Gender politics is an area that is often neglected by the media in terms of the independence debate, and one that remains relatively untouched by either side. But the Yes campaign has much to gain by addressing gender inequality head on: an independent Scotland could offer a new approach to the issue of female representation.
It is clear that women across the UK are faced with deep inequalities in many walks of life – from their treatment in the media to employment and everyday sexism. But sexism is particularly palpable in British politics. The percentage of women MPs and government ministers, a mere 22.5% and 17.5% respectively, is the best indicator with which to observe women’s participation in political life. And despite the fact that it has been 85 years since women gained equality in voting rights, Westminster has been either unable or unwilling to achieve total equality in Parliament; it remains a ‘boys club’, the kind of group that is both unwelcoming and deterring to qualified women.
This is not to say that gender inequality in politics is a problem unique to the UK – it isn’t. According to figures from the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU), up to 1 April 2013, only one country had a higher percentage of women in its lower house than men: Rwanda. However, some countries naturally perform better than others, with many of the countries with higher female representation unsurprisingly the likes of Sweden, Finland, Iceland and the Netherlands. In contrast, the United Kingdom comes in at a disconcerting 56th out of 189 countries, down from 33rd since a similar report was produced in 2001. No so-called ‘developed’ country should be able to get away with under-representing half of its population to such an extent.
Although the Scottish Parliament remains below acceptable levels of female representation, being composed of 35.7% women as of 2012, according to the Sex and Power 2013 report, it would still place Scotland 21st in the world on this issue.
As was noted, unequal participation in public life is not a situation that is confined to politics. Throughout UK industries, women are woefully under-represented, and in no area of UK public life investigated by the Sex and Power report do women command a majority in positions of power. Perhaps most alarmingly, as of 2012, only 5% of national newspaper editors were female. Simply put, public life under Westminster’s government is not working for women. Female representation shows no signs of making any rapid progress in the near future, with the Sex and Power 2013 report stating that ‘at the current rate of progress, a child born today will be drawing her pension before she has any chance of being equally represented in the Parliament of her country.’ A society that tacitly approves of this is, quite frankly, unacceptable.
As previously stated, this is not just a problem that the UK is facing. The G8 Conference, where only one leader present was female, revealed the deep inequalities that are rife in global politics. But Scotland, with an independent voice in the world, can influence the direction that improving equality takes.
Westminster policies show no sign of doing this for us, and Scotland cannot make sufficient progress of its own whilst being tied to this long lasting legacy of inequality and sexism in the UK. Given that members of the governing party have recently called for a “ban on sexual harassment claims unless the alleged offence is illegal and has been reported to the police”, it is clear that Westminster is a long way away from understanding and acting to amend gender inequality. Coupled with the growth of UKIP south of the border, a party that has an abhorrent record on women’s rights, as well as Labour and the Liberal Democrats showing no desire to reverse the welfare reforms that are adversely affecting women, can the Scottish people in favour of a society based on equality really expect Westminster to deliver this for us?
That is the choice facing us in 2014. We could vote ‘no’, sit on our hands compliantly, and wait for an increasingly conservative Westminster parliament to deliver progressive policies. Or, we can take charge of our own affairs, and strive to achieve a society based on equality, delivered by a self-confident population, protected in a new written constitution. The time has come for Scotland to define itself by its commitment to equality, and bring egalitarian ideals into a legal and social reality.
Kelsey Leon is a third year English Literature student at the University of Edinburgh, with a particular interest in issues related to gender inequality and feminism.
David Aitchison is a third year History student at the University of Edinburgh, motivated by the potential of building a society built on social equality.