Scotland Times

Tuesday, Apr 23, 2024

Scotland launches women’s audit to look at barriers to entering Holyrood

Scotland launches women’s audit to look at barriers to entering Holyrood

Exclusive: presiding officer Alison Johnstone says it will be disappointing if parliament cannot attract more female politicians

It will be “really disappointing” if the Scottish parliament cannot attract more female politicians within the next five years, says Holyrood’s presiding officer, as she launches Holyrood’s first women’s audit to investigate barriers to representation and participation.

Alison Johnstone, the former Scottish Green politician who was elected last May to the position of presiding officer – the Holyrood equivalent of the Commons speaker – also suggests that political parties are falling short in selecting female candidates. She signals that the hybrid working arrangements used during lockdown and which suited working women in particular could become permanent.

Although last May’s elections returned the most diverse MSP group ever – 58 women, making up 45% of the parliament, including the first two minority-ethnic women – three female MSPs stood down, citing the difficulties of managing family life and their role. Holyrood has no formal pairing system or proxy votes, for example.

Launching the audit plans, which will be led by a cross-party board of MSPs and academics, Johnstone pointedly describes the progress as “unexpected” given Holyrood had been sitting at 35% the previous session, and makes it clear political parties must play their part.

All parties, she says, “are beginning to realise the absolute necessity of making sure they have fair representation … They are getting better at it but we’re still not seeing it deliver a 50:50 parliament”.

She knows “fabulously able women” who have decided not to get involved in party politics because of their caring commitments.

“It’s not just about getting to the party meetings,” says Johnstone bluntly. “It’s about hanging about afterwards to mill around in a bar and getting to know activists who will support you when you need their votes to be selected.”

All parties currently represented in Holyrood, aside from the Scottish Conservatives, have used all-women shortlists with varying degrees of success.

Johnstone, who has been robust in her rebukes of MSPs for rude or disrespectful behaviour – including the first minister – is clearly mindful of the combative tone in the Holyrood chamber, a space originally designed in amphitheatre style to avoid the confrontations of the Commons.

She is adamant that MSPs from all backgrounds should “feel comfortable representing their constituents to the best of their ability”, and reveals that the parliament has already started work compiling statistics on contributions in the chamber. “I’m really keen to see who is making the vast majority of interventions, who is more comfortable doing that and why?”

As her women’s audit begins, Holyrood’s procedures and public appointment’s committee is carrying out its own review of the remote working practices used during the pandemic, and Johnstone insists the two are “very much connected” and says she expects Holyrood will adopt some hybrid working opportunities permanently.

Taking into account caring responsibilities and those candidates representing large rural areas, “travelling into a building might not be the best use of parliamentarian’s time”.

The culture around politics has changed significantly, she acknowledges: the “toxic” social media discourse, which women bear the brunt of, puts many off.

The mob attack on Keir Starmer earlier this week was “deeply troubling and uncomfortable”, she says, and the direct result of how a politician’s tone plays through into the general culture.

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