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Comment: Why are the issues facing women missing from this election?

Comment: Why are the issues facing women missing from this election?

The Scottish Parliament has earned praise for passing progressive, feminist policies, including the Free Period Products Bill, introduced by Labour MSP Monica Lennon.

In 2014, Nicola Sturgeon became the first female first minister and announced a gender-balanced Cabinet, one of the few in the world. Since 2020, the Cabinet has had more women than men.

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the upcoming elections present an opportunity for the five major parties to continue this progress. 

The COVID-19 pandemic is not gender-neutral. Women make up 77 per cent of frontline healthcare workers in Scotland and women shoulder the majority of unpaid care responsibilities.

Women are the backbone of COVID-19 resilience and are essential to recovery. But do the major parties make women's key role explicit and visible in their plans for Scotland's future? 

To find out, we analysed the 2021 Scottish parliamentary election manifestos of the five largest parties: the Scottish National Party (SNP), Scottish Greens, Scottish Liberal Democrats, Scottish Labour, and the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party (Conservatives).

In their manifestos, parties choose which issues to spotlight and which to keep invisible, and they present each party's vision for the next five years of Scottish politics.

Using Atlas.ti (computer-assisted qualitative data analysis software) and deductive, concept-driven coding, we identified all references to women and gender, the COVID-19 pandemic and recovery policies in the five manifestos.

Here we focus on four key themes: the impact of COVID-19, violence against women, unpaid care, and plans for future recovery.   

COVID-19's disproportionate economic impact on women

Occupational segregation in Scotland produced a disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on women.

The Green party directly acknowledges this early in their manifesto, stating that the economic contributions and labour market participation of women were severely disrupted by COVID-19, due to economic segregation and unpaid care burden.

Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the SNP also acknowledge this disproportionate economic burden. The Liberal Democrats mention how "the economic sectors hardest hit were often those where the majority of employees are women and young people''.

The Labour party manifesto states that women were "disproportionately impacted by job disruption as a result of COVID-19 and are also more likely to lose their job in the anticipated job recession".

The SNP acknowledge the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on women in their Jobs for Future section, arguing fair work must address occupational segregation.

The disproportionate economic impact on women is nowhere mentioned in the Conservative party’s manifesto.

Violence against women

All parties draw direct attention to the rise in violence against women and girls in Scotland during the COVID lockdowns.

Sharp rises in domestic abuse around the world are a ‘shadow pandemic’, with UK-based organisation Refuge noting a 700 per cent increase in visits to their National Domestic Abuse Helpline website in the first weeks of the pandemic lockdown.

The Conservatives, Labour, and the Greens pledge additional funding to domestic abuse charities.

The SNP promises a new multi-year funding stream to support frontline services, while the Liberal Democrats argue for a cross-party commission to address violence against women and girls in all its forms.

The Labour party manifesto is unique in acknowledging that the violence faced by women and girls in Scotland is a men’s issue; men’s violence is the problem. The topic of violence is one of few issues explicitly gendered in all manifestos. 

Care is not gender neutral, though not all recovery plans acknowledge this 

Unpaid care is a major feminist concern, brought to the forefront by the pandemic.

According to Engender: “Between 59 per cent and 70 per cent of unpaid care is delivered by women in Scotland, worth approximately £10.8 billion to the economy per annum, and women are twice as likely to give up work to carry out unpaid care.”

All parties acknowledge that unpaid care is a problem, but the gendered reality of care is invisible in some of the party manifestos. The Conservative’s manifesto does not mention the gendered nature of care at all. The Liberal Democrats note only that the provision of childcare in Sweden led to more equal participation of women in the labour market. 

The SNP acknowledges women's disproportionate share of unpaid care, advocating for more gender-equal childcare. But their discussion of the importance of carers to Scottish society is gender-neutral, obscuring the reality of who is caring.

While a brief connection is made between a wellbeing-based recovery and women’s unpaid care burden, an opportunity is missed to connect gender equality to a care based recovery from COVID.

The gendered nature of care and the unequal care burden is central and explicit in the Green and Labour manifestos. The Greens present a means to address these issues, interlinking gender equality and COVID recovery in their Green Economic Recovery. This makes women visible in policy and presents a means to address the disproportionate burden women will face.

Labour acknowledges that women’s care burden has been "undervalued, underpaid and under protected". They call for a redistribution of care responsibility between women, men, and the state, drawing attention to men's under-participation in care. Labour state that Scotland’s recovery must be gender sensitive with care as vital infrastructure "to ensure we reach economic wellbeing for all".

Who are the front-runners in making women visible?

Of the five parties, Labour and the Greens are the clear front-runners in making women visible in their election manifestos.

They acknowledge that the many of the burdens of the COVID-19 pandemic were gendered and gender features prominently in the party's plans for the future of Scotland.

The SNP and Liberal Democrats highlight many relevant issues concerning women. The Liberal Democrats fall short in drawing explicit attention to the gendered nature of unpaid care. The SNP draws attention to the need for a care economy but could go further, acknowledging that this is necessary achieving gender equality in Scotland.

The Conservatives lag behind on all fronts. They draw direct attention to violence experienced by women and girls in Scotland during the COVID lockdowns but do not mention the gendered nature of unpaid care nor the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on women. 

If Scotland is to become a feminist society with care at its core, the reality of all aspects of women’s lives during COVID-19 must be made visible.

If women remain invisible in policy and politics, the cycle of inequality will continue.

Catherine Robertson is a research intern and Jennifer A. Holland an Assistant Professor of Social Science Research Methods at the Erasmus University Rotterdam.

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Society & Welfare

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