Scotland Democracy, devolution and governance

International Women’s Day 2017: women in Scottish public life


This International Women’s Day, Charlotte Maddix takes a look at why women aren’t better represented in Scottish local government (and how you can help change that).

Earlier today we published a briefing on the experiences of women working in Scottish local government (LGiU Scotland members only). As we’ve pointed out multiple times, only 24.3% of councillors in Scotland in female. Alongside the Fawcett Commission, we’ve been examining whether local government is working for women. As part of that work, we surveyed councillors across the UK about their experiences of becoming involved in local politics, standing for election and day-to-day life as a councillor. We’ll be returning to this data throughout the year, but in honour of International Women’s Day, I’d like to highlight some of our major findings so far.

First off, the difficulty with conducting any work that attempts to highlight the experiences of one group of society is that other groups can feel excluded. I don’t think it’s a zero sum game. By encouraging women to stand for office, I’m not implying that anyone else should feel discouraged: ‘the more the merrier’, frankly.

We asked councillors in Scotland about their experiences of getting involved with political parties; of running for office; and of being a councillor. Over 10% of councillors responded, sharing their thoughts on local government in Scotland.

The barriers people face in engaging with local party politics are much the same for men and women: a lack of free time, finding time for campaign work in particular and pressure from family or community not to be involved in party politics. However, over a third of female councillors have experienced sexist comments and found that to be a barrier to them engaging with local party politics. In contrast, less than 1 in 10 male councillors has experienced sexist comments.

When it comes to standing as a councillor, again, men and women face much the same hurdles. Travel distance, time commitments and a lack of support from the party are all barriers for some. Women are four times as likely to experience sexist comments – this time from voters – as a barrier to seeking election to a council. However, men are more likely to fear violence, harassment or abuse from the electorate during campaign work.

“Over 40% of female councillors have experienced sexist comments from other councillors.”

Upon becoming a councillor, women are twice as likely to experience a lack of confidence in making their voice heard. Over 40% of female councillors have experienced sexist comments from other councillors. Less than 4% of male councillors have. Nearly 50% of female councillors have felt that assumptions are made about what they can or can’t do as a result of their gender.

The majority of councillors – male and female – often or sometimes feel as if their contributions are ignored or not valued.

Why are there fewer female council leaders than male? Overwhelming, both male and female councillors said this was because there were not enough female councillors to select from. Significantly, men were more likely to feel that women were not putting themselves forward often enough for senior roles. Our survey revealed that this isn’t a question of ambition – women are just as likely as men to want to progress.

Of course, there are women councillors, leaders and provosts across the country already doing fantastic work. We should be looking to them for inspiration and ideas about how to improve the situation. But we shouldn’t lose momentum: our survey revealed, for example, that more men (80% of respondents) intend to stand for election again this May than women (60%).

Engender’s recent Sex and Power report reveals that men hold 73% of ‘positions of power’ in Scottish public life. Those positions of power include public body CEOs, MSPs and councillors as well as sheriffs and senior police officers. As we pointed out in today’s briefing on women in local government, equal participation by men and women is a win-win situation. Women must stand for office and they must seek senior roles. If you know a woman who’d make a brilliant councillor – or MSP, or MP – let her know. Send her a Parliament Project postcard and ask her to stand.

For more from us on International Women’s Day, see this post on our sister site LGiU: International Women’s Day 2017: why are only 12% of council leaders women?