Wednesday, 18 March 2009

Replacing the Doctor

No, don't worry Tom Harris, not that one. This one.

Brian Taylor has a great piece about the internal competition to replace John Reid as Labour's Westminster Parliamentary candidate for Airdrie & Shotts at the next election - and the wrangling over a potential all-female shortlist for the seat. Kezia Dugdale made her feelings on the issue of female representation clear last week while it is an issue I have written about before.

So here's the story so far. John Reid, now Chairman of Celtic, has decided he's had enough Cabinet positions to last a lifetime and will retire from the House of Commons at the next election. Labour's National Executive has "ordered" the local party to draw up an all-female shortlist of candidates. This hasn't gone down too well with the local party, whose preferred candidate is Airdrie councillor Jim Logue. But, with the National Executive having the power to close the branch if they do not toe the line, there may be fireworks ahead.

I don't think it will come to that... but there is a serious point from this story (well, more than one - but I'll ignore the power structures of political parties for the moment). What lengths should political parties resort to in order to see more women represented in politics?

Labour (and, to an extent, the Lib Dems) have been the most proactive in this respect - zipping their European lists with alternative male/ female candidates, twinning constituencies and, as discussed above, forcing all female shortlists onto - sometimes unwilling - branches. Others (the SNP and the Tories I think) do not have any formal structures in place to encourage female representation, preferring (again, I think) to let their members decide who should be their representatives in elections - male or female - and expecting that whoever gets the nod will be the best person for the job, irrespective of their gender.

Now, I'm not a huge fan of "affirmative action" when it prevents a better qualified candidate from getting a job. On the whole, if there are two candidates who are equally well qualified, equally well suited to the job, have interviewed well etc and you can't separate them, then maybe you pick the person who would diversify your staff. Which is, I think, how it is supposed to work. I don't know, maybe that's why I can't get a job - being a young, white male...

However, I do recognise this is as an issue in politics. After the sad death of Bashir Ahmed MSP, the Scottish Parliament lost its only MSP from an ethnic minority. 129 white faces now sit in the chamber, although with the election of Anne McLaughlin in his place, there are now 45 female MSPs (34.8%) of the total. There are also 34 Scottish constituencies for the UK Parliament that have never had a female MP represent that constituency.

How do we encourage more female - and ethnic minority - representation in politics? And how do we do it in a way that doesn't look like it is undemocratic?

I expect there are several answers to that, answers that some might find more appealing than others. But I think it comes down to whether we, as a society, want to challenge the predominant trend of politics being a man's world. Because until we do, women will remain a minority within the political world. And that isn't right.

7 comments:

Jeff 18 March 2009 at 11:39  

Nice one Malc.

Also being a white, male I can't imagine I have many of the answers but I don't know why this is necessarily a problem that needs to be fixed.

If 65% of men want to be MPs and 35% of women want to be MPs then maybe we've got the mix just right?

Gerrymandering the system to 50/50 seems a bit non-organic to me.

I think we need to focus on making sure the best person gets the job, male or female, and that will mean discrimination cases being brought to the fore as I'm sure there's plenty of sexism and racism out there.

But all women shortlists? I don't get it. (There, that's my 2 cents worth.)

Malc 18 March 2009 at 11:52  

Jeff,

I think I kind of agree. I don't like "affirmative action" - its just discrimination in reverse...

However, maybe more than 35% of women want to be MPs... and just don't get the opportunity for various reasons. Top of the list of those reasons might be not being selected as a candidate in a winable seat... or it might be that the voters don't feel adequately represented by a woman (though, given more than 53% of the electorate is female, that seems unlikely).

Either way, I don't think its wanting to do something that is the problem. There are some barriers in the way...

BSH 18 March 2009 at 11:56  

Discrimination or Positive discrimation; surely its still discrimination?

As a recent Chemical engineering graduate, I was always bemused by the tutoring positions which were favourably scattered amongst the females of the year.

Despite the course being 9/10ths male; out of ten tutors invariably 8 would be female, despite protests from the males who applied (and most did; after all money is paid for this task).

Applying one year, having guitar tutoring on my CV at the time I was told that they wanted to encourage those who had not taught to do so. Conversely, the year later post CV update (where I didn't talk about the tutoring) I was told I needed tutoring experience! At which point on questioning this with the email sent a year early the lecturer responsible for allocating positions response can be summed up as 'Errrmmm uhhh'.

Many would say that this is a moot point; surely a university tutoring position is not that important in the scheme of things. However, in a degree like chemical engineering where most graduates will be applying to BP/Exxon/Shell etc. why would these companies chose myself over one of these females if they have the tutoring experience.

Infact my best friend got a graduate job with ConocoPhillips despite a lower final grade as she had the same grade in the 4th year AND the tutoring position. Well done to her indeed, but can this system be seen as a meritocracy?

Probably not.

But we know from past experience; particularly with UK councils that there is such a thing as 'over-qualified' for jobs; no wonder the country is up shit-creek without a paddle - Brown and Co no doubt scraped a pass degree mark and somehow became the Cabinet whilst those with 1st class honours became unemployed.

Malc 18 March 2009 at 12:10  

BSH - I'm in agreement!

Discrimination is discrimination, whether it has a "positive" intent or not, and that, I think, isn't right.

Saying that, I still think there is something wrong with the political make-up of the respective parliaments at Westminster and Holyrood. Do we have any ideas as to how to improve the gender balance - perhaps without resorting to "discriminatory" measures?

James 18 March 2009 at 13:01  

I disagree, I think we should be appalled at the under-representation of women and minorities in Parliament and politics more general and determined to do something about it.

With some transitional arrangements we can put a thumb on the scales (and does anyone doubt we'd get just as good if not better representatives?) for a period.

We Greens don't tend to stand in constituencies, so aren't thinking about all-women shortlists, but we do use zipped lists and so on. I'm proud of that, but it's not enough. We also need better training and support (and the party is doing a lot of that internally but could always do better). Like hate crimes legislation, the aim is for us not to need these mechanisms in the longer term.

The proportion of women in Parliament fell in 2007, making all this white male complacency pretty hard to stomach.

Malc 18 March 2009 at 13:49  

James,

I agree with you too. Something needs done. But what? You mention training - I'd say that training is needed for both male and female representatives if the current crop is anything to go by.

But maybe part of Jeff's point is valid - not that "35% of women want to be MPs" but that maybe that is all of the percentage that are interested in politics.

Its hardly a scientific poll, but look at the comments on this piece - all from men (assuming BSH is male given the comment) - but given the subject matter, I would have thought it something female commentators might want to comment on. Saying that, probably says more about my readership than anything else...

Shuna 18 March 2009 at 16:24  

This is a difficult one. As a woman I would love to see more women represented at all levels of government, business and education. And ideally only if they are quailified and are the best person for the job.

But I do also think that there is a time and a place for taking action where one gender or another is grossly under represented.

I am involved in a charity which employs a number of staff. All our staff were female. We recently advertised a post and I was very aware that we needed to get a man in there - for gender balance. We deal with a lot of young men and I genuinely thought that we needed some male influence. But how do you achieve that without being open to accusations of discrimination? As it happened we interviewed 2 women, 2 men and appointed a man. Using a scoring system he came out on top. The scoring system did not allow for any gender discrimination.

Back to politics - if what we want is to have a parliament (Scottish or Weestminster) that is representative of gender, colour etc etc then perhaps some possitive action is needed.

You can use the argument that the best people get the job regardless of gender, colour etc but do we really believe this is what is happening? Society has taken a long time to change its views on race and sexual equality. (The Carry on films and the Black and White Minstrels are in my living memeory!!) But is it changing fast enough for us to sit back and wait for society to become more accepting?

In an ideal world we wouldn't need to have this debate and my opening statement would be fine but we are not there yet are we?

I am entering a 'career' where men still dominate - and I know that my options at the end of this year will be more limited than many of my male colleagues. How do I break through a glass ceiling and prove that I am every bit as able to do the job as a man? Granted that glass ceiling is made of stained glass and boys - that is a whole other issue...

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