Dani Garavelli: gender equality needed among political advisers

Written by Dani Garavelli on 23 November 2016 in Comment

Gender equality among party advisers is important because of the influence they exert on political priorities, writes Dani Garavelli

Dani Garavelli - Image credit: Nick Grigg/Holyrood

Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale’s decision earlier this year to appoint Alan Roden, the Scottish Daily Mail’s political editor, as communications director was met with a degree of consternation.

Some of those who disapproved did so on the basis that the newspaper he had worked for peddled the xenophobia that fuelled Brexit. But for others, the objection was gender-related.

Given the party already had two male political advisers – political director Martin McCluskey and acting policy director David Ross – why hadn’t Dugdale, the co-founder of Women 50:50, lived up to her principles and chosen a woman?

The failure was glaring because hopes had been high that Dugdale’s leadership would mark a departure from the macho culture which prevailed under Jim Murphy, whose backroom team included Blair McDougall and John McTernan.


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The appointment a few weeks later of journalist Gina Davidson as policy director undermined the charge of hypocrisy, but even so, one woman out of three is less than ideal.

Perhaps all this focus on Scottish Labour is unfair. It’s not as though the other main parties fare much better.

The SNP has four women special advisers (spads) out of 11 (chief of staff Liz Lloyd, Kate Higgins, Katy Bowman and Jeanette Campbell), while the Scottish Tories have five men and no women working on press and policy.

The fact women lead the three main parties in Scotland is an asset. It means debate is less confrontational and gender equality is high on the agenda.

But it can give a false impression of how much progress is being made.

In fact, the overall proportion of female MSPs in the Scottish Parliament stayed at 34.9 per cent in the 2016 elections (the same as in 2011 and down from a peak of 39.5 per cent in 2003).

Scottish political journalism too continues to be male-dominated.

Gender equality among party advisers is important not merely in terms of improving women’s prospects, but because of the influence they exert on political priorities: which issues are championed and how ideas are developed and spun.

The more senior politicians become, the less likely they are to be writing their own speeches. What they say and how they say it will be shaped by the personalities and perspectives of their advisers.

A good balance of genders (and age, social class and ethnicities) is likely to produce better policies and a more empathetic politics.

Dugdale has consistently said it’s not enough to have women in power; they have to use that power to deliver for other women.

Still smarting from the accusation of double standards, she set up a Women 50:50 event, ‘The Backroom Boys’, last week to explore the obstacles facing women who want to become political advisers and what can be done to overcome them.

Former SNP press officer Valerie Livingston was one of those taking part.

Having been responsible for promoting the party’s then six Westminster MPs from 2008-11, she left to set up a political consultancy in Wales.

“I loved my job for the first couple of years,” she told me. “But there came a time when I was a bit sick of being sent on press calls.

“I guess becoming a spad would have been the obvious move, but back then it was an all-male team. No one suggested it and I didn’t think it was an option for me.”

Other women who have worked in the field highlighted other impediments.

The long, anti-social hours combined with the age at which one is likely to become an adviser (late 20s/ early 30s, when many women are thinking of starting a family) was the most obvious.

Then there was the off-putting boys’ club vibe, not so much amongst the advisers themselves but amongst the political reporters with whom they have to deal.

Being a political adviser also demands a very specific skill set. You must be able to demonstrate party loyalty, political nous, a knowledge of, and affinity with, the politicians you will be working with and a firm understanding of policy.

Unless women are being encouraged to develop the expertise required, they won’t ever be considered contenders when positions become vacant.

According to Women 50:50, of the 59 different spads at Holyrood since 1999, 13 (or 22 per cent) have been women.

Break those figures down and we can see things are moving in the right direction.

There were no female spads under Donald Dewar. But over the course of the Labour/Lib Dem coalitions, 19 per cent of spads were women.

Since the SNP took control in 2007, there have been 28 spads, of which seven were women (25 per cent).

In his first round of appointments, Alex Salmond had 20 per cent, while Nicola Sturgeon currently has 36 per cent.

Anecdotally, the increase in the number of women in the SNP’s backroom operation is effecting a cultural shift.

The more women there are, the more confidence they have to call out sexism and advise each other on how to tackle difficult situations.

The fact Liz Lloyd has made it to the top demonstrates it is possible.

Still, more work needs to be done. If women are to have the same chances to become advisers as men, working practices need to become more flexible.

There is little point in Holyrood priding itself on its family-friendly hours if, behind the scenes, advisers are on call 24/7.

And this matters, because the more female MSPs and advisers, the more likely Holyrood is to reflect and effectively deliver for the population it serves.

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