Why can’t a (Scots) woman be more like a (cave) man?

This post originally appeared on the Gender Politics at Edinburgh blog.

By Professor Fiona MacKay

The eminent pollster Professor John Curtice has never struck us as Neanderthal before but, in his Holyrood comment piece this week, he appears to suggest that the reason for the gender gap in attitudes to Scottish independence is that more men than women support independence because it appeals to their primal hunter-gatherer nature. A case, perhaps, of:

‘darlin’,  am just awa’ tae bag masel a wee independent state – whit’s fer ma tea?’

As Prof Curtice reports, women continue to be markedly more sceptical about independence than are men.

“Polls conducted during the course of the last month have, on average, reported that just 26 per cent of women back leaving the UK, while no less than 55 per cent are opposed.”

The existence of the gender gap cannot be explained by women having a weaker attachment to Scottish identity, as they are no less likely than men to consider themselves “Scottish, not British”. The issue is that women are more concerned about the practical consequences of independence. And, as Prof Curtice explains:

“at the moment they are also rather less convinced of the practical merits of the proposition.”

However, rather than explain this scepticism as a rational response to imperfect information, Prof Curtice argues that it is because women can’t make up their minds:

 “they bring to the topic a greater air of hesitation and uncertainty. They are simply much more likely than men to say that they do not think independence would make much difference either way or that they just do not know what its consequences would be.”

Women polled are more hesitant and uncertain about what the consequences of independence might be; professing a lack of knowledge. Women are less “political” than men and therefore unable to take a “clear view”.  In seeking to explain these trends, Prof Curtice goes back to basics:  putting it down to psychological (and evolutionary) predispositions. Women are less confident than men and therefore less able to make the leap towards independence:

“Perhaps in inviting us to step boldly into a bright, but as yet unfamiliar future, the rhetoric of the Yes camp is one that resonates more with the hunter-gatherer, assertive side of our natures rather than our desire for calm and security. And stereotypical though the observation might be, maybe as a result this means its message appeals to fewer women than to their male, more macho counterparts.”

Whereas you might have thought that caution expressed in polling might have been a rational response to uncertainty and lack of knowledge about the potential ramifications of independence. After all, there has been precious little debate to date about the impact of independence on classic “women’s issues” like childcare, the care economy, part-time work and occupational segregation, work-life balance, or women’s equal participation in political and public life. Neither has there been sustained discussion of the pros and cons of different constitutional options for tackling inequalities of income, health, educational achievement or status based on social divisions such as gender, ethnicity and class. And never mind finding answers to questions like an independent Scotland’s place in the world (membership of the EU, NATO and the UN etc), issues about lender of last resort, common currency, division of assets and natural resources, common defence and security and the like.

No, women are fearties because, well, they’re women – and not (cave) men

We’re not sure how serious Prof Curtice actually is, but this is a missed opportunity to think about alternative, more plausible explanations that don’t portray women as deficient men. Or, indeed, men as predisposed to reckless machismo.

First, women are not a lumpen mass. There are significant differences amongst women, and notable similarities between women and men. The differences reported are about aggregate trends. In many cases, the gap between women and men is not all that great. For example, although men are markedly more confident about the positive consequences of independence than are women (37 % versus 25 %), very similar proportions of both women and men report anxiety about going it alone: 48% of women versus 43% of men.  Similar proportions of women and men polled (around 1:3) believe that independence will lead to a stronger economy.

Second, it takes a big leap to take these aggregate patterns and attribute them to evolutionary predispositions – hard-wired into the psyche or ordained by the planets. Feminist sociologists and scientists have been debunking populist pseudo-science  – or neuro-sexism – for decades (neuroscientist Cordelia Fine’s brilliant book Delusions of Gender being the latest critique).

If women are under confident, more hesitant and uncertain, this may be a rational response to the lack of authoritative non-partisan information and analysis available to date in the debate. Women in polls are more likely to admit they lack of knowledge than their male counterparts but this may be explained, in part, by the well-documented propensity of men to overestimate their own competence and women to underplay theirs.

If women report less interest in politics – then this is a puzzle to be explored not an answer in itself. We know that political interest rises when women are more visible. Despite the relatively high levels of female politicians in the Scottish parliament- and Nicola Sturgeon’s prominent role as the SNP champion of independence- the face of Scottish politics remains relatively ‘male, pale and stale’.  Whilst some women’s voices have been heard (after protests), the default position for platforms and panels debating constitutional futures remains male-dominated. And little sustained effort has been made as yet to show the relevance of constitutional change to women’s lives or to reflect their diverse perspectives (Women for Independence group is an honourable exception).

Women are not the problem. The question is not why can’t a Scots woman be more like a (cave) man? The question is how do we generate honest, relevant and well-informed discussion about what sort of Scotland we want, and what difference constitutional change might make?  We need more information, more reasoned debate, and the inclusion of women’s voices and perspectives from both sides of the argument (and all shades in between). That’s why a group of feminist academics, journalists, trade unionists and civil society groups have come together to organise a series of public seminars and blog discussions entitled Constitutional Futures: Gender Equality Matters in a New Scotland in order to provide a space for debate and dialogue in the run up to the 2014 referendum campaign.

…but is it Good News for Women?

By Dr. Meryl Kenny (UNSW) and Dr. Fiona Mackay (Edinburgh)

Originally posted on the Gender Politics at Edinburgh blog.

Political pundits are claiming the results of the 2012 local government elections are “good news” for the SNP, as the largest party in local politics, and “good news” for resurgent Scottish Labour, which held onto the city of Glasgow. We ask –  but is there good news for women’s representation?

  • The overall headline figures are up from 21.6 % in 2007, to a new high of 24.3% in 2012.
  • The number of women councillors elected in 2012 has increased from 263 in the last local elections to a total of 297, an overall increase of 34 women councillors.
  • South Lanarkshire tops the league table with 34.3% female councillors, whilst Inverclyde takes last place with just one female councillor (5%).

While these numbers represent a modest improvement on previous elections – and a record performance since the mid 1990s – the general trend remains one of stalled progress.

To put these results into perspective:

  • Less than 1:4 Scottish councillors is a woman.
  • These numbers are particularly disappointing in the context of electoral results elsewhere in the UK. For example, 40% of councillors elected in the 36 English metropolitan councils are women, and several councils have achieved gender parity or better, including Bury (64% women), South Tyneside (57%) and Gateshead (55%)[1].

We’re a long way from saying goodbye to the male, pale and stale face of Scottish local politics.

How did the parties do?

Most noteworthy are the improved results for the Scottish Labour party (see Table 1). The dismal performance of the party in terms of women’s representation at local level has stood in stark contrast to the party’s trailblazing performance in the Scottish Parliament, where the party achieved 50/50 in 1999 and maintained gender balance in its parliamentary group until 2011. In response to our report on the low numbers of women candidates standing in the 2012 local elections, Scottish Labour reported that it had put into action a policy placing women candidates in half of all vacant seats (read more here).

This was part of a wider process of modernization of candidate recruitment at local level within the party. Although the number of Labour women councillors elected is still low (26.1%), these figures do represent significant progress – an increase of just over eight percentage points – from the party’s poor performance in 2007 (17.5%).

We can see the impact of Labour’s equality measures in the key contests of Edinburgh and Glasgow, where the party’s strong performance has helped to boost headline figures.

In Edinburgh:

  • While the number of female councillors elected has dropped overall (from 17 in 2007 to 15 in 2012), the number of Labour women has increased from 5 out of 15 Labour councillors in 2007 (33.3%)[2] to 8 out of 20 Labour councillors in 2012 (40%).  In contrast only 2 out of 18 SNP councillors in the capital are female (11%)

In Glasgow:

  • Women were 10 out of 45 Labour councillors in 2007 (22%), rising to 14 out of 44 Labour councillors in 2012 (31.8%).  In contrast, 7 out of 27 SNP Glasgow councillors are women (25.9%).
  • Overall, the percentage of women on Glasgow City Council has increased from 24% in 2007 (19 women out of 79 councillors) to 30.3% in 2012 (24 women out of 79 councillors).

Turning next to the SNP, it has also seen the percentage of women councillors elected rise from the last elections (from 21.2% in 2007 to 24.8% in 2012). The party has the highest actual number of women councillors of any of the parties (105 to Labour’s 103). Yet this translates into only 1 in 4 of SNP councillors.  The party’s performance at the local level mirrors that at Scottish Parliament level, where in 2011, only 27.5% of SNP MSPs were women.

As previously reported, the SNP is drafting a new equalities strategy, including new guidance and advice to party branches, and a taskforce has been appointed, under the leadership of NEC member Julie Hepburn, to address the problem of women’s under representation at both local and Scottish parliamentary levels.

The Scottish Greens were lauded for having the highest proportion of female candidates (40.7%) this time around. The party’s equality mechanisms are supposed to ensure that women candidates are fairly placed in winnable seats, but this hasn’t translated into improved numbers of Green women councillors in 2012. Only 4 out of the 14 Green councillors are women (28.6%), albeit in the context of small numbers overall.

The Liberal Democrats have returned to their 2003 levels of performance on women’s representation, with women making up 26 of 71 elected councillors (36.6%). This improvement, however, is set in the wider context of a collapse in the Liberal Democrat vote across Scotland, which makes it difficult to make strong conclusions about the party’s performance.

The Conservatives have marginally improved on their 2007 performance, rising from 23.8% women councillors in 2007 to 24.3% in 2012, although again this is in the context of small numbers overall. The percentage of women Independents/Others remains low at 15.3%.  Only around 1 in 6 Independent/Other councillors is a woman.

Turning finally to patterns of representation across local authorities, the picture is one of wide variation (see Table 2). Only 5 of the 32 local authority councils have achieved levels of women’s representation of 30% or more. These are:

  • Aberdeenshire (33.8%)
  • Glasgow (30.3%)
  • Moray (30.8%)
  • South Ayrshire (30%)
  • South Lanarkshire (34.3%)

Unlike some of their counterparts south of the border, no Scottish council has achieved gender balance. The laggards on women’s representation are:

  • East Lothian (2 women councillors, 8.7%)
  • Western Isles (3 women councillors, 9.7%)
  • Orkney (2 women councillors, 9.5%)
  • Inverclyde (1 woman councillor, 5%). Vaughan Jones (Labour) is Inverclyde’s first woman councillor elected since 2007.

Over a third of all councils in Scotland have not broken through the 20% barrier. In addition to the ‘laggards’ listed above, this includes:

  • Dumfries and Galloway (17%)
  • East Renfrewshire (20%)
  • Falkirk (18.8%)
  • Midlothian (16.7%)
  • North Lanarkshire (20%)
  • Scottish Borders (17.6%)
  • Shetland (13.6%)

These dismal figures should surely serve as a wake-up call to parties and councils that something has to change in order to make local politics more inclusive, and to ensure that local councils look like the communities they represent. As we have noted elsewhere, the time has come for tough action on women’s representation in Scotland.

Our initial analysis of the figures can be found in the tables below. We will be posting more detailed analysis of candidate and councillor breakdowns, as well as trends over time in coming weeks.

Table 1: Male and Female Councillors by Party 2012

Party Women Councillors Men Councillors Total Councillors Percentage Women (% 2007)
Labour 103 291 394 26.1% (17.5%)
SNP 105 319 424 24.8% (21.2%)
Liberal Democrats 26 45 71 36.6% (31.3%)
Conservatives 28 87 115 24.3% (23.8%)
Green 4 10 14 28.6% (50%)
Independent/Other 31 171 202 15.3% (20.8%)*
Total 297 923 1220** 24.3%

*2007 candidate selection figures are taken from the Electoral Reform Society, which includes the Greens in the Independent/Other category.

**Excluding the ward of Dunoon in Argyll & Bute, where vote will be conducted next week.

Table 2: Male and Female Councillors by Local Authority 2012

# Local Authority

Women Councillors

Men Councillors

Total Councillors

 Percentage Women

1 Aberdeen City

12

31

43

27.9%

2 Aberdeenshire

23

45

68

33.8%

3 Angus

8

21

29

27.5%

4 Argyll and Bute*

8

25

33

24.2%

5 Clackmannanshire

5

13

18

27.7%

6 Dumfries and Galloway

8

39

47

17%

7 Dundee City

6

23

29

20.6%

8 East Ayrshire

8

24

32

25%

9 East Dunbartonshire

6

18

24

25%

10 East Lothian

2

21

23

8.7%

11 East Renfrewshire

4

16

20

20%

12 City of Edinburgh

15

43

58

25.8%

13 Falkirk

6

26

32

18.8%

14 Fife

22

56

78

28.2%

15 Glasgow

24

55

79

30.3%

16 Highland

21

59

80

26.3%

17 Inverclyde

1

19

20

5.0%

18 Midlothian

3

15

18

16.7%

19 Moray

8

18

26

30.8%

20 Na h-Eileanan Siar

3

28

31

9.7%

21 North Ayrshire

8

22

30

26.7%

22 North Lanarkshire

14

56

70

20%

23 Orkney

2

19

21

9.5%

24 Perth and Kinross

10

31

41

24.4%

25 Renfrewshire

11

29

40

27.5%

26 Scottish Borders

6

28

34

17.6%

27 Shetland

3

19

22

13.6%

28 South Ayrshire

9

21

30

30%

29 South Lanarkshire

23

44

67

34.3%

30 Stirling

5

17

22

22.7%

31 West Dunbartonshire

6

16

22

27.3%

32 West Lothian

7

26

33

21.2%

  TOTAL

297

923

1220

24.3%

*Excluding the ward of Dunoon, where vote will be conducted next week.


[1] Initial results provided by the Centre for Women and Democracy.

[2] This then dropped to 4 Labour women in 2008 (26.7%) after the death of Elizabeth Maginnis.