28 March 2015

Putting women off politics? The 2015 General Election Campaign

The number of women turning out to vote in Britain is decreasing despite increases in female parliamentary candidates. In the past twelve months attempts to engage women voters include two heavily criticised examples: the ‘Better Together woman’ with her reminder to the women-folk of Scotland to vote No in the Independence Referendum and Labour’s Pink Bus tour encouraging women to vote in the forthcoming General Election. There has obviously been some research that says non-voting women might be engaged (rather than just enraged) by this. This type of marketing doesn't appeal to me but I've voted in every election I could since I turned 18; in the UK we can vote in a secret ballot, a basic right that is denied to so many women of the world. 

As a researcher into career choice, I'm keen to understand why women don't go into male dominated occupations. Positive role models are repeatedly cited as an example of good practice in balancing gender in segregated occupations and we have female leaders or deputy leaders in most political parties in the UK. Globally, Inter-Parliamentary Union research shows how 'Women's political participation has made progress over the years, but just not enough and not at a fast enough pace,' so why don’t enough women see politics as a career option?

Why would a woman go into politics in the UK when our prominent female politicians get more coverage in the mass media in relation to their personal life and appearance rather than their ability to do the job? Theresa May MP's cleavage, Ruth Davison MSP's sexual orientation and Nicola Sturgeon MSP's head imposed on half-dressed body have been newsworthy in recent weeks. (No, I am not going to insert links to these here). There is blatant 'everyday' sexism and a lingering fondness for the dated Carry On humour that makes us so proud to be British. Women in politics have to be tough. A blatantly outdated approach towards women is, sadly, still to be expected from the tabloids. It shouldn't however come in a more subtly undermining manner from our supposedly unbiased media outlets and equality-promoting leading politicians, as it has done so far during the 2015 General Election campaign, and there is one very clear example of this.  

Question: Who is the First Minister of Scotland and the leader of the SNP? 

The online news site of the BBC, the UK's public service broadcaster, and a few other high profile figures appear not to know.

Headline BBC news story 26/03/2015
after the Leaders’ TV debate.

I spotted this shortly after making my occasional mistake of watching last Thursday’s episode of Question Time on BBC1, the UK's best-known political TV show, which always sends me off to bed in a simmering rage. There is a general election in six weeks. The SNP could hold the balance of power in Westminster after this. The esteemed Question Time presenter, David Dimbleby, asked the leader of Scottish Labour Jim Murphy MP about the forthcoming general election and the SNP's Alex Salmond MSP.

A reminder of who Alex Salmond is. He is:
  • not the leader of the SNP
  • not the First Minister of Scotland
  • not (yet) elected as a Westminster MP
Nicola Sturgeon MSP, leader of the SNP and First Minster of Scotland, will make any decision in this political scenario. Did anyone mention her name once throughout the programme? No.

Why might UK women be discouraged from a career in politics in the future and why might women voters continue to be disengaged? Will the 2015 General Election campaign, in response to the recent surge in SNP support, have a continued negative influence on these issues, in its reinforcing of stereotypes of the past? 

The women of the UK, who political parties try so desperately to engage, are repeatedly being reminded of the First Minister's insignificance by the media and those within politics who don’t even mention her name. The Conservative party's election posters can't be misread: Alex Salmon MSP is more important than Nicola Sturgeon MSP, the leader of the SNP. He's on the posters, for a start, not her.

And what does that lead to? A perception that the female Leader of the SNP's male predecessor still pulls the strings, that he’s in charge really and that he only stepped down to let her have a little go at being the leader so he could come down to Westminster and be in a proper job. Young women with an interest in politics are repeatedly being informed that the most powerful woman in Scottish and UK politics is dominated and managed by a man. Why not embark on a career in politics so you too could be in the same position?

EDIT 05/04/15
This week Nicola Sturgeon appeared on the Leaders' Debate on TV, and was generally perceived positively as an astute politician. The Conservatives swapped Alex Salmond's image for Nicola Sturgeon in their posters. At last. Sadly however, today, the Daily Mail, the second highest circulated paper in the UK, have decided to run this unpleasant article, judging-once again-a woman on her appearance rather than her ability to do a job.

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