Facing barriers as a young woman in politics

by Siobhan McMahon MSP

A member of the Scottish Parliament

I am very privileged to be a Member of the Scottish Parliament; it is something I am extremely proud of. But it wasn’t an easy road to walk along in order to get where I am today.

Standing for election

Standing for election is a hard and difficult process for anyone to go through however I found that being a young woman brings its own unique challenges to the process.  I remember having a discussion with Johann Lamont around the time I was thinking of putting my name forward to be considered for the list in Central Scotland.  I was telling her that I wasn’t sure I should apply for the process as I didn’t feel at the age of 25 that I was old enough to be considered.  The response Johann gave me has always stuck with me; she said “Do you think a man your age would think the same thing?” At that time I thought well it would depend on the situation they find themselves in. How wrong was I!

Having made the decision to stand and then put everything I had into my campaign to get the party members to support me I was shocked to find myself get to number 3 on the list. However that wasn’t the end of the story.  The party had decided to ‘zip’ the female or ethnic minority candidate with the highest number of votes to the top of the list meaning that in the end I was number 1 for Central Scotland.  The truth is I’m not entirely comfortable with zipping and I’m not sure if I would have taken my seat in Parliament had we not got 3 candidates elected from the list. But that was the process my Party had agreed so that’s the process I had to live with.

Facing barriers as a young woman in politics

It won’t surprise many of you reading this to know that the decision to zip a woman to number 1 didn’t go down too well with a number of male (and female) members in my area. One man in particular went so far as to say that I should be ashamed of myself and that I should resign my position as it was ridiculous that a woman could get to the dizzy heights of number 1 in our area.

I was shocked that such an attitude would not only exist in 2010 but that it was shared and in such an aggressive manner. Had I thought about resigning my position, given my own thoughts about the zipping process, this made my mind up that I wouldn’t be going anywhere!

Supporting young women in politics

A number of colleagues supported me throughout this process but a few did not.  This was my first real experience of sexism and it is one that I will never forget.  It’s hard enough being judged as a female politician by how you look, what you wear, how you do your hair. But to have the very people who should be backing you throughout that process undermining you and your confidence is something I never want another woman to experience.

I’m glad I went through the process and I was delighted to be elected.  I never tire of going to events in my local area as an MSP for Central Scotland and seeing that same man there. I hope I act as a reminder to him of what his actions spurred me on to do!

My message to other women who have to go through similar experiences is never doubt your own ability and let those who try to put you off spur you on to do great things.

Why are we Better Together?

Carys Hughes, Activist from Women Together

Next year people in Scotland will make the biggest political decision of our lives; whether to remain a part of the UK or go it alone. The referendum gives us the opportunity to look at our priorities and decide how we can best address the things that matter to us.

As a young woman, I want to use this opportunity to bring a whole range of issues to the forefront of current political debate, from tackling the gender pay gap to rooting out the scourge of domestic violence, as well as looking at how we can take action to ensure young girls around the world can access the education they are entitled to.

Concern about the impact that separation from the rest of the UK would have on our daily lives is truly universal, but it is vital that women’s voices are heard when it comes to the economic debate. The economy is fundamental to women’s lives; tough economic times hit us the hardest, and negatively impacts on the fight for gender equality. Reading the leaked Government Cabinet paper raised concerns about what it would mean for me to be a young woman in an independent Scotland. The paper outlined plans for cuts to public sector jobs, pensions and welfare spending, yet it is women that are more likely to work in the public sector and in part-time jobs – often the first to be cut. Women pensioners are more likely to be in poverty and as parents and carers, women are more likely to be in receipt of welfare support.

On a more personal level, I’m in my final year of University and I don’t want there to be any barriers to finding a good job when I graduate. I know I’m not alone when I say that I don’t want to jeopardise the opportunities we have as part of a bigger UK.  The size, strength and stability of the UK economy meant the UK Government was able to intervene during the global financial crisis and save banks from collapsing. This protected the savings and mortgages of thousands of Scots, saved thousands of Scottish jobs and averted economic meltdown. The advantages of that bigger UK economy are clear – we have the ability to pool and share risk and reward in order to avoid and weather the worst of economic storms.

I firmly believe that right now Scotland has the best of both worlds; we have our strong Scottish Parliament, with a strong track record of female representation and focussing on the issues affecting women.  But we also have the strength and security that comes from being part of the wider UK.

That is why this year I helped to launch Women Together.  Our grassroots network of women will hold events in towns and cities across the country, to listen to women’s views, creating a space to look at how we can achieve our priorities as well as get involved in our campaign for Scotland in the UK.

*The SWC are holding a conference on The Referendum on the 25th January 2014. We will have speakers from the Yes and Better Together campaigns. If you would like come along please email info@scottishwomensconvention.org*