The Gender Agenda #2: Helping women climb the rungs of the activist ladder

Womens shortlistsI think we all got into politics for one of three reasons: principle, policy or people. When it comes to joining a political party, most Liberal Democrats reading this will know which category they fall into. Maybe it was the idea that ‘no one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity’; for some it was policies born from those principles, like electoral reform or fairer parental leave; and for others, it was the local councillor who took the time to get to know them and help when they needed it.

Liberal Democrat Women has a role to play in all three areas, but I’m going to start with the one that matters most when we are trying to turn supporters into activists, and eventually into candidates: people.

First, you need to get them started.

The Liberal Democrats rely on volunteers, far more even that the Tories or Labour, who have larger budgets. Getting people to give up an evening to canvass for you is one of the most important skills a candidate has and getting them to do it once a week, every week for their local party throughout a four-year campaign cycle, is practical magic.

Now, hold onto your hats because I’m about to be controversial: people are more likely to do things they enjoy. If you create an environment in which people feel comfortable, where they like you, and they feel respected and useful, they will keep coming back.

Unfortunately, some people fall at the first hurdle because the ways we offer newbies into the party can leave some women feeling isolated. New joiners’ drinks, conference fringe events or local party events like pizza and politics are great in theory, but often for a first-timer it means a room of predominantly white men, many of whom already know each other, clustered in little circles, talking about people or topics they know nothing about. This is exclusivity in practice.

This is not specifically a gender issue. It applies to men too, and it doesn’t apply to every woman or every local party. It’s not about policy – many of the men who’ve spoken physically over my head at drinks events like these are very good at equality in theory – and it isn’t about deliberate or overt sexism. It’s more about a general lack of interest in engaging with new people, and trying to understand their needs.

But just because it isn’t a gender issue, doesn’t mean LDW can’t provide a solution. Because we exist to support their needs, we give women who felt excluded by those environments another route into the party, and once they are in, they are more likely to stick around.

We also help build women’s confidence. Some new women members will be more comfortable in a room that has more women than men, because that’s what they know or where they think they’ll find the most sympathetic ears. (Guys, by the way, often feel the same, it’s just that they don’t have to search out a special room to find one that’s mostly men.) Someone who has that attitude might not be in an ideal position to be a candidate yet, but everyone starts somewhere.

Giving our new members as many ways as possible to make contacts and build networks within the party in a way that makes them feel welcome and comfortable does absolutely no harm to anyone. LDW can help with that.

We also have a role to play in keeping activists active.

We are a national SAO so we can provide continuity outside of the local party structure, especially for campaigners like me who move a lot. I’ve been a member of two university groups and three local parties in four years, and although I made friends in most of them, I knew I would never be somewhere long enough to properly bed down. Having a national organisation I could get involved in wherever I am is part of what keeps me active.

LDW can also direct campaigners to where they are needed most. It can be disheartening to be a campaigner in a small local party, or one of our opposition’s strong safe seats (growing up in Bromley and Chislehurst, I know the feeling). One way to keep our activists engaged is to give them the choice to go where they can make the most difference. LDW can direct them to the closest women candidates we know have a strong chance of getting elected, which means more Liberal Democrats elected, and more gender equality in our elected bodies. It’s a win-win.

And then there are the potential candidates we help.

Since LDW took over from the Campaign for Gender Balance last year a large part of what we do is supporting women candidates right through from approval to election.

One of the saddest things about the resignation of Sarah Yong as PPC for Somerset and Frome this week – apart from the loss of a fantastic potential MP – is that many of the comments I’ve seen from other women candidates have talked about a lack of support at all stages.

LDW exists to change that. Our training and mentoring schemes work because women trainers and mentors can offer personalised advice only someone experienced in jumping our gender’s particular hurdles can give.

The mentoring system also works just by our mentors being inspiring: knowing that a woman ahead of you has done what you want to do, and done it brilliantly, is a new experience for many women, where men take it for granted.

This second reason is why I can not support anyone who claims women candidates need more support than men, or even that they are getting a bigger chunk of the available support. The support LDW is offering is well-publicised and well-structured, which makes it more obvious. But our system simply mirrors the existing unofficial and very powerful support networks that already exist for men.

Men grow up in a world where positions of power are dominated by people who look like them, and it is assumed they can achieve similar heights. Men are also more likely to be encouraged to join networks – like sports teams – by teachers and parents and their bosses tend to value their work more highly and offer them more advice. In other words, most men don’t need a mentoring program: they’ve got life.

LDW helps supporters become campaigners and activists; surely no-one has a problem with that?

Next time: LDW and policy: is there such a thing as a ‘women’s policy’?

* Alice Thomas is a member of the Federal Board and leads the FB Disciplinary Sub-Group. She is a solicitor based in Southwark who joined the Lib Dems in her hometown of Bromley & Chislehurst in 2006, just in time for her first by-election and has been campaigning ever since.

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  • Oh I do so want not to be critical about this, but really. Women, and hold onto your hats here I am about to be controversial, ( yes, it does sound patronising on reflection, doesn’t it?) are just so not pale delicate little things terrified of the big strong tall men talking over their heads. If we don’t talk about and present ourselves as confident intelligent achievers no-one else will, this is ghastly and does no credit at all to the ‘gender agenda’. I got back into active politics when I was in my 40’s and my children in their teens, I did balk at first at going into pubs and bars alone,but you know what? I’m a grown up woman so I didn’t look for a mentor I just swallowed and went through the doors.
    “Men are also more likely to be encouraged to join networks – like sports teams – by teachers and parents and their bosses tend to value their work more highly and offer them more advice. In other words, most men don’t need a mentoring program…” I have a daughter and she joined all sorts of teams sports and otherwise this is ridiculous, its just so outdated. I know many working women and this just does not reflect business.
    Help women get involved? Well don’t let any successful articulate woman read this. Rather find women in business, academia, the media and anything else get them in and talking to our women who by virtue of the fact they wish to engage with politics are already confident and able people.
    Don’t come back to me with ‘you must just be a lucky confident type and perhaps don’t understand how challenging it is for some’. It is for anybody to walk into a room where you don’t know anyone else.
    I can’t think of a single Liberal Democrat women who fits this description and I have been around a long, long time. We feminists from the 70’s fought hard to stop having women portrayed as weak victims, this isn’t the way forward. Too patronising and the whole tone of it is misjudged.
    From the best of motives I am sure, but if I had come across someone spouting this to me 15 years ago I would have run for the door.

  • Eddie Sammon 17th Jul '14 - 4:23pm

    A good article. There were many examples that helped me understand better why women’s networks are important, from sitting at a social event full of men to support networks (similar to male sports teams).

    I still get slightly nervous over Lib Dem Women in a way that I don’t over Ethnic Minority Lib Dems, LGBT or Muslim Lib Dems (even though I am a heterosexual white male). I think this is because of the tendency among some radicals to place women’s equality above all other areas of equality. This makes us feel attacked, especially working class men.

    Best of luck with your work and you’ve done very well to stick to your path after the firestorm from your last article (mainly my fault).

  • Eddie Sammon 17th Jul '14 - 5:12pm

    When it comes to Gail’s comment: I would say listen to criticism, but remember: you can’t please everyone.

    Gail, I agree with you in some ways about strong women – Angela Merkel is one of my political idols and Thatcher brings a tear to my eye the way she joined the Conservative Party and duffed up all the men. However, some women do feel intimidated and I don’t think there is much wrong in recognising this too.

  • I have read all of these posts with great interest and supported them all – and wholly support everything Lib Dem Women are doing.

    With this, I do agree that being a newbie Lib Dem is not a fun thing because what many consider to be one of a our strengths – our close knit community – is actually a weakness in some ways: namely that it makes very unapproachable as a party.

    However, I am not sure if this is a gender issue in of itself, or this is actually part of a much larger issue – the issue that not many individuals wish to associate themselves with a group of seemingly, stuffy old men. Note, I suspect many of these parties are not made up of stuffy old men, but very enthusiastic and hardworking individuals – old, white males, or otherwise – but perceptions are a damning thing.

    If this does help break down those barriers, make us more open and challenge both sides perceptions, then that is great, but we need to make sure that is what it is doing and that it does not just enforce the divide.

    On Gail’s point, I do have some sympathy with it – I grew up in a family of females only and have worked in office environments ‘dominated’ by females throughout my working life, but never felt any less included or that they value / understand me any less just because I am the ‘male’ of the group. However, I accept this is just my experience (maybe women are better at inclusion), so not trying to suspect the post is wrong to highlight how this has affected others. I just find it interesting how I never even noticed this until people start commenting in the media that office environments are dominated by men still. I do, however, take some issue with the comment that men are more supported in society – ‘SOME’ men are more supported in society, most are not. Whilst I know I am being hypercritical here, I do think it leads this debate down the wrong path to make that men are by definition privileged, when the statistical evidence shows that women are far more likely to achieve better grades at school and social mobility, whilst white and black working class males are the most underachieving groups. This is not to say that women do not face real challenges, just that I think it helps no one to compare the unfair challenges faced by one class against another, when we should trying to ensure no class faces any unfair challenges.

    Like I said, I wholly support these posts and LDW, just musing.

  • Alice Thomas 17th Jul '14 - 7:28pm

    Gail and Al – I did expressly say that I don’t think newcomers feeling excluded is a gender issue. I also deliberately separated feeling excluded from needing a confidence boost because, as Gail said, it is challenging for anyone – no matter their level of confidence – to walk into a room of people they don’t know. There was no intention to set women out as weak, or as victims. (The comment about men talking over my head was a personal anecdote from last year’s conference; I did not feel victimised by the two six foot four guys talking over me, just annoyed.)

    My argument is that instead of telling newcomers to try harder (as if the problem was with them), the party should be doing more work to make them feel welcome, and one good way to do that is to offer more ways to get involved, including special interest organisations like LDW.

  • Alice Thomas 17th Jul '14 - 8:13pm

    Gail – I am glad your daughter has that level of support.

    Research suggests, however, that even successful women are still not in an equal position to men when it comes to personal networks. This article sets out some recent research (admittedly mostly from American sources because many of the specialists in organisational theory are American) – Men have also been shown to have more success with new forms of network. There has also been extensive research done on unconscious bias, and how that affects job appraisals and the level of support people receive from their bosses, which shows that both male and female bosses may score women less well:

  • I absolutely agree with all that Gail has said. Of course, in all generations, there are some people who are shyer than others – our generation (I am in my mid 60s) boasts both women and men, lots of each, who are eager to interact with others, have no problem with the knowledge and / or intelligence to do that interacting. Clearly Gail’s generation a bit younger, but don’t have issues. My sons’ generation are very well-integrated between the genders, and I can’t imagine my grandson’s generation (he is nearly 16) having a problem at all. What Alice describes, of joining a new organisation, with perhaps no friends there, is always more difficult for anyone, and of course, as you say, it is the responsibility of existing, particularly long serving members to make new people welcome. If you don’t speak to them, act like a clique, or bore everyone stiff, is it any wonder that new people don’t stay?! Alice, you would be better advised to look at class and background differences and the closed nature of access there, which is a much much more serious issue than the one you speak of. It also distorts our politics, with stereotyping very easy if people are not invited in. And please don’t quote US social research in an effort to interpret UK events. Culture can be very different.

  • A Social Liberal 18th Jul '14 - 1:54am

    Yes, we need more women activists, yes we need more women councillors and yes, we need more women MPs. However, do we really, REALLY need women to be mollycoddled into activism? Do we want women knocking on doors who need to have their hands held when going into rooms full of men (which I dispute anyway)?

    If the women attracted to Lib Dem activism cannot perform when in the company of their peers (who are more likely to be gender aware and therefore likely to draw them into the debates) how would we, could we, pitch those women into a council chamber where their political opponents will use mysogeny as just another tool to stop our message getting across.

    In any case, I do not recognise the type of person Alice paints her picture of. The women activists/councillors/PPCs I have had the pleasure of serving alongside have been as willing to get their point across as any men, in ANY situation.

  • Alice Thomas 18th Jul '14 - 9:06am

    Tim and Social liberal – as already stated the argument is not that women can’t be heard in these situations and that women don’t succeed without support. It is that it is the party’s job to be more welcoming, not the potential supporter’s job to try harder to break into the cliques you describe. One way it can do that is through LDW, and obviously this argument also applies to other diversity organisations that address other reasons why people might feel excluded.

  • Actually, thinking about it, age groups ARE quite important in this, and I am sure there are local parties where younger people have found the interests (sometimes obsessions!) of older and people who have been there a long time a total turnoff, and have left. The loss of many people over the last few years has intensified that problem.

  • Alice Thomas 18th Jul '14 - 9:15am

    Tim13 – I would agree with you on age; and that is why I also work with LY to try to tackle the exclusion that some younger people feel. This is about spreading the ways in which people can engage with the party as wide as possible, to attract as many kinds of people as possible.

  • Alice Thomas 18th Jul '14 - 9:20am

    Tim13 – I have looked at UK studies but unfortunately they are only available by subscription so I thought it would not be helpful to illustrate the point. If you are interested, and can access them, Jane Tonge, (2008) “Barriers to networking for women in a UK professional service”, and “Helen Donelan, Clem Herman, Karen Kear, Gill Kirkup, (2009) “Patterns of online networking for women’s career development”, both from Gender in Management: An International Journal are useful.

  • @Alice, encase my learning disabilities meant the message was originally lost – I do very much support your ideas and agree that our party does not always make itself appearing as welcoming as it should. I just meant that maybe there is some blame to be put on the side of ‘new’ members (not because they are new members, but because everyone has preconceptions) and that if we are going to implement women only groups into local parties ‘for this reason’, we need to know exactly what we are hoping to achieve by that, or we may only make the situation worse because we will just end up segregating ourselves.

  • Alice Thomas 18th Jul '14 - 11:55pm

    Liberal Al – I did not advocate women’s only groups at any level in the party – LDW’s membership is open to all regardless of gender. What I would like to see are a wider variety of approaches to how we deal with new joiners, and LDW offers one of those, which tends to be more popular with women.

  • Alice Thomas 19th Jul '14 - 12:00am

    Dave – this sounds great. If you don’t mind I’ll take the ideas back to LDW and if you want any help with recruiting more women, check our new website.

  • Alice, may be I have misunderstood this post – I have learning disabilities, which make it extremely difficult for me to read these posts and express myself in writing. It is particularly problematic here due to the yellow and white colour scheme (crazy, I know) Please do bear with me, I am not trying to be a pain.

    I was reading this in conjunction with your previous posts (where you have previously supported the idea of events and schemes tailored for women – which I have supported) and your point here is that local parties may often make some women disinclined towards joining our party because they are overloaded with males (and a certain kind of male at that). You feel that some women would feel more comfortable if there were more women around them and fewer men. You therefore, wish to have schemes, administration and events (through the LDW) to make it easier for women to join and engage with local parties/candidates (and the party at large) which are fitting for them, even if it is not their direct local party?

    Whilst my way of phrasing it was/is poor, I figured that these diverse new initiatives would be for women as it is focused on solving issues facing women. Is this a broadly fair overview of your points?

    My point, if it is relevant, which it probably is not, was that ‘I support your overall ideals and the concept of diversifying the initiatives to help make it easier for women to join our party, but we need to know why we are doing this and what the specific problems we are overcoming are because to do otherwise may make things worse or create new problems. This post put much focus on the issues of local parties – something worth highlighting, but it may also be something that is such a pervasive issue it can easily confuse your aims.

  • @Liberal Al – politely and houghtfully worded contribution, but no. The post makes it clear that while many women may feel intimidated/excluded this is not a gender issue as some men feel the same (This may explain an element of applause this post is getting). So any initiative to solve these problems would benefit everyone.

    I’m quite shocked that note-one is taking issue with the implication that confidence, inteligence and ability go hand in hand. That any “capable” person will have the confidence to just go ahead and get stuck in. The, perhaps unintended implication, is that the bright but inhibited are not capable people.

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