). Given the overwhelming success of the SNP in 2011 and its projected advancement in 2016, plus the high level of incumbency in the party, this marks the last chance in the foreseeable future for the party to bring a significant number of new faces to its benches and, thus, make a real dent in its gender imbalance.

Turning to Labour, 41% of the party’s constituency candidates thus far are women (though, at time of writing, most of the party’s selections have not yet been completed). The party has taken steps to meet its pledge that 50% of its new candidates will be women – announcing, for example, that AWS will be implemented in the seat of Greenock and Inverclyde, where incumbent Labour MSP Duncan McNeil is stepping down. However, with polls predicting that Labour will win few constituency seats, the regional lists will be the main arena for internal party competition. With list selections not due to take place until January 2016, it remains to be seen as to how this 50/50 policy will be applied on the lists and how the all-important ranking of candidates will be conducted.

For all of the parties, what matters is not only how many women they select overall, but also whether these women actually have a change of winning. Our research found clear gendered patterns of candidate placement in previous Scottish Parliament elections, with women candidates, for example, generally placed in lower positions on party lists. At time of writing, the SNP, the Scottish Liberal Democrats and the Scottish Greens have completed their regional list selections for Holyrood. For all three parties, 50% or more of the top three positions on the eight regional lists are occupied by women.

There are significant differences, though, in how these numbers shake out in practice – for the Greens and the SNP, a woman tops four out of eight lists (50%), while only one of the Liberal Democrats’ eight lists is topped by a woman (and this is not a list that the party won seats through in 2011). Controversially, the Lib Dems have effectively de-selected their only female MSP Alison McInnes, by ranking her second on the North East Scotland list behind former MSP Mike Rumbles, whose stance on domestic violence has drawn significant criticism. In response to these developments, party leader Willie Rennie has announced that he will put forward proposals for gender equality measures to the 2016 spring conference – though the question is whether this is ‘too little, too late’ for a party that continually raises the possibility of gender quotas, only to fail to follow through, and that (after 2016) will likely be men-only both north and south of the border.

Meanwhile, for the Conservatives, women make up only 15% of the constituency candidates selected thus far. The party has not yet completed its list selections, but, as candidates cannot stand solely on the list without also contesting a constituency seat, the lists are set to reflect the same proportions. The placement of women candidates on these lists is therefore critical.

Beyond a matter for parties?

The 2016 Scottish Parliament elections mark an exciting time for gender equality in Scottish politics. The past year has ushered in change from the top down, through party rules, and the bottom up, through the civic awakening that accompanied the referendum. This groundswell of political engagement, funnelled through new campaign groups and, more recently, party membership, has empowered many ordinary citizens, including women. Indeed, the shift has seen many women make the transition from ‘small p’ to ‘big P’ Politics, with several members of Women for Independence so far selected as candidates to contest the 2016 elections – including six constituency candidates for the SNP and four list candidates for the Greens (at time of writing) – raising the possibility of a cross-party women’s caucus in the fifth parliament.

Experience has shown, however, that such gains should not be taken for granted or seen as irreversible. Analysis of the candidate selections so far already points to uneven performance between the parties in terms of women’s representation, and, even for those parties that have implemented gender quotas, there is significant room for manoeuvre in how they interpret and enforce the rules.

If gender equality is something we take seriously as a society it can no longer be left to the discretion of political parties. For real and lasting progress, warm words must be backed up with statutory measures to embed equality in our political institutions. And now is the time.

This blog was originally posted on Democratic Audit Scotland.

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