Eve Allison is former Kensington and Chelsea councillor.
Although we make up half the human race, women were usually confined to the estate, house or hovel until relatively recently. We were not doctors, lawyers, dentists, accountants and CEOs. Indeed, we were not in the military, armed forces, police, or even accepted as undergraduates at Oxford or Cambridge.
Women were tea-makers and ‘mothers’ and guardians of their cultural heritage: rather than being leaders, they were led their husbands.
But we are now coming through in roles in which we are nonetheless still marginalised, and in which the spotlight shines more harshly on a woman, especially as a politician. That spotlight is trained on our dress sense rather than our principles and policies – on every word, every nuance and every shoe worn, including heel height.
If one is a woman, a politician (and of colour), one is often met with “the glance”. (“How did you get here?” it asks) or, on the odd occasion, one is told that “you are in the wrong place” and even, sometimes: “oh, you cannot come in here”.
Women need to be in positions of power and should be, where leadership roles are played out, at the heart of where decisions are made and carried to fruition. Women need to be taken seriously in such roles.
If we are talking about real power and acceptance, then women should comprise 50 per cent of the representation in politics, locally and nationally. The grinding issue is related to women standing as councillors and as Parliamentary Candidates – and hence being Members of Parliament.
That last equates to being selected in the first place, and then to actually being elected, and remaining in the role. So what can be done to address the overall retention of women politicians? Are more courses and training workshops the answer, and if so should they pertain to such aspects of a women’s identity as ethnicity?
The ones that stand out to me as a former Conservative councillor are those that purport to “highlight political leadership” aimed at those politicians that are of colour. Are such courses run for politicians who are classed as “white”?
Instead of leadership and any real positive information for politicians of colour, sure enough, cliques open up along ethnic and party lines. Being a lone ‘Blue’ surrounded by a sea of ‘Red’ can often be most frustrating and stifling.
Such courses need to be rooted in proper fact and debate, and not just be check boxes for local councils. What is evident is that when forums, workshops and development weekends are held for politicians, they are usually well attended by men.
It’s men that write most of the political articles, it’s men that dominate most of the decision-making in local councils and who select committees: it’s mostly men who are cabinet members, locally and nationally.
Perhaps part of the issue is that women do not deal as effectively as they should with being challenged. It is condescending to hear “What are they doing?” “Why are they doing it?”, “Do they know what they are doing?” and so on.
Equally, for any relatively ambitious female politician, whether local or national, it can be disconcerting in no uncertain terms to be regarded as a “dustbin” case – and, unlike most of your male cohort, face years of not being offered roles such as lead member, vice chair of a committee, working group lead and perhaps, worst of all, years of ‘the glance’ (as described earlier).
For such women, perhaps the biggest frustration is that of being surrounded by primarily women politicians with no ambition at all, and who expect you to follow suit.
Politicians are elected to represent all sectors of the community and not identities within those communities. So for women politicians, divisions of role, should not equate with division of place or position. The shackles of ‘social conditioning’ must be thrown off and by women themselves going forward.
So the big question is: what is going on with women in politics? What is preventing us from reaching their full potential with regard to political leadership in politics ? Is it a lack of financial stability, or the responsibility of caring roles, such as being parents and mothers, or of being carers for elderly family members ?
Even when women are in senior cabinet roles, these tend not to be in Finance, Planning or Security. They are ‘Cinderella’ senior cabinet roles in Children & Families, Adult Social Care, Public Health, Education and Libraries.
Is this all connected with the perceived inflexibility of the role and, if so, why cannot some of the work be performed from home, and not lead to a demeaning of the role? And what about the use of Skype or video conferencing as tools to help be part of and in place for positions of power?
Surely political leadership in politics is not all about meetings – and yet this seems to be the case. One is measured by not by how many constituents you have assisted, but by how many meetings one has attended.
Furthermore, even in politics the conditioning is persistent in that politicians are judged as either being ‘Good’ or ‘Bad’ in relation to these meetings – whether one has uttered a word or not, whether one agrees with what happens or not, or simply makes up the numbers there.
For women politicians, fear and anxiety can be a factor in politics, from the emotional anxiety arising from non-support; from constant chastising and belittlement from fellow political colleagues; from angry and bewildered constituents and the constant grind of social media and beyond.
Histrionics will abound, and yet political leadership opportunities are held by the ‘gate keepers’. This is frustrating if one is not part of the inner circle – or if the lens is not trained on you as a woman politician who wants to go forward, break the mould, break down barriers and perceptions, no matter how long held.
But as a woman politician, irrespective of particular variables, you have a duty as a public servant to keep pushing upwards, keep asking, keep finding ways to circumnavigate and penetrate. One must work to create fissures and furrows in the inevitable hope that wide canals will follow.