What is it about the party political sphere that causes such a disparity in participation between men and women? In St Andrews, where there is a majority female student body, it seems to me that we have a great problem on our hands. Representation for women within political party societies, both at membership level and higher up the ranks, is seriously lacking. Currently I am the only female in a committee of nine for the St Andrews Labour Society (somewhat problematically, I am not the person who fills the role of Women’s and Equalities Officer), and through some investigation I found this to be not uncommon at the University.
At a national level, we have a woman Prime Minister and First Minister in Britain and there are now 208 women in the House of Commons, after June’s election bringing female representation to a new high. However, it is imperative that we come to terms with the inequality that still exists in Westminster and Holyrood, that is, that 35% of MSPs and just 32% of MPs are women. Although the Shadow Cabinet is made up of 50% women, the Conservative Cabinet lags behind with just 22% and a measly 17% of local council leaders are women. It is at a local level that the figures become especially grim for women’s representation and so too, I believe, is this reflected in political involvement by women students in St. Andrews.
James Bundy, the St Andrews Unionist and Conservative Association President, is in agreement with me when admitting that the majority of attendees at STAUCA events are men and that the same can be said for the vast majority of political societies across the country. Bundy has, however, noticed an increase in female membership this year, claiming that “this reflects the work from the committee last year, to ensure that everyone feels welcome” and of course pointing to Ruth Davidson and Theresa May as “great role models for young women interested in politics.”
Pointing to the national leadership is one thing, but when asked about the role of their Women’s and Equalities Officer, Bundy explained that STAUCA does not have such a position on the committee. He goes on to point out that “a key component of Conservatism is equality of opportunity regardless of background” and that the entire society sign up to these values when they join.
Shockingly then, in St Andrews we have a Labour Society committee with a recently elected white male as the Women’s and Equalities officer, and a Unionist and Conservative Association committee without such a role to vet and ensure equality within the society. This laissez-faire attitude to women’s representation is reflected in local council and national government figures where the Conservative Party consistently lag behind the SNP and Labour in terms of female representation. Progress has stalled across the board and the recent rejection by our Conservative government of six proposals to give parliament more equal female representation highlights this.
Women in power are always defined by their femininity, or lack thereof. In order to be taken seriously, female politicians are expected to de-feminize themselves and so, all accepted notions of leadership are viewed from a masculine point of view. The prime example of 2017 being Theresa May, who as a woman, everything from her hair to her kitten heels is under derision.
Kate O’Sullivan, the coordinator of St. Andrews Feminist Society, believes that many women lack confidence in running for positions in political societies. She goes on to explain that “some women who want to get involved in facilitating change move towards women oriented charities, instead of political societies.”
O’Sullivan points out, however, that we have women in the university “occupying roles in the highest echelons of student politics, for example, the Sabbaticals” and that it would be unfair to stress the absence of women in political roles within St Andrews. “There are women in St Andrews doing wonderful work both inside political societies and outside. I think we should encourage women who want to run for political positions to run, but also acknowledge the important ‘political’ work that women do outside of those societies too”.
We need to keep this debate alive and keep asking the questions I have already asked. In our community, open cross-political party events and debates should be organised to decide what action to take within St. Andrews. I would even go as far to suggest that female representation within society committees be compulsory. There needs to be radical action by political societies across the board, to redefine gendered notions of the political sphere that are still catered towards ideals of masculinity.