Men at work: exploring the role of male MSPs in the fight for equality

Written by Tom Freeman on 15 March 2019 in Inside Politics

Roundtable: Holyrood gathered a cross-party group of male MSPs to discuss what part they can play in the fight for equality

Neil Findlay, Alex Neil, John Finnie and Jackson Carlaw - David Anderson/Holyrood

In 2017, as the sexual abuse allegations against Harvey Weinstein gathered apace and were met with the #MeToo campaign, highlighting how sexual harassment and demeaning behaviour towards women is commonplace around the world, the Scottish Government sent out a man to respond.

It was not the then Equalities Minister Angela Constance who took to the floor in the Scottish Parliament chamber, but Deputy First Minister John Swinney.

Swinney made it clear this was deliberate. “As the most senior male minister in the Scottish Government, I wanted to answer this question and to make it clear that it is up to men to make those changes, and that men must examine their own behaviour,” he said.

Now, some seventeen months later, how easy has it been for men to take up that mantle and play a wider part in efforts to ensure equity between the sexes?

It has certainly been an eventful period for gender politics and seen serious allegations of sexual impropriety made at the very heart of Scottish politics.

Holyrood gathered some of the more experienced male voices therein to reflect on their role in the push for equality.

Three of them, SNP veteran Alex Neil, Labour’s shadow Brexit secretary Neil Findlay and Conservative deputy leader Jackson Carlaw, worked together to bring attention to the scandal around transvaginal mesh implants, and are joined by Scottish Green John Finnie at the Holyrood office.

Carlaw is currently standing in for party leader Ruth Davidson, who is on maternity leave, and says it has revealed a difference between the “rhetoric and reality” of equality between men and women. 

He recalls a recent encounter when he was out for lunch with his boss, who had her baby Finn with her in a pram which apparently rendered her invisible.

“This man came bounding over and said, ‘Can I just say, Jackson, I think you’re doing a very good job at FMQs.’,” Carlaw remembers. 

“He said: ‘Have you had any word, is Ruth coming back? Is she having a good long break? I hope you’re going to be there for a wee bit longer yet…’ 

“Eventually, I said: ‘Why don’t you ask her?’ She was standing right beside me with the baby in the pram, but he hadn’t seen her! He’d been completely oblivious. Ruth said: ‘That’s all right, I’m just a wee woman with a baby.’”

After teasing Carlaw that the first thing Davidson will do when she returns is a reshuffle, there is an agreement among the men that the Scottish Parliament must not be too inwardly focused because it could miss wider stereotypes and prejudices.

But they prefer to take a longer perspective than just what has transpired since 2017.

“I don’t know of any man in the parliament, and I’ve been in it 20 years, who would not accept the principle that men and women are equal,” says Alex Neil.

“But we have to ask the question why it is in the 21st century we still haven’t closed the gap in terms of equality between men and women?”

Economics remains dictated by the fact it is women who bear children, he adds.

“We’ve never compensated for the fact that women are effectively forced, through genetics if nothing else, to take time off from a career to have the child and make sure everything goes OK in the early months of the child’s life. 

“We should be guaranteeing not only that the job is there but that there is no loss of promotion, no loss of income as a result of going on maternity leave.”

There is also a class perspective, suggests Findlay, when working-class families require two incomes and lead to childcare being shared. He recalls his own experience when his daughter was born.

“My wife worked in a factory and I was a bricklayer when we had my daughter. I worked up until five o’clock, went home and she handed me my daughter and went out on the twilight shift,” he says. 

“At that time, 20-odd years ago, it wasn’t quite the case that men were equal partners in bringing up children and all the rest of it, but that happened to me through economic necessity.”

Careers dominated by women like the caring professions are still underpaid, he suggests.

“Social care is a catastrophe. It’s one of the biggest issues we face as a country, and who does the vast majority of the caring? Women. What pay are they getting? Pathetic pay, for doing one of the most important jobs in the country. That has not moved on.”

Finnie remembers his days as a policeman delivering equality training to a room with exclusively male officers in it.

“I think we need to see things over the longer period. I think it is about the difference between positive discrimination and positive action,” he says.

“The parties, the way they’ve responded to selection processes and other things, have helped things along. I mean, clearly we have a way to go.”

The campaign on mesh came from the “impact that the individuals had” on the MSPs when they came to see them, says Findlay, rather than any notion of it being a women’s issue. 

“I thought, ‘I need to do something about this.’ Now, next week that could be a group of young people, a group of pensioners, whatever. A lot of the emotional investment you put into an issue, time and effort and all the rest of it, there’s a huge bearing on that from the people who come to you in the first instance.”

But Carlaw says “the conversation room had to be made ready” for female colleagues to participate in what is a sensitive issue.

Finnie says the fact the campaign was led by men is “highly significant.”

“When Jackson talks about opening up that space, you would probably have thought a few years ago ‘it won’t be men that do that’,” says Finnie.

“I find myself talking about things quite routinely now that in the past I wouldn’t have. In Justice Committee, female genital mutilation, things like that. As Neil says, it is about respect. We’ve taken testimony in private there, and from victims of domestic abuse too. 

“I wrote a blog in support for Monica Lennon’s period poverty campaign. I wrote a blog for her. I thought, ‘what am I going to say?’ when she asked. But it is precisely because I’m a 60-odd plus man that it is. There shouldn’t be issues where the gender is the defining factor in it. As Neil says, a problem is a problem.”

The idea of men taking a more active role in the fight for gender equality is gathering apace, but at the more extreme end, so-called men’s rights activists frame the debate as a conflict between which of the sexes is more disadvantaged.

They argue that men face higher suicide rates, tougher sentences, are more likely to end up in prison and often lose out in custody battles, and blame the rise of feminism for much of those outcomes.

Findlay suggests it is wasted energy to get exercised about “utter clowns” on social media, but Carlaw suggests the issues raised do reveal something about how men have reacted to the de-stigmatisation of mental health.

“You get far more men coming forward now with what I would call complicated issues that they would previously have never volunteered or discussed with anyone at all,” he says.

Neil suggests it is a symptom of a “more open society” more generally.

“When we were growing up, in the family home, sex was never talked about,” he says.

“It was something you talked about with your pals, that kind of thing, but you didn’t discuss it in front of your mum and dad. Neither mother nor father. And they wouldn’t discuss it in front of you.”

He gives the example of a colleague who was giving his 10-year-old daughter a lift recently.

“He was giving her a lift with her pal recently and the wee pal says to the other ten-year-old, ‘I’ve decided I am a lesbian’. At ten years of age. Now, the word lesbian wouldn’t have even been known to us till you were 16, at least. You would have said, ‘what’s that?’”

Empowering women to speak up was a theme of the #MeToo movement, and recent claims on equal pay has seen that happen on an industrial scale. Local authorities across the country have settled huge equal pay claims to women who have not been paid as much as men doing similar jobs for years.

“I was in the Labour Party at the time when Barbara Castle passed the Equal Pay Act, and I think we all thought that was the first really, really big effective measure to equalise things between men and women,” says Neil.

“We still have councils who have not fully implemented equal pay for women. That’s nearly 50 years since that act was passed. There’s no excuse for that. We are all to blame for that.”

The “demonstration effect” has spread to “every council in the land” and potentially to the private sector as well, with Asda and Morrisons also settling equal pay disputes recently, he says.

“We have to take it on the chin, make sure it happens, make sure it’s funded. Maybe there’s a lesson in there that in future when we pass something like an equal pay act, we actually implement it rather than wait 40 or 50 years.”

But while organised labour has fought unequal pay, Carlaw says prejudice continued in small business where women were more reluctant to speak up.

“In a family business that had been around at that point for about 50-odd years when I took the business over, the inequality in pay between men and women was absolutely shocking. Actually, it was an act of will to address that,” he remembers.

Whether women are supported to speak up in the workplace is one thing, but opportunities to enter the workplace remain constrained by conversations at school. 

The recent report by the First Minister’s national advisory council on women and girls highlighted that reluctance to speak out in class contributes to a sudden drop off in interest in science, technology and maths among girls in the early teenage years.

Findlay remembers this happening from his years as a teacher, and points to the primary years where teaching is overwhelmingly female. 

“I taught for one year at primary school, and me and the jannie were the only men in the school,” he says, reflecting on how he was tasked with organising activities for the most challenging pupils, often who were all male.

“I filled a gender role there, if you like. It’s not that the women who worked there weren’t fantastic and would have the capacity to do that but that was the role the headteacher wanted me to take. These were tough kids, some of whom didn’t have a male figure in their life. I was in there for that role. It was interesting.”

But if women can still be reluctant to speak out, what about the men? Have our MSPs noticed a change since the #MeToo movement in the way the men and women of parliament behave?

The four suggest parliament reflects what has happened in wider society.

“Not just in parliament but generally, I think, because of the Harvey Weinstein stuff, people are more aware of their behaviour, they think about it more than they did before, both men and women. That’s my impression,” says Neil.

“I think that’s true,” agrees Carlaw. “Although my son would still say he shudders at some of the things I say.”

Findlay interjects: “We all do, Jackson. We all do. Usually on a Thursday at 12 o’clock.”

They laugh, but Findlay does recall a “fear” among the men in parliament in the immediate aftermath. “Whispering to each other, journalists and other people who work in parliament, afraid of what to say next. ‘What do I do?’ or ‘is the finger going to be pointed at me?’”

However, there is still a genuine sense of shock among the four MSPs at the scale of allegations and sexist behaviour that emerged at the Scottish Parliament. 

Findlay says because he lives within commuting distance, he missed out on any “gossip or tittle-tattle” to emerge from the “night scene of receptions” that might have given him an insight.

However, unlike the almost 24-hour Westminster, the Scottish Parliament doesn’t have a complex of bars and restaurants, and Carlaw and Neil talk about how the parliament was designed differently, with open spaces, glass-fronted offices and a working week timetable which allows for family time.

As a member of the parliament’s corporate body, Carlaw says there was not one complaint that didn’t leave him “astonished”.

“Notwithstanding everything I’ve said, that was still able to happen, but I’d like to think less so than in some of the other parliaments.”

In fact, a parliamentary survey showed one in three female staff had experienced harassment or sexist behaviour. The men agree subsequent training has been “very good”.

Finnie says: “I was with someone from the stores, young staffers, three ministers, it was a really good mix.”

A far cry from his days in the force, then.

“My wife is an ex-cop,” says Neil. “She said it was a very, very macho place to be. Some people even resented women being cops. When she used to complain, I used to quote Zsa Zsa Gabor and say, ‘men who claim to be macho usually haven’t mucho’.”

“We might not use that one in the diversity training,” says Findlay.

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