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Guest Post: Women, Westminster, and the media

Guest post by Juliet Swann, Campaigns and Research Officer at the Electoral Reform Society in Scotland.

Working for ERS Scotland I am often asked to comment on women and political life and the equal representation of women. I am also often asked to speak or chair events, and often I have been approached because I am a woman.

This was explicitly the case in three general election events I participated in last month. The first was a Common Weal Edinburgh North and Leith hustings, where they were keen to have the debate chaired by a woman. Equal representation came up in the discussion, not just for women but also for other under-represented groups such as BME and people with disabilities.

The second was a specifically woman speaker centred event organised by Common Weal Dunbar. Chaired by Lesley Orr, including a segment from Lesley Riddoch, and deliberately targeted at women, the audience was definitely more than 50% women. I mention this to show how this kind of provision of women speakers will encourage women to attend events. It also encourages them to ask questions. Unusually the first set of questions after my short talk were all from women.

Then finally, a Common Weal Edinburgh South hustings. Their request for me to chair the event in a constituency with only men standing was impossible to refuse. And it was a markedly different event. Yes the first two questions came from women, and I ensured gender balance (and indeed also achieved non-binary participation) in the questions, but there was substantial aggression from a core group of male attendees. There was obvious frustration when I didn’t select them for the first round of questioning, followed by shouted interruptions and challenges during the candidates’ responses. This was repeated until the point when I intervened as chair and asked them to respect the format rather than to use their confidence and volume to seek unfair advantage (to applause from the crowd).

In amongst my personal experiences, the media has repeatedly failed women during this election. We have seen sexualised images of women politicians; men-only panels; smearing of candidates seems to be overwhelmingly directed at women; the clothing and make-up choices of the women standing for election or campaigning has been under constant review.

Is it any wonder women don’t want to engage and participate in politics?

If the referendum, and the Common Weal Dunbar event in North Berwick teach us anything, it is that spaces where women know they will hear from other women, will be welcome as women, and will have their opinion valued and not shouted down, are vital to ensure women are willing to participate in politics. “More of this kind of thing”!

This blog is part of a series that Engender have commissioned looking at sexism in the run up to the general election - we have approached all political parties in Scotland to contribute as well as other relevant groups.

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