“No holds barred” discussion on sexism in Lib Dems to take place in Scotland

About a year and a half ago, I wrote an article about how the behaviour of some men was driving women out of politics. I said:

I’ve seen good women driven away from active politics out of sheer exasperation at the way powerful men exclude and demean them. Participation in politics should not require putting up with such behaviour and politics itself is better when it more accurately reflects the society we live in.

A start would be for us all to be much more aware of our behaviour and that of others. Men in powerful positions, have a look at your own behaviour. Do you exclude women, do you behave aggressively towards them in a way that you would never do to a man? If so, change your behaviour. Decide that you won’t do that in future. It’s not difficult.

The rest of us need to look out for women who are being treated like this and challenge disrespectful behaviour. Even if we don’t agree with what they say, we should always support their right to be heard and treated with dignity. Let’s tackle our everyday sexism.

The comments thread that followed was dominated by men, some more helpful than others, but, behind the scenes, so many women contacted me privately to share their experiences of sexism not just in our party but in others. I don’t for a minute think that our party is any more sexist than society or other political parties, but that’s not to say that we should just put up with it. This party needs to show that it is a welcoming place for everybody.

This weekend, Scottish Liberal Democrat Women and the Scottish Party will be holding an Open Mic event to talk about the culture in the party and how we can change it. They say:

Following the success of the Everyday Sexism Project in highlighting the issue, SLDW and the Scottish Liberal Democrats have teamed up to host a no holds barred discussion on the topic, followed by a drinks reception on August 22nd.

It’ll be a chance to share your experiences, pitch your ideas, and be listened to. With 100% of our MPs now male, and only 1 woman at the top of a regional list for 2016, talking about sexism and gender balance is now vital, which is why Scottish Leader Willie Rennie MSP will be there to join the discussion and hear what you have to say. We’ll also hear from some of our leading women members, including Katy Gordon and Christine Jardine.

We need your help to change our culture. Unthinking sexism puts women off getting involved. Together we can turn this around but we need your thoughts about how.

You can find out more details and how to register here.

Comments on this thread will be pre-moderated. There is a tendency for threads on this subject to have a small number of people, mainly men,  saying that they don’t see any problems and invalidating the experiences of women who share them. This is not going to happen here.


* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Robin McGhee 19th Aug '15 - 3:48pm

    Glad the thread will be pre-moderated. As Caron says, I would otherwise expect it to be dominated by the obligatory white elderly men telling us there is no problem with sexism in the Lib Dems and we should all shut up.

    Now we’ll just get people complaining moderation is censorship I guess…

  • Antony Hook Antony Hook 19th Aug '15 - 3:57pm

    I think this is a really good event to have

    When I joined the party my local party chair was a woman and my agent when I was first a PPC was a women too. In 17 years in the party usually 2 of the 3 main officers of my local party have been a woman. When I stood seriously for MEP about half my campaign team at both selection and election were women. I expect that to be the case when I stand next time too.

    I don’t understand why anyone in the Lib Dems would want to exclude someone on account of their gender.

    I have rarely, if ever, witnessed sexism first-hand in the Lib Dems. But as a volunteer party officer I am interested to hear from people who have had a different experience.

  • Mark Blackburn 19th Aug '15 - 4:14pm

    As a middle-aged white male, I’d just like to say I agree there’s a significant problem in our party (as in other parties and institutions) with sexism and patriarchy and I’m glad it’s being discussed, the more the better.

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 19th Aug '15 - 4:19pm

    Simon, whether you use your own name or not, seeing yours or others’ experiences denigrated by others is just as distressing. And if you don’t think the environment is safe for you to share your experience, you are unlikely to be inclined to do so. People can be assured that this thread is a safe space.

  • The position of Alison McInnes MSP needs to be reviewed at Scottish Party level.

  • Mark Valladares Mark Valladares 19th Aug '15 - 5:00pm

    @ Simon,

    The fact that a significant number of women felt it necessary to approach Caron privately is a sign that this site, if unmoderated, is not seen as a safe place for them to raise their concerns. Frankly, if we are to be a properly diverse organisation, this sort of initiative, combined with other means, is essential.

    Good luck to the Scottish Liberal Democrats with this…

  • I’m not sure I remember anyone ever claiming there wasn’t sexism in the LibDems but people did question whether specific behaviours were exhibited exclusively towards women. So some actions were sexist but other behaviours that have been labelled as ‘sexist’ is a general bullying behaviour (which is obviously also unacceptable).

    Unfortunately every argument seems to descend in to “but what about…” perhaps what would satisfy people more would be splitting the purely ‘sexist’ and the general exclusionary tactics (which in different locations may manifest differently, certainly in some areas these will be directed more at women).

  • Isn’t it about time a book was published about Margaret Wintringham (first Liberal woman MP) . I suppose being a Temperance Reformer I will have to write it myself.

  • Jane Ann Liston 19th Aug '15 - 6:13pm

    May one enquire where this event is to be held?

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 19th Aug '15 - 7:26pm

    Jane Ann – it’s in the event registration details if you click through

  • Richard Underhill 19th Aug '15 - 9:44pm

    Agree with Antony Hook. When i came to Tunbridge Wells the candidate was a woman, a Surrey county councillor, the leader of the borough councillots was a woman, albeit married to a male county councillor, a majority of the borough councillors were women. We had no male or female MEPs then.

  • I moved 400 miles for my first (paid) job in the Party. I was based in a rural constituency on the west coast of Scotland. For fear of becoming isolated, I decided to live in a neighbouring constituency that had better links to Glasgow. I was 23 at the time and really keen so once I’d settled in to my new job, I went along to an action day in the constituency where I lived. Because of my work commitments, I didn’t think I’d be able to do loads but was sure I’d manage a regular delivery round and perhaps the occasional bit of canvassing. On arrival at the action day, I was warmly welcomed and introduced to everyone. A friendly man then showed me through to the kitchen and said something along the lines of “the ladies will be really grateful for your help. This is where they make the soup and sandwiches for when we’ve finished canvassing.”

    I mumbled something about being a terrible cook and made my excuses to leave. I never went back.

    It’s frightening to think how many valuable people we’re losing to experiences like this.

    Good luck and thank you to Scottish Liberal Democrat Women for taking this issue on. I fear you’ve got a lot of work to do.

  • Your experience, Rhiannon is definitely sexism. The trouble is, that in the past (and even sometimes now) we have seen this kind of behaviour from women themselves. Bullying, on the other hand, is usually carried out by certain kinds of people, whether men or women (probably a preponderance of men because of prevailing norms, but I have seen plenty of female bullies also). The “victims” likewise, can be of either sex. Another issue which I feel from experience (I may be totally wrong here) is that there are more bullies proportionately in political circles than outside. Whether there are more people who want control there, perhaps?

  • Denis Mollison 19th Aug '15 - 11:24pm

    Sorry I can’t come on the 22nd.

    We have a serious gender balance problem in Scotland, and the prospect that the 2016 election will make it worse, with the appalling effective deselection of one of our best MSPs, and our only female one, making it likely that we will have no female MSPs at all.

    It is not too late to rerun our list selections, with a key explicit aim of getting a gender balanced selection into the winnable positions. I hope Tim Farron would support such a move: at the Edinburgh hustings he referred to being a supporter of the 50:50 campaign.

  • Rhiannon’s story is shocking.

  • Eddie Sammon 20th Aug '15 - 1:56pm

    Just noticed, rather embarrassingly, that I seem to be the main offender under the article that Caron wrote about a year and a half ago.

    My first comment seems fine, but then I kind of boil over and go on a bit rant. I wish I had just stuck to my first comment.

    Of course, best of luck with this discussion on August 22nd. I don’t doubt that it is needed.

    I don’t have anything else to say on it, besides apologies for taking over the comments thread with a slightly off topic rant a year and a half ago.

  • You might have a point Tim13. Though speaking from my own experiences, I’ve only ever been treated like this (and witnessed other women treated like this) by older, white men. Although it’s always been in an oblivious, well-meaning way, I don’t think it makes it any less unfortunate and damaging. In defence of ‘older white men’ though, there have been many more – and a couple in partiular – who couldn’t have done more to support and encourage me throughout my Party career. And I suppose it doesn’t really matter where or who sexism comes from. We need to root it out and challenge it wherever and whenever we find it.

  • Rhiannon’s story, although shocking, is probably typical of many experiences – the “everyday sexism” type. I’m not a particular fan of enforced gender balance, but there does seem to be a particular problem with this kind of incident, in that I strongly suspect that the man involved would probably not have realised he was being sexist and would probably be genuinely horrified when it was pointed out to him. This meeting will be good to get the problems out there, but there will have to be some thought as to how to change the culture. Perhaps we should require new local party office bearers to undergo training in this to help identify incidents? Does the Scottish party need someone who people seeing, or being a victim of, sexism can report the problem to, either as something to take action on or as a “picture building” exercise?

  • Rhiannon’s story is a ‘good’ example as it highlights an example of ‘passive’ sexism rather than the ‘active’ type behaviour where some is specifically sexist but some is just bullying and can be directed at all sorts of people, but in certain circumstances is directed more at women.

    There are probably very different approaches that will be effective at addressing each.

  • Miranda Roberts 20th Aug '15 - 5:43pm

    I just wrote a whole long comment, inspired by Rhiannon sharing her experience, but I have deleted it, rewritten it and then deleted it again. The fact that LDV has had to pre-mod this thread, together with Rhiannon’s story as an example actually says it all.

    I’ve experienced sexist behaviour in my work as a volunteer and staff member for the party. I haven’t complained or brought attention to it because I shrugged it off each time and got on with other things, which felt the best decision in that moment. But it is there – as Caron says, in all parties – and is a real cancer eating away at the heart of our support base. Now that we have no female MPs left, we do need to address the culture that leads these small but unacceptable actions and comments to be tolerated.

    Good on LDW Scotland and the Scottish Party for starting to grapple with this issue. I think it is one that the whole Party is going to have do do battle with soon if we are to progress.

  • Liberal Neil 20th Aug '15 - 5:45pm

    Not everyone reading this will know Rhiannon, but those of us who do will know that her story is a very good example of how sexism leads to us missing out on a lot of talent and ability. By treating people who have useful skills and experience in that way we live out on the more useful contribution that person could have made.

    I first met Rhiannon when she was sent to my committee room in a by-election (Ealing?) to help with knocking up. She was clearly able to do more than that and before long she was proving her worth as my committee room assistant. She went on to do great work for the party in a number of roles and it is a shame she’s not still working for us.

    Given the level of resources we have we have to use everyone to their full.

  • Ruth Bright 20th Aug '15 - 6:18pm

    Simon Oliver – the trouble is if you speak publicly you are marginalised. I would happily name the former PPC who tried it on with the “I cover up my wedding ring at conference” line when I showed an interest in standing in “his” constituency. But what would be the point? I would happily name the councillor who made the most revolting sexist comments to me about Tessa Jowell at an election count in 2010. But what would be the point? I would happily name the (female of course!) bigwig who embarrassed me when I breastfed in a posh ladies’ room at Brighton Conference in 2006 – “Ruth whenever I see you you are feeding THAT BABY”. But what would be the point?

  • Jayne Mansfield 20th Aug '15 - 6:44pm

    @ Ruth Bright,
    The point, Ruth, is that if one doesn’t challenge the individuals who behave in these unacceptable ways, nothing changes.

    The other point, is that one feels bad about oneself when one allows such comments to pass and it festers disrupting one’s sense of peace.

    Lucky baby by the way.

  • When I first became a Councillor Iback in1987I felt that my contributions to discussions were often ignored or not taken seriously, then another woman Lib Dem I met on a course gave me a copy of a summary of studies into sexism undertaken in the previous 40 years. This included women having their exam papers marked down because of the female name on the paper before putting your name on the paper was abolished for this very reason. However the things I found most helpful as a local politician were studies which showed that men interrupted women far more than women interrupted men, that men and women always overestimated the number of women in a group and also the number of contributions they made to a discussion. This was a revelation. I no longer felt that what I said was somehow inferior. I started interrupting men and feeling confident in myself and in a short time I was elected Leader of our Group.
    I am so glad that positive steps are being taken to recognise sexism within the party because it is important to create an atmosphere where challenging this behaviour is seen as the correct thing to do so that future Rhiannons will not walk away, but know that they will be supported if they tell someone off for being so crass. We must all challenge this behaviour each time it happens being secure in the knowledge that we are correct and not the idiot who thinks that because they are a Liberal that means they can say and do what they like because by this definition they are not sexist, racist etc.

  • Shaun Roberts 20th Aug '15 - 10:18pm

    After 12 years of working in a male dominated party where the gender balance of campaigns staff/organisers was about 4-1 at best, I now work in th charity sector. Here campaigns people are pretty much 50/50 male/female. In the U.S. I worked on both Obama campaigns where the split of Field Organisers was probably 60/40 with the 60 being women.

    You can’t say there’s not a problem in the Liberal Democrats when it’s right there in front of us.

    Shortly before I left the party, Helena Morrisey came into HQ to hold a lunchtime meeting to talk about her efforts to get gender balance in the city. All staff were invited. It’s the only meeting I can recall being in at HQ when there were many more women then men. Aside from the Chief Exec who was there for the first bit of the meeting, there were no senior staff present. Not a brilliant signal to send out.

    Over two decades in the party, I witnessed sexism, ageism and bullying. If it happened in front of me I would step in, but in truth (and it shames me) i didn’t take formal complaints. The culture was very much that we had to put up with this and while things might be kept in check when I was working in an area, I don’t truly know what happened after I left. On the two occasions I did raise serious issues they were swept under the carpet and not dealt with.

    If we want our party to change then sexism, ageism and bullying needs to be confronted when it happens every time. No more putting up with it. But to do this people need to know they will be fully backed by party rules and our record in this area is beyond shameful.

    I really hope that under Tim’s leadership that this behaviour will be confronted rather than tolerated. Caron’s event is a good step in the right direction.

  • The Lib Dems Should stand at least 50% of women in elections to get a better balance of representation Lib Dems seem to be all talk no action it’s not fair for women in a male dominated party.

  • It’s great that the Scottish Party is doing this, but it’s important that this happens at the Federal level (and ideally the Regions too) before long as well. We have a definite male dominance (maybe as high as 80%?) among activists here in Reading, although we do seem to have a much better ratio when it comes to leadership positions (local/branch chairs, councillors, PPCs, etc). I’d hate for this to be roundly applauded as a good idea, and then have nothing happen off the back of it.

  • @Jayne Mansfield I think you’re right about the need to challenge sexist behaviour. But like Shaun says, people need to feel that party processes and culture will support them in doing so. There needs to be consequences for people found to be behaving inappropriately – compulsory equalities training in the first instance perhaps.

    I did feel rubbish afterwards for simply walking away. I spent ages thinking of all the things I could have said. Perhaps if it had been clear who I could’ve reported it to, confident that I would have been taken seriously and sure that steps would have been taken to prevent the situation occurring again, I might have spoken up.

    Ultimately though, the party has as big a responsibility for sorting this out as do individuals.

    @Liberal Neil Aww thanks Neil. If you’ll forgive me the ‘older’ bit, you were one of the good guys I was thinking of above 🙂

  • Ruth Bright 21st Aug '15 - 8:51am

    Jayne – sorry I was unduly negative. I do welcome all the work Caron and others are doing. But, and it is a big but, there is no point in naming names unless you are willing to walk. I have spoken out about my local party and now am a dead duck in that local party. The evidence is that the perpetrator stays and the victim has to leave – wrong but it is just the reality and any ambitious young woman has to weigh up the dangers of speaking out.

  • Good for Scottish Lib Dems for taking this on. I hope there will be lots of men attending too, to listen and all can then take action at an institutional level to address a culture which can be hostile for women.

    For those saying it is up to individual women to make a complaint, this rather misses the point that sexism is institutional. Individual complaints cannot solve this. The Liberal Democrat party has recent examples of how individual complaints of admitted inappropriate behaviour against several women are not sufficient to deal with institutional sexism.

  • Jayne Mansfield 21st Aug '15 - 9:15am

    @ SueS,
    Are you distribute the studies widely? I doubt that there has been much change.

    Women without confidence tend to brush off these slights by thinking that maybe they are being ‘over-senstitive’. What is more, they can find themselves being accused of being ‘over-sensitive’ if they do challenge them. That, or some ‘nice person’ apologises for an individual instance and then there is no change in long term behaviourThis further undermines confidence.

    Women need to know that their perceptions are valid and that these things are happening and continue to challenge.

  • “The evidence is that the perpetrator stays and the victim has to leave”

    Yeah, I have seen this happen, too often.

    Re perceptions: The Geena Davies Institute has some interesting studies on that. Most people of all genders see a crowd that is 17-20% women and think it is gender balanced. If it’s 33% women they think it’s majority women. This is because we’ve been conditioned, in the English speaking world, by film and television to expect the ratio of just under 20% women in everything. So even if there are twice as many not-women as there are women, people think women are dominating, The same is true of women speaking up in discussions – women speaking about a third of the time will be seen to be drowning out everyone else.

    It’s all-pervasive, and is going to take a lot of effort for us to solve – and once we’ve done it in the party we need to do it in society too.

  • First of all, I would like to say that it’s brilliant that Scottish Lib Dems are tackling this. I hope and expect that this will be taken up by the wider party too. The Party as a whole needs a big culture change and it needs to be overt so that men do not behave badly towards women in the first place but if they do, every woman (and other men) feels able to challenge such unacceptable behaviour.

    “The evidence is that the perpetrator stays and the victim has to leave – wrong but it is just the reality and any ambitious young woman has to weigh up the dangers of speaking out.”

    This has happened in the last two years in a very high profile way – as a result the Party has lost a dozen great female activists, and their families, from the Party. When are we going to take steps to bring these women back??

  • Jayne Mansfield 21st Aug '15 - 6:38pm

    @ Ruth Bright,
    Please don’t apologise. That is part of our problem, we women tend to apologise when we have done nothing wrong.
    You obviously have every reason to feel as you do.

    As for the female ‘bigwig’ , Phyllis asked me in one thread what I meant by liberation feminism. Well, for a start, it recognises women’s different biology and the different perspective that women might have have because of this.

    If one thinks that to ‘get on’ one needs to think and behave like a man, and adopt ‘traditional male values’ , one may as well just stick with all male committees, boardrooms etc. If women are happy functioning as ‘honorary’ males, that’s their problem.

    As far as I am concerned, women should not have to adapt to male institutions, we should be arguing that institutions must be adapted to the reality of more than 50% of the population, ( including the fact that we were given mammary glands for a reason).

  • Jayne Mansfield 21st Aug '15 - 11:16pm

    @ Rhiannon L,
    You were badly let down and yes, that is the problem, if we don’t say anything we feel even worse, turning things over and over in our minds.

    I think that the generation of women after mine and the next generation are actually having a harder time that we had. There doesn’t seem to be the sisterly solidarity that we adopted to confront sexism.

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