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In the past week there’s been a slight autumn chill in the air in the mornings, and a pleasing back-to-school vibe in genderland that speaks of newly sharpened pencils and fresh notebooks.
Autumn is a season of new beginnings, as well as mellow fruitfulness, and the last few days has seen the launch of Scotland’s Programme for Government as well as Engender’s own Gender Matters Roadmap.
Sometimes in the life of a gender advocate the stars align to create a Platonic policy process. A proposal comes forward from government that is simple and easy to understand. Gender-disaggregated data is available. Other women’s organisations have the resource and interest to engage in a discussion about how to respond. Women are easy to include in the conversation. Feminist analysis leads inexorably to specific policy calls. Colleagues from across civil society agree with our take on the government’s proposals, and integrate our asks into their lobbying strategies. Government listens keenly to our input and develops its policy accordingly.
Most of the time, though, there is much more friction in feminist policy and advocacy. Government proposals may be vague or unclear, or broken into chunks that are hard to knit together. Consultation processes may be too short. There may be no data on how the policy will affect women and men, or no data at all. Other women’s organisations may not have the time or resource to focus on a specific area of policy, because of competing priorities. Feminist analysis may produce politically untenable asks. Other women’s organisations may disagree on our analysis or approach, or have other political drivers to sit out a particular issue. Colleagues from across civil society may feel that the gender dimension is a distraction or dilution of their own urgent priorities. Government may intentionally shape a consultation process to distance civil society, and women’s organisations.
The recent lobby and advocacy around the ‘family cap’ and ‘rape clause’ has definitely involved some friction. What that is, and why that has been sheds some light on broader questions about gender and policy.
There are lots of people in Scotland who have only become aware of the ‘rape clause’ in the last few weeks. In fact, its story began almost two years ago. So what’s been going on, and where do we go from here?
A very familiar question was raised again this week: should women-only organisations, women-only services, and women-only governance and leadership be lauded as progressive or shunned as discriminatory? Several media outlets reported on the fact that Moray Women’s Aid has elected to leave the Scottish Women’s Aid network. The local women’s aid is in contravention of its network’s shared commitment to individual services being governed and staffed by women, having confirmed that is has at least one man on its board of directors, Cllr Graham Leadbitter.
“We disaffiliated ourselves because we were not prepared to discriminate blatantly,” Moray Women’s Aid’s manager, Elle Johnston, was reported as saying in the Herald. Catriona Stewart, Glasgow Women’s Aid board member and journalist, took very public aim at the policy in another piece in the Herald, describing it as “a rigid model that threatens to weaken the network and refuses to allow for evolution as society evolves.”
The notion of women-led services has been framed in much of the coverage as backwards, inflexible, and an impediment to the very equality that feminists purport to want. So is Scottish Women’s Aid’s policy discriminatory? And what is the point of women-only feminist leadership anyway?
In her piece, Stewart asks whether having men on Moray Women’s Aid has been effective: "Has it done any good, should be the test?" A paper from Moray Council suggests that the original vision for Moray Women’s Aid governance was almost as an arms-length organisation of the local authority, with two elected members as executive directors and a further three serving on the board. That plan was shelved, but unusually, Cllr Leadbitter was nominated directly by the council onto Moray’s board as it was established. According to its annual accounts, Moray Women’s Aid board was majority male or fifty-fifty between its incorporation in 2008 and 2013, which means that decision-making was possible for most of those years by an all-male quorum. While Moray Women’s Aid certainly delivered vital services during this time, its account of itself gives the impression that it lacked some of the governance that might, for example, have enabled it to meet some of the digital demands of 21st century service delivery. Its 2015 accounts plead for a “knowledgeable computer expert” to help keep its internal systems up to date, and it doesn’t have a website. Other strategic decisions made by the board run contrary to the gendered analysis in Scotland’s bold new violence against women strategy, Equally Safe. It says that it has redesigned its logo to “encapsulate a more generic outlook, while still focusing on the needs of women and children”.
But it is on the needs of women and children that the call for feminist, women-only governance and leadership rests.
Yesterday saw the repeat of a ritual that happens a handful of times a year. An organisation - in this case the Chartered Management Institute - produces a figure it describes as a gender pay gap. News outlets contact organisations working on gender, or women and work, to ask for short quotes that explain both the pay gap and how we're going to fix it. These quotes are then strung together into pieces that are shaky on the facts and slight on analysis. In recent years, as the tenor of public discourse has softened slightly towards women's equality, they've been complemented by editorials denouncing the glacial rate at which the gap is narrowing. A couple of columnists may even take a swing at some particularly egregious examples of workplace discrimination, before the whole subject is unceremoniously bundled into an archive folder to wait for the next pay gap news release.
So why is there such fleeting, insubstantial coverage of this most pressing of gendered concerns? Why are we not having a grand conversation about women and work?
I spent last weekend at the European Women's Lobby general assembly in Brussels.
The Lobby is the largest European umbrella of women's organisations, and its general assembly is an annual gathering of all of the national co-ordinations. Engender represents Scotland within the Lobby.
Some of you who follow European feminism or institutional feminist politics will have seen the Lobby pop up on Twitter, in our Friday Feminist Five mailers, but their work is much less familiar to other feminists in Scotland.
I thought I'd share five things about the Lobby (and Engender's involvement with it) that might be of interest.
The European Women's Lobby is a feminist policy and advocacy organisation that has two main roles. First, it lobbies European institutions, including the Commission and Parliament. Second, it supports feminist organisations in member states to participate in Europe-wide campaigning and lobbying.
EWL members fall into two categories: national co-ordinations and Europe-wide organisations.
The Lobby accepts one national co-ordination for each European member state, and leaves it up to the feminists in that state to create or select an organisation to be that national co-ordination. The UK's constitutional arrangements have posed a bit of a challenge to us in this regard, and I'll explain how we resolved it in just a moment.
Members vote at the general assembly for the EWL's board, and executive committee. All national co-ordinations are represented on the board, which meets physically twice a year. The executive committee meets more regularly.
There is also a secretariat, which is based in Brussels. The current secretary general of EWL is Joanna Maycock.
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