Category Archives: Humanism

All Women Shortlists

It’s over a year since my last blog post, but I have been jarred from my slumber once more. A lot has changed in the intervening period – the Independence Referendum has been fought, and lost… and then it has started to look like we didn’t lose after all.

The various vibrant and energised  groups which emerged during the referendum, turning it from a one party platform into a real pan-Scottish movement, have gone on to form a part of the national consciousness – Radical Indy, Women for Independence, Business for Scotland – all contributed in their own way during the campaign, and each has recognised that the job is not done, and refused to go back into the shadows.

The SNP has exploded in size – from an already-larger-than-labour 25,000 to the heady heights of 100,000 members; bringing an incredible level of engagement, and something that the old guard of the party has struggled to accommodate – these new members have not turned up with a desire to see things stay as they are. They want change, and invariably, they want it right now.

As the party has explored what that change looks like, voices have called for a fundamental change to how the party chooses it’s candidates, and the subject of All Women Shortlists has come to the fore… and is causing the same internal friction for the SNP that it has previously caused for Labour.

There is undeniably a problem – there are far too few female candidates, and it is clearly not a problem of talent; two of the most high profile and energised campaigns in the country are Natalie McGarry’s effort to unseat Margaret Curran, and Michelle Thomson’s push to replace Mike Crockart in Edinburgh West.

The talent is there, but something is preventing it from being fully utilised.

Nicola Sturgeon has taken swift action in the cabinet – implementing gender balance for the first time in a UK legislature. This has to be applauded – in the same way that the progress of Women on Boards towards a 40-40-20 model is driving progressive, positive change in the management of FTSE traded companies.

So, what is the problem with All Women Shortlists? why not recognise this as a useful mechanism to implement a large change of direction, rapidly? to right a historical wrong, and ensure that our political representation more closely matches the 52% of the population that Women represent?

I was prompted to blog again by an article by Kezia Kinder – written in response to what she perceives as a defence of meritocracy; the assertion by some that All Women Shortlists will see an influx to parliament of poor candidates, chosen simply on the basis of gender.

Kezia makes some valid points.

In particular, she highlights the despicable questioning of women candidates about how they will cope with balancing the duties of being an MP with care for children – in contrast, male candidates are never asked how they will balance their duties with the role of fatherhood.

Cosmonaut Yelena Serova, preparing for the greatest achivement of her life, having been selected as one of the tiny handful of people qualified and capable of flying into space was asked demeaning questions about how she would cope with hair and make-up – whilst her male colleagues were asked about the technical aspects of the mission.

There often appears to be no triumph available to women that cannot be cheapened by everyday, casual and ingrained sexism, but falling into a worldview rich with the tropes of patriarchy and women’s oppression can mean that everything is then seen through this lens of a struggle between men and women, ever in opposition and against each other, when in truth, a great many men and women seek to work together to improve the lot of all.

Kezia’s article gives the impression of a battle hardened veteran who has come to see everything in terms of the conflict, and does not recognise how entrenched their position has become.

She asks the question “When was the last time anyone challenged the qualifications of a male parliamentarian?” but clearly, the qualifications of male parliamentarians are challenged all the time – and the more senior a position they hold, the greater that challenge becomes;  take as an example the recent comparisons between Greece’s highly qualified and capable Yanis Varoufakis and the UK’s rather less qualified and significantly less capable Osborne. Osborne’s education, previous employment, family background – all are fair game, and rightly so. When you aspire to the highest offices in the country, you will be subjected to an intense level of partisan and often unpleasant scrutiny.

However, the most compelling objection to All Women Shortlists is not, in fact, the meritocracy argument which Kezia confronts in her article – rather it is the very nature of how these lists would operate.

When people are subjected to selection and rejection on the basis of gender or sexuality, it is not a group that is oppressed; it is an individual.

In the eyes of the racist, an individual person is reduced to nothing more than their skin colour or ethnic background. In the eyes of the misogynist, the individual person with hopes, dreams, capabilities and personality is reduced to simply their gender.

When someone is abused for the colour of their skin, they ask “why me? why does this person hate me?” it’s personal, directed, felt as an assault on them.

The abuser does not see a person – they see the individual only as a representative of the group they hate.

This is, at heart, the problem with all forms of “positive” discrimination, which includes all women shortlists. It is not merely a conceptual thing, a policy that operates in a vacuum. in order to provide positive benefit to one group, it is necessary to reject the others.

If you happen to be the person, the individual human being, who falls on the wrong side of a policy, then it does not matter whether it is a well intentioned policy such as all women shortlists, or an odious, backwards policy such as men only golf clubs.

At the point of implementation, the policy takes a fully formed person, reduces them to a gender label, and excludes them because of it.

The sad thing is that there is no need for this policy Women on Boards has sought to increase the representation of women on the boards of major corporations from a truly abysmal 11% in 2011 to an initial target of 25%.

They have rejected the notion that “it just takes time” and instead insisted on real, meaningful change – the 25% target will be met this year, and the focus of the campaign has now moved to proper equality; but rather than adopting a slavish 50:50 model, where the complaints of meritocracy and simply making up the numbers would come into play, they are promoting the 40:40:20 Model – 40% of the board should be constituted from women, 40% from men, but the remaining 20% are met from whichever candidate makes most sense.

It is not difficult to see how this model, that has proven so successful in the boards of major companies worldwide, could be adopted within a parliamentary party context; insisting that each constituency puts up 5 candidates, that 2 should be men, 2 should be women, and the last can be either would provide gender balance, whilst not excluding anyone purely on the basis of gender.

Gender quotas which strive to remain fair to the individual, which continue to recognise that the very best person for the job may be a woman, but could also be a man, will enrich our national politics.

Lists which discriminate against someone, which turn them into merely a gender label – these should have no place in our public life.