Continuing our series of articles, SDLP Councillor for Balmoral, Claire Hanna writes for us about her experiences and the barriers facing women in society today
International Women’s Day brings annual soul searching about the lack of women in politics, which is both a symptom and cause of our dysfunctional politics. Evidence presented by the Economist newspaper shows that where legislatures have more women, they spend more on public services, bring forward more progressive legislation and have more balanced participation in other sectors including business. As well as the lingering ‘tough guy’ culture, where most parties have endorsed might and violence as a political tactic, if not a current one, Stormont’s dismal ratios might go some way to explaining why we have a 19% gender pay gap, why there is absolutely no childcare strategy and instead a continuing obsession with national identity.
Most of the same cultural and structural barriers that exclude women from the upper echelons of other fields are in play in politics too. The messages girls get about what are appropriate traits and behaviours start early. Being outspoken and interested in the world around you is vital in politics, but often discouraged as ‘bossy’ and ‘nosy’ in little girls. Being steered away from robots and lego towards pink pastel crafts and dolls might explain why there are fewer women in STEM jobs. The messages from the toy aisle, increasingly spilling into even books being marketed differently to toddlers, have an obvious correlation with education and career paths, as well as telling children whether society values them based on their looks or their intellect.
The general apathy and inertia around NI politics is discouraging not just women but engaged and thoughtful people of each gender and age. This is partly down to global trends around political and campaigning activity, which is increasingly through NGOs. Party-based politics involves compromising and pooling some of your policies and beliefs, hopefully a small few, but signing a petition or attending a demo doesn’t. Far fewer than 1% of the population are active in political parties and involved in the boring but necessary business of organising and contesting elections, even though this is the way that power changes hands in a democracy. Until there is more diversity going in, there will be the same narrow pool of candidates coming out, and without vibrant political organisations the women who do make it onto a ticket are left with an unfeasible amount of doorstep campaigning. I say it’s a bit like choosing a partner in life – You mightn’t think you see one that is perfect for you in absolutely every single way, but you pick the best available that matches your values and you spend your life working to improve it!
The fifth main barrier to women’s participation, after culture, confidence, childcare and candidate selection, is cash. There’s little point lamenting the absence of women in politics without tackling the conditions that marginalise women economically. There’s a £2,000 per annum gap between the genders’ median income, and this hides even harsher specifics between sectors. In Belfast City Council the SDLP campaigned on fairer pay, making us the first Living Wage council on the Island, on zero hour contracts, childcare and payday loans – some of the economic conditions that are holding women, in particular, back in all areas of life. International Women’s Day is an anniversary to mark the contribution, struggles and victories of women and while there is much to celebrate, let’s not lose site of it as a political event or of the road left to travel.