A new study finds women in the Scottish Parliament participate on an equal basis with their male colleagues
There is a received wisdom that parliaments – no matter the proportion of women – are male-dominated environments. Not so in Scotland, according to new research.
An innovative project, analysing the participation of women in the UK’s three devolved parliaments and assemblies, has found that women in Holyrood interact on an equal basis with their male counterparts. In fact, of all the parliaments in the UK, Scotland fares the best for equal gender participation.
“I would say the most significant finding of the study in terms of the Scottish Parliament is that women do participate across the board.
There doesn’t seem to be anything that they don’t do,” says Dr Sylvia Shaw, Programme Leader of English Language at Middlesex University, who led the study.
Shaw came to these conclusions through linguistic analysis of parliamentary debates in the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the Northern Ireland Assembly, plus interviews with 45 elected members of both gender – 15 of whom were MSPs.
When it came to ‘speaking turns’, in a sample of debates, women in Holyrood participated roughly in proportion to their representation – 35 per cent. This stands in contrast to Wales, where 47 per cent of members are female yet only 32 per cent of speaking turns were by women.
So what sets Scotland apart?
“I think it makes a difference that it’s a new institution; that women were involved from the beginning; that it has egalitarian ideals to the fore. I think it means that it’s somehow a place in which women have a sense of ownership. It’s a new building – all those things matter,” Shaw says.
“One of the women MSPs said: ‘The reason it’s not difficult for us here is because: it’s a new Parliament; because there was a high representation of women in the first session; and because there have always been women in really important roles, like the Presiding Officer’.
“And I think it’s interesting that that MSP singled out those three things: the newness of the Parliament; the numbers; and the roles. I think that’s a really accurate way of summing up what’s going on here.” Indeed no significant differences were found in the ways men and women participated at Holyrood. On ‘illegal interventions’ – a behaviour stereotypically associated with male parliamentarians – female MSPs scored just as high. By contrast, at Westminster, where 20 per cent of MPs are female, only 1 per cent of illegal interventions were by women.
“In this sample of debates, only two women in the House of Commons made illegal interventions. One was Harriet Harman and one was Ann Widdecombe. Now what do those two women have in common?
Incredibly senior and lots of experience. So I think that really says it all,” Shaw argues.
“Whereas the evidence that I’m finding, and what I see from observations, is it doesn’t feel like women here – and to a certain extent in the other devolved parliaments – that they’re doing anything different.
“So they feel that they can shout out of order and barrack. And if you hear shouting in the chamber, you can hear women’s voices in amongst the men. Whereas in the House of Commons, I don’t think that’s true.” This difference comes down to women feeling at home in the Scottish Parliament, the researcher believes.
“I see it as relating to an idea of people being on their best behaviour when they don’t feel they truly belong. Because actually, if you feel like you’re a bit of an interloper in a situation then you’re on your best behaviour. You don’t speak out of turn, you don’t make jokes – all the things that we see women doing a lot in the Scottish Parliament, which shows to me that they have a sense of belonging and they’re not intimidated. They don’t feel in any way restrained.” In fact, this sense of equality and common ownership gives rise to an interesting phenomenon at Holyrood: banter.
“One of the things that interests me is this banter that happens,” says Shaw. “It’s not aggressive at all, it’s very humorous and some of the exchanges tend to be slightly flirtatious.” An interchange between Michael Russell and Cathy Peattie in the debate on Scotland’s Historic Environment last year illustrates this kind of ‘banter’: Cathy Peattie: “I recognise the minister’s interest and the positive response that he had from the people whom he met. He will be aware of my passion for steam trains”.
Michael Russell: “On a point of order, Presiding Officer, I should have noted that the member was on the footplate of the steam engine with me.” The Deputy Presiding Officer: “Perhaps we had better get back to the built environment.” Cathy Peattie: Mr Russell, people are going to start talking.” “Maybe it’s a way of negotiating conflict because actually, when the parties are in conflict, it can be a way to temper it,” Shaw ventures.
Holyrood’s newness is clearly a factor in this culture of openness and equality. But why then does the Scottish Parliament perform better on participation than the Welsh Assembly – a new institution that boasts almost 50:50 gender participation compared to Holyrood’s 35:65 split?
The disparity here may be explained by the spread of women across parties in each institution, Shaw explains. The Welsh Conservatives only have one female member, so given the division of speaking time between parties, this drags down women’s visibility in the chamber. This finding shows that equal participation is not just down to numbers or having a ‘critical mass’ of women, as commonly believed, but the distribution of women across parties.
With the proportion of women in the last Scottish Parliament at 35 per cent – down from 37 per cent in 1999 and 39 per cent in 2003 – there is clearly room for improvement.
But what this study suggests is that once women make that transition to elected office they participate on an equal footing.
Whatever the gender make-up of the next Parliament, that is a culture that should be valued and nurtured.