Why are so Many Women’s Voices Missing from Scottish Public Life?


By Gerry Hassan, The Scotsman, December 24th 2011

Scotland was once a masculinised culture and society, a place where men built big, heavy things and large numbers of women stayed at home. We have changed in many respects, and to some the separate worlds of men and women’s work have almost disappeared.

This is the feminisation of Scotland to some, seen in the gender revolution that was the first Scottish Parliament which saw record numbers of women MSPs, numerous women Cabinet ministers, and a raft of prominent women in public life. Attitudes have changed, overt sexism a thing of the past, and discrimination put on the backfoot.

This is a feel good story, a heart-warming tale to backslap ourselves over this festive period. Well done Scotland: equality if not achieved then advanced, diversity better than ever although lots to do, and the old boys’ networks and privileges weakened.

If only it were that simple. This is the story often propagated by the ‘official’ guardians of the equality industry in Scotland. 45 female MSPs, female employment rates standing up over the last year at 67.9%, parts of Scotland with increasingly female workforces, while girls continue to outperform boys in educational performance.

A more nuanced picture would address that women are more likely to be concentrated in low paid jobs (31%) compared to the overall population (23%) and suffer due to occupational segregation, while in sectors which are becoming more feminised (such as schools and higher education) top jobs are highly gendered with 86% of university professors male.

There are increasing signs that we have a problem in public life, of a mixture of gender blindness, a backlash against equality and ‘PC culture’, and the resilience of a more subtle sexism.

We can see this across public life including such crucial areas as the media. A recent study of UK patterns showed that programmes such as BBC ‘Question Time’ and ‘Any Questions’ systematically had male dominated panel discussions; what was true of current affairs was also true of comedy, culture and sport. The recent controversy over the all-male nominations for BBC Sports Personality of the Year is just one example.

In particular, the research highlighted the absence not just of women, but other voices such as black and ethnic minority women. This state of affairs has led to a number of initiatives such as Chitra Nagarajan’s #diversityaudit campaign on twitter, and the letter to ‘The Guardian’ launching a campaign against all-male panels.

If we were to look at the picture in Scotland we would find that the pattern outside of the Parliament is worse. Much of our mainstream and broadcasting media run regular male only conversations and spaces. BBC ‘Newsnight Scotland’ in the recent Scottish Parliament election ran an entire extended half hour programme with a panel of eight men made up of presenter Gordon Brewer, five party representatives and two ‘experts’. This is not the exception, but the norm seldom commented upon.

Black and ethnic minority voices whether women or men rarely get a look in, and while Anas Sarwar’s promotion to Deputy Leader of Scottish Labour may provide one voice, there won’t be a critical mass following. Scottish public life is a nearly completely all-white world, aided by the complacencies and lack of reflection which go with what is extensive exclusion.

There was the revealing recent spat in Kenneth Roy’s ‘Scottish Review’ between Sophie Cooke and Stuart Kelly on ‘What does it mean to be a ‘Scottish’ writer?’ which said a lot about the parameters of debate and had distinct gender overtones. James Robertson, the esteemed writer, at one point came in and invoked the spirit of Hugh MacDiarmid to ask what all the fuss was about commenting, ‘Without MacDiarmid’s war on complacency … we wouldn’t be where we are today’.

Sophie Cooke reflecting on the episode spoke of feeling ‘verbally attacked’ and the whole experience as ‘stressful’ and ‘unpleasant’; the writer Carol Craig was earlier this year singled out for an aggressive, humiliating put down by Sean Damer who cast up various aspersions against her, culminating in the clarion call that her elaborate thesis on Glasgow was ‘mince, pernicious mince’ which she said was ‘damaging for both my physical and emotional health’.

The rules of engagement for some men is that everything is fair comment, and if you dare to mention that you have been wounded or hurt by their rebarbative assaults then it just shows that you were not made for the combative nature of debate.

We know from numerous academic and non-academic studies that men and women speak, think and act differently. We use and interpret language differently. The way we communicate with each other involves very different perceptions of the same conversations.

There is something unattractive and destructive in part of Scottish public life which celebrates aggressiveness, vituperation and the culture of ‘flyting’. Some men embrace this and defend it as energetic, cathartic and healthy, showing that we are alive as a nation: ‘the democratic intellect’ in action.

This is self-serving delusion. Take a look around the public life of modern Scotland and ask why many voices and communities are missing, silent or choose to not take part in this wonderful public arena that is supposedly MacDiarmid’s Scotland? Why do so few women choose to put themselves forward into our public life when it is meant to be so egalitarian, welcoming and inclusive?

They aren’t there in any numbers. Any of the prominent women you can think of, including several in ‘The Scotsman’, are the exceptions, people who have chosen to take on head first the problematic put-down macho culture.

Scotland has changed in some respects these last few decades, but it has been an incomplete revolution in every respect. Some men have embraced change and the hope for a different kind of Scotland, others perhaps most just keep their heads down or don’t even think about such issues, while another group, a minority dominate the arenas they take part it, with boorish, point-scoring remarks which either by accident or design shut people up and exclude whole groups.

Scotland or the many cultures of Scotland has to learn to talk about this, and talk and listen to each other differently. This does entail championing the qualities of human solidarity, male and female, and making joint cause against the bruisers and bullies. And in particular, it entails those of who are Scottish men taking the responsibility to challenge other men to change their ways.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could have a set of conversations which included all the parts of Scotland, and which didn’t try and romanticise and mythologise a land which never existed in so doing denying how we as a society have excluded, silenced and belittled certain groups for years? Isn’t it time to tell the ‘wee hard men’ including the cultural ones to show others a bit more respect?

Courtesy of Gerry Hassan – http://gerryhassan.com