The Glass Ceiling Is Higher, Not Broken

The idea that we need to encourage more women in politics is not an uncommon one and it’s certainly not one I disagree with. As a woman interested in politics myself there are very few women in politics whom I can look up to. This is not because there’s a lack of talented women, it’s that for some reason they’re turned off to the idea. However, all-woman shortlists are – in my opinion – not the way to solve this issue. It’s said that since Labour implemented all-woman shortlists that a female candidate has never won against a male candidate on an open shortlist. If true, that really does not sound like a progressive and liberal way forward for the Liberal Democrats. That’s why it’s concerning to me that Willie Rennie has backed the idea of gender quotas and all-woman shortlists.

There are many issues with all-woman shortlists but one of the glaring ones to me is that the right candidate could not be chosen because they had to fill a quota. Or someone would feel pressured into putting themselves forward because there was an expectation to do so because of their gender. It doesn’t even touch on the subject of gender identity and those who do not necessarily identify as male or female, whether that’s mentally or because they’d been born intersex. We cannot say “Sorry you do not fit our rigid boxes of either A or B due to the nature of how you happened to be born so no thanks”, that’s more backwards than I can even begin to describe.

But to return to the issue of getting a gender balance in the Scottish Lib Dems we cannot expect to encourage women in politics if we keep, for some reason, hammering home this seemingly huge difference between men and women by forcing women into another category all on their own. Women have been fighting for years to break the glass ceiling in place and that glass ceiling isn’t removed with gender-specific shortlists, it’s simply made higher so it gives the illusion of progress. But do not be fooled, it’s most definitely still there. When we keep referring to women as anything other than human beings who are just as capable of doing a job in politics as men then we keep perpetuating the sexism that equality movements have fought so hard against for the longest time.

* Rebecca Plenderleith is a member in Dumbarton and blogs at Some Ramblings.

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  • Well said Rebecca!

    We have to solve problems of gender imbalance in liberal ways, not illiberal ones… It is one of the many ways in which we are different from the Labour Party (and now the SNP, who had to debate this issue behind closed for fear that outsiders might notice them disagreeing with each other…)

  • “closed doors” I meant!

  • “It doesn’t even touch on the subject of gender identity and those who do not necessarily identify as male or female, whether that’s mentally or because they’d been born intersex”

    Quite. AWS and the closely related suggestion of “gender pairing” of constituencies are 19th century solutions to our 21st century problem.

  • Richard Church 25th Aug '15 - 12:30pm

    I have always opposed all women shortlists, but circumstances have changed and I have changed my mind. Rebecca is right to say that not enough women have come forward for selection, and you have to ask why, as Rebecca says, women are turned off the idea. It’s because our politics looks so male that many women decide its not for them. Our party has tried to address that problem with specific training and mentoring for women candidates. Maybe if the election result hadn’t been such a disaster then we might have seen some reward for that work with some new women MP’s who had been selected for held and target seats. But it didn’t happen and we are where we are.

    With only 8 MP’s we can be excused a lack of women MP’s due to the disaster of May, but as we recover that excuse won’t hold. To match Tim Farron’s appointment of a balanced team of party spokespeople we have to be sure that we move fast to a balanced team in the House of Commons, failure to do that by 2020 will not be acceptable.

    In seats where the current MP or former male MP/PPC is not seeking re-election we will need to have all women shortlists to deal with a problem that has plagued our party for too long.

  • Eddie Sammon 25th Aug '15 - 1:00pm

    A good article Rebecca. I don’t agree with gender only quotas, but I’m not going to kick up a fuss about it. It will look bad if the party kicked up a fuss about this, considering what the current perceptions are and all the other problems in the world.

    However, as someone said the other day: the party should not play into these perceptions. For instance: the Federal Policy Committee is over 50% women, but not many people mention that.

    I think the party should move on, but those who disagree with them on principle should make it known. After all, the Scottish Lib Dems are still run by a man, so it is not as though it is becoming a man free zone!

  • lloyd harris 25th Aug '15 - 1:06pm

    Positive action does need to take place, but I am not a fan of AWS. The clear problem is as mentioned the lack of women coming forward. Once the barriers that stop women coming forward have been identified we should all do our best to knock them down.
    We have to live in a first past the post world which is probably the biggest barrier. One person has to take all the weight on her shoulders and until we can get multi-member MP constituencies that is a lot for one person to take on. We talk of teams with the PPC part of the team but my experience tells me it is more the PPC and a bunch of people who expect the person to wave a magic wand and do most of the work themselves. If they don’t then they try and de-seclect them.

  • This one seems to keep coming round and round. The point is if you select a woman off an all-woman short list you hobble their credibility from the outset. This doesn’t apply with the zipping on lists so it is reasonable to use that approach, lists seem to be somewhere where positive discrimination can work.

    Where you are looking in constituency situations you want to have your selection process that strengthens the candidate. There are two responses to this but both cost money.

    Firstly open primaries, where there is a support mechanism for supporting women (or ethnic minority candidates while we are at it) in winning the open primary, thus strengthening the run in to the proper election.

    The second is that resources are not concentrated only on the “most winnable seats” but restrict the funding and effort for these and concentrate the next most winnable women and ethnic minority candidates. So money and support follows the candidate not the constituency.
    Otherwise you may shoehorn excellent candidates in to the constituency with the “wrong fit” for them personally, when they may do better in a less winnable constituency but voters identify more with them.

  • Also worth remembering that regardless of the any action taken in selection there will still be barriers that will need to be dealt with. Those will still need to be constantly sought out and addressed. What does the party do for maternity cover for PPCs?

  • But what solutions are you offering Rebecca, for a party in which no female MP is considered good enough to be in the Cabinet in the last government? If not AWS or quotas, then what?

  • Ruth Bright 25th Aug '15 - 3:01pm

    I would have agreed with you when I was a new party member of 18 until I had a baby as a PPC at 36. I discerned no significant glass ceiling in the party but there is certainly a glass pram! As others have pointed out in this thread we would have to change the culture radically in order to support women without resorting to AWS. How would you do it?

  • Rosie Sharpley 25th Aug '15 - 3:03pm

    Insightful as always Rebecca and right on the button.

  • Richard Underhill 25th Aug '15 - 3:06pm

    Psi 25th Aug ’15 – 1:11pm ” … The point is if you select a woman off an all-woman short list you hobble their credibility from the outset. This doesn’t apply with the zipping on lists so it is reasonable to use that approach, lists seem to be somewhere where positive discrimination can work.”
    The most open election was when a team led by Paddy Ashdown negotiated a proportional representation system of elections for MEPs in England, Scotland and Wales. In the southeast region we had a reasonable expectation of two MEPs, which was achieved, but it mattered greatly who was third on our list because one MEP served only one term (now in the Lords) and the other became an MP. The list system meant no by-elelctions, so the next person on the party list became an MEP. She was re-elected, so both of our MEPs were female. Gender was only a part of it, the work done after election, achievements, etc are crucial.

  • Richard Underhill 25th Aug '15 - 3:13pm

    Phyllis 25th Aug ’15 – 1:40pm “But what solutions are you offering Rebecca, for a party in which no female MP is considered good enough to be in the Cabinet in the last government? ”
    This assertion needs to be supported with evidence. My seriously incomplete information is that one female MP was unhappy, decided not to stand again and did not.
    Another, polular and able, looked at the size of her majority and decided that she did not want a ministerial position during her first term as an MP. Regrettably there has not been a second term, so far.

  • Ruth Bright

    Would AWS actually address the glass pram or just benifit certain women (no children or near plans/older children) over others (those with them / about to).

    The issues like that need a solution and I can’t see it is AWS. If it is to be equality of opotunity then you need opotunity to not be hidden by some in a “under represented group” getting opotunities when others are still shut out.

    Those specific factors causing exclusion need to be addressed one by one, not just hidden by getting opotunity to other women to make up the numbers of those excluded.

  • Ruth Bright 25th Aug '15 - 7:12pm

    Psi – I agree. AWS is the sledgehammer we might have to deploy because the party has repeatedly failed to crack the nut of the culture change. The culture change would be superior but it might well prove costly – supporting candidates financially, for example.

    Will try not to put sledgehammers and glass prams in the same sentence as I appear to have got myself into metaphor overload. Sorry!

  • David Evershed 25th Aug '15 - 8:56pm

    Surely a liberal person would never wish to resort to discriminating for or against someone on gender.

    Candidates should be selected on merit by constituency members.

    Which constituency members have not been voting for their candidate on merit? Will they please own up?

  • David Evershed, there’s Alison McInnes for a start.

  • John Barrett 25th Aug '15 - 11:10pm

    Well said Rebecca.

    There is a problem, but the proposed ‘solution’ might well make things worse.

  • David Evershed

    It is never ideal but the Lib Dems are in a negative spiral, the poor representation will feed in to fewer and fewer women putting themselves forward.

    AWS have a negative impact under FPTP but lists can allow positive discrimination without the adverse impact so it makes sense to use it in the short term to avoid the spiral.

    But the focus has to still fix the underlying issues.

  • I have been a member of this party and the Liberal Party before it since 1972. During that time I have served as a councillor, PPC, local party chair, election agent etc. I have written and supervised candidate approval and selection processes and campaigned and been agent for both female and male PPCs. Never in all that time have I come across anyone who actively wouldn’t support a particular candidate because of their gender.

    What I have come across is the extreme reluctance of, for instance, very good female councillors to go through the Westminster candidate approval and selection process. Gerrymandering the process isn’t the answer and anyway given our electoral system it wouldn’t be too long before we had an imbalance to the detriment of men which would presumably then mean all men short lists.

    I have always been opposed to artificially created all women or all men short lists and remain so. In fact I will not be taking part in any such process that is foisted on my local party.

  • I wouldn’t ever want someone selected for a role solely based on their gender. That wouldn’t really benefit anyone.

    But how then do we get more who are either not white, or not male, or both, in politics (or indeed any profession) when there is so often sub-conscious bias and society advantages that work in the white male’s favour? I don’t claim to be an expert on the subject, more an enthusiastic student and reader with a vested interest, but it seems to me that this is a case of looking at equality vs equity. When I consider: Professors being less likely to hire and equally pay a candidate with a CV presented with a female appearing name vs a male one; decisions leading to similar results in the Police services justified using other factors, so that the conscious mind could obscure and appease guilt otherwise arising from sub-conscious biases; males being sub-consciously associated with “strong” words and women “softer” ones; individual women associated with “strong” words being judged harshly for it and seen as unnatural/unfeminine; newspaper headlines focusing on a female politician’s clothing not principles and policies; females asked about appearance and family life, and assumptions being made, but not men. And this is not an attack at men, as I know that women are just as likely to show these biases. But it makes me ask, how do we combat this? How do we level the playing field so that each candidate is solely judged on their strengths, without society’s gender/ethnicity-based discriminatory sub-consciousness coming into play? How do we encourage ourselves and society to see non-white and non-male politicians as equally valid candidates?

    One way of doing that might be by providing more examples of politicians who are not male and/or white, by giving those people a “leg-up”, i.e. by biasing the short-lists so that those non white/male people stand a better chance of being elected despite the biases. It goes against my liberal beliefs regarding equality, but how else do we look to equity as well as equality? Please, any other suggestions gratefully received…

  • “Professors being less likely to hire and equally pay a candidate with a CV presented with a female appearing name vs a male one; decisions leading to similar results in the Police services ”

    Well the first thing Emma would be to come up with the evidence that would support comments such as this.

  • @Robert:

    Professors and sub-conscious bias:

    Police and sub-consciously justifying sub-conscious bias:

    An interesting video, if you have time to watch it, can be seen here regarding sub-conscious bias and impact on employment (it refers to the above studies):

    Again, I don’t claim to be an expert. This is just what I have read and understood, but it seems to make the matter more complex than just assuming we can “treat” everyone the same and expect everything to be OK, i.e. we need to consider both equality and equity. Oh, and apologies for not expanding more in my earlier post, but my initial submission was too long.

  • Richard Underhill 26th Aug '15 - 2:48pm

    James Murray, you seem to have several namsakes.
    “I am fairly certain that all readers to these column would … ” have diverse views, please see the chairmen and women at conference scanning the hall for no votes and nervously declaring that they could not see any.

  • Richard Underhill 26th Aug '15 - 2:56pm

    James Murray 26th Aug ’15 – 2:05pm “.. all-women shortlists but with a ‘sunset clause’ in the rules ..”
    This happened when we got PR for MEPs in England, Scotland and Wales. Zipping meant that the top of the list for the 1999 election must be female, so in regions where we were able to elect one Liberal Democrat MEP there was, in effect, an all female list, balanced by another region where the top of the list must be male. Fortunately in the southeast we elected two. Later both MEPs were female, but not because of this rule.

  • Ruth,

    The image of taking a sledgehammer to a glass pram is quite appealing! I would join you in that!

  • Emma I fully support your analysis of prejudice and its insidious nature. Until we have many female and/or ethnic minority MPs it is impossible for members to compare each candidate with the others on a reasonably equal basis. Worse than that the nature of politics requires those who wish to become Councillors or MPs to excel at persuasion and argument which is an area in which hidden bias against women exists. For these reasons I support all women short lists as Willie Rennie suggests.
    I find it difficult to stomach the argument that such measures are illiberal because what could be more illiberal than the representation of our Liberal Democrat party in Parliament by white males of a certain age? Why isn’t the party in general throwing up its hands in dismay at the lack of diversity of our MPs over more than thirty years and declaring enough of this discrimination we must take steps to end it now.
    Which is less Liberal? To carry on this lack of representation or to take steps to level the playing field over a period of, say, 10 years? For me , belonging to a party which claims to fight for justice but which is so unjust in its execution of its beliefs when selecting Parliamentary candidates is shameful.

  • SIMON BANKS 27th Aug '15 - 5:31pm

    Richard Church’s comment is thoughtful, but if the problem is in a macho political culture, I don’t see that all women shortlists would solve it. My position on this and other forms of positive discrimination has long been that they’re acceptable only if the issue is important (which it is) and every possible effort has been made to solve it by more Liberal means. There I’m not convinced. It’s been a problem for a long time, but had we emerged from the election with 40+ MPs, a good number of them would have been women, a future leader quite possibly among them. Most seats in which the sitting MP was standing down had adopted female candidates.

    Have we, for example, explored how we could use social media to encourage more women to come forward? Are there resources specifically devised to encourage more women to stand for local councils in seats where they might win? The issues are similar for BME candidates, I suspect: there may perhaps be reluctance to adopt them in seats with low BME populations (which is nearly all of our most winnable seats), but how many put themselves forward? Here, though, there is also a problem of low BME membership which contrasts with polling that shows young BME women to be well represented among people who might vote for us.

  • Julie Maxon 29th Aug '15 - 6:29pm

    Rebecca, a well written article. I feel very uneasy about AWS. Thanks for highlighting some of the issues.

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