“Balance” needs political action

Talat Yaqoob is the Co-Founder and Chair of Women 50:50ty-002.jpg

It’s International Women’s Day 2019, and naturally we have lots of chatter going on about representation, but at Women 50:50 we’re here 365 days a year 24/7 working on fair representation (you’re welcome).

Apparently this year’s theme is “Balance for Better”; on the IWD website it states: Let’s build a gender-balanced world. Everyone has a part to play – all the time, everywhere. From grassroots activism to worldwide action, we are entering an exciting period of history where the world expects balance. We notice its absence and celebrate its presence. Balance drives a better working world. Let’s all help create a #BalanceforBetter.

Sure. Balance is indeed better, but it is more than that, balance is a necessity, and to reach balance, we need social justice. When we are talking about women’s equality in politics, balance is about making better decisions, about creating an inclusive politics and a more robust, representative democracy.

There is no decision taken in our councils or in our parliament, that doesn’t influence women’s lives, whether it is policy making on the economy, on transport, on health, on education or the environment. All of this has a profound impact on women’s lives and therefore women should have a fair share of the decision making stake. Decisions made with women are likely to work better for women – lived experience matters. But when Women 50:50 talks about women, we do not mean they are a homogenous group; we want to see women of colour, immigrant woman, disabled women, carers, LGBT women, working class women in decision making positions – only then can we claim any form of “balance”.

Here’s some stats you should know:

  1. 36% of MSPs in the Scottish Parliament are women
  2. This is a decrease from the highest make up in 2003 of almost 40%
  3. No women of colour have ever been elected to the Scottish Parliament
  4. Only 29% of councillors are women
  5. The Scottish Parliament ranks 16th on women’s representation across the Commonwealth
  6. The highest representation of women councillors is in Midlothian Council with 38.9%, the lowest is Na h-Eileanan Siar with zero women councillors

So what are we going to do about it?

We need quotas. Yes, they may not suit everyone’s rather delicate meritocracy mistaken appetites, but when you have such a systematic under-representation of women it is clear that we are not operating on meritocracy. The system needs to be re-set and to do that, we need bold intervention. Political parties have had the ability to implement measures such as all women shortlists to increase the number of women candidates for over 20 years. Labour, the SNP and the Greens have used these measures and with some success, but the reality is voluntary measures only get us so far, as Dr. Meryl Kenny and Prof. Fiona Mackay point out – we reach a plateau nowhere near 50%, to get us over the edge into the balance we want, we need legislated candidate quotas so every party has to do their part to reach out, find and support women candidates.

But the story doesn’t end with legislated candidate quotas. We need political cultures to change, we need respectful and sexism-free media commentary, we need to tackle online abuse, we need caring responsibilities to be taken seriously and resourced adequately, we need reporting mechanisms for sexism and harassment that women have faith in and we need women in genuinely winnable seats. Yes, this is a list of demands, but not one of these demands is extraordinary in any way, every single one is a basic need which should already be a reality.

Balance for better may be today’s theme, but it can’t be forgotten tomorrow – our campaign will be keeping the pressure up to make fair representation for women a legislated reality in Scotland.