'Better gender balance does make a difference' — Guernsey's female deputies on IWD

Guernsey’s eight female deputies offer their thoughts on the significance of International Women’s Day and the issues surrounding gender equality...

  • Deputy Heidi Soulsby

I am sure there are some reading this who will question the relevance of International Women’s Day to Guernsey and its 2022 theme of gender equality.

After all, we have women in power don’t we? We now have some in really important jobs too, such as the law, business and, of course, public health. They – we – have a voice.

However, it is a sad truth that, while we are seeing positive change across the community and increasing numbers of female role models for our young women and girls, we still have such a shockingly low rate of female representation in our parliament, the States of Deliberation. At a ratio of four men to one woman we are only just above Saudi Arabia, not exactly a country known for its enlightened stance on gender equality.

In my first term, the so-called Sarnian Spring wasn’t much of one for women, with only five being elected, being one of the lowest female representation rates in the world. After attempts by a number of us to improve on this embarrassing situation, including some men it should be said, we did see that increase to 12 in 2016. This was better than it seems given the reduction in the number of deputies under the changes in the machinery of government, but still just 30%. However, things slipped again at the last election and we now have just eight women out of 40 States members representing you, the people of Guernsey.

Why does it matter? Well aside from the obvious fact that our parliament doesn’t reflect the gender balance of the population, I have seen from my time in the States how having more female representation really does make a difference.

For a start, it has been noticeable that not only have women been the ones more likely to take on the biggest workloads, but they also tend to operate differently from the men. Less of the ‘we’re right and you’re wrong’ attitude and more of a focus on working collaboratively to reach a decision. In our unique consensus system of government, that is important.

I have also found how it has been the women in the Assembly who have been more likely to look out for others, giving support and guidance when they have seen it may be needed. Just because we have differing political views, doesn’t mean we don’t all need a bit of help when life gets difficult from time to time.

Finally, and most importantly for our community, having more women in the Assembly does mean that social policy issues are less likely to be kicked into the long grass. It is no coincidence that major pieces of work covering important social issues impacting the most vulnerable in our society were addressed last term when we had more female representation. Today things are different, even to the extent that we have seen, and continue to see, attempts to reverse those decisions which were made to protect those who don’t have the loudest voices.

Now don’t get me wrong here. I am not saying that we can put women and men neatly into two separate camps. That would be a complete distortion of the truth. I can tell you now that there have been some wonderful male deputies who have given me moral support when I’ve needed it and to whom I am eternally grateful. There are also those who have put in, and continue to put in, mammoth amounts of effort, as well as those for whom the social policy agenda has been far more important than it has been for some women.

No, this isn’t about saying one gender is better than the other. It is about saying, if we have more women representing us, it is very likely that we will have a different States of Guernsey and I believe it will be different in a good way. Last year the Isle of Man returned 10 women to its parliament, known as the House of Keys, which was double the previous number. That doesn’t sound much but there are only 24 members, meaning women now make up 42% of elected representatives. I’m looking forward to meeting some of them when I attend the regional Commonwealth Parliamentary Conference there in March and finding out the difference it is making. What I do know is, if they can do it, so can we. There are more than three years until the next election and plenty of time to make that a reality, and I hope we do.

  • Deputy Yvonne Burford

This is my second term in the Assembly and there is no doubt in my mind that women behave and work in different ways to men. One example springs to mind.

I noticed back in 2012 that although there were only five female deputies then out of 45, the women would often all turn up for the presentations and briefings laid on for elected members, while only about half the men did. This trend has continued in this Assembly with usually at least three quarters of the women attending such events compared to barely half the men. I am truly baffled as to why this might be, after all the material being presented is equally relevant to both sexes.

Recent examples of this include the first Justice Policy presentation attended by 75% of female deputies and 35% of male deputies; the Budget presentation attended by 100% of female deputies and 45% of male deputies and a tax presentation attended by 75% of female deputies and 59% of male deputies. One might wonder if this is because the men are busier with their States work, however the figures show that women hold a higher relative proportion of senior posts on principal committees, and committee roles generally are evenly shared.

When the subject of female representation comes up, an oft-heard response is that it doesn’t matter whether the person is male or female, it just matters whether they can do the job. On the face of it this contention seems unarguable, after all who wants someone who can’t do the job? I certainly don’t. But are we really saying we think that the current sex split in the Assembly, of 20% women and 80% men, means that men are four times as likely to be able to do the job? There are probably around 15,000 women on this island who meet the eligibility requirements to be a deputy. Therefore, finding enough willing and capable candidates to stand for election and then to fill half the Assembly shouldn’t be an onerous task. Certainly, the public are happy to vote for women. At the last election, women and men were elected equally in proportion to the number of candidates of each sex who stood. Interestingly, the average vote polled by successful female candidates in October 2020 was around a thousand votes higher than that of successful male candidates. In the end it comes down to encouraging more women to put themselves forward for election, and to understanding the reasons why they don’t. I’m sure deputies would be happy to discuss the job over a coffee with any woman thinking of standing in 2025.

But back to the original question: why do we need more women? As one might expect, a great deal of research has been undertaken on the effect of women in politics. Overall, it has been shown that women are better at reaching across party lines, official or unofficial, and are more inclined to collaborate with their colleagues to achieve better outcomes. A 35-year study of the US congress shows that bills sponsored by women are 10% more likely to pass and an experiment looking at partisanship showed women participants to be significantly less susceptible to partisan bias. Other research shows that having sufficient women in a parliament expands both the range of policy issues that get considered and the types of solutions that are proposed.

It’s important to say, of course, that just as men are not one homogeneous group, neither are women. But there is no doubt that women bring different and additional skills, interests and behaviours to the Assembly. I very much hope that 2025 brings forward an equal number of candidates of each sex for the electorate to choose from. One of those candidates just might be you.

  • Deputy Andrea Dudley-Owen

In Guernsey we have a strong tradition of women owning and running businesses and being joint contributors to the family income.

Retail, horticulture, catering/hospitality are among various sectors which have benefited from women’s participation and particularly the finance industry, where women were the foremost employees when it started back in the 1980s.

More recently we have recognised the valuable contribution that women are able to make when elected to public office. I am privileged to be one of these women.

I am a mother, a home organiser, I have been a business owner, a finance worker, a douzenier and am now a deputy. In my current role, I have represented my island overseas in developing nations and I believe we need to help women in those countries to achieve better representation.

I count us all as extremely lucky to live in this geographical area of the world. We have a stable government, good education, accessible healthcare, jobs are plentiful and comparatively a high standard of living and good prospects.

All these factors have enabled women to move towards parity with men in ways women in other countries can only dream of at present.

There are many countries who lag far behind and it is there that we need to focus efforts on a global stage to improve the standing of women.

A narrative we often hear in our part of the world when talking about the lack of parity in political representation ignores the fact that women often don’t want to put themselves forward into positions of so-called ‘power’. A study by Christopher Berry, a political scientist from the University of Chicago, has called this ‘election aversion’ and his studies aim to understand why more women are not elected to public office. He also found that women perform better than men and that women and men win at equal rates.

So what is it that puts women off standing in the first place? It is a complex picture and there is no simple fix or one solution to entice more of us into public office.

My view is that our society has lost sight of the singularly important role women hold as household organisers, primary child carers, managers, budget holders and daily administrators for all family members within their immediate households. A mother’s role in the creation and raising of a child especially in the first 1,001 days of a child’s life is essential. Not enough support or attention is brought to this. Women are extremely influential in the lives and futures of their children. At the most fundamental level, they shape our society, creating the community of tomorrow.

In Guernsey we have only seen one mother/daughter set of deputies, both of whom also held public office as douzeniers. As the daughter, I have been hugely influenced by my mother, her guiding beliefs, her commitment to serve her community and her achievements during her time as a deputy. Perhaps in time one or even both of my daughters might also follow us into politics?

Making positions more accessible and flexible, considering family responsibilities, the time needed to care for and nurture every member of your household is helpful. There isn’t a single solution, but there are some more basic actions we can take. Raising the profile and value of all mothers and women, no matter their chosen career path or job role, paid or unpaid, as well as those of us who undertake positions in public office, is helpful. The role and contribution of women in our society needs to be fully recognised and understood.

We know that there is increasing participation in public office globally and that countries where women are found in the head-of-state position more frequently than the norm include Finland, New Zealand, UK, India, Germany, the Philippines, Norway, Ireland, Iceland, and Bangladesh. To deduce a formula for this, sharing how this has been achieved through forums like the Commonwealth Women Parliamentarians is the aim of the organisation.

Speaking as a current deputy, I know women who demonstrate daily they would make good quality candidates for public office, but we cannot ignore that the public nature of the role is what often results in that electoral aversion. Capability does not automatically convert into a desire to do the job.

Our government, our schools, our local businesses, our care homes and many other services want and need capable individuals who have varied and relevant life experience and skills. Women often downplay the importance of their role in the community as household organisers and primary child carers.

I believe that as a community recognising and holding in high esteem the huge contribution that women make to society is not a feminist issue, but the foundation to more women being represented at all levels in our community and wider society.

  • Deputy Sasha Kazantseva-Miller

‘Gender equality’ is one of the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. Together with ‘Reduced Inequalities’ and ‘Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions’, these three goals are often overlooked and undervalued in the world which puts so much emphasis on technological progress to solve issues facing us.

At a juncture of the most profound geo-political upheaval, perhaps it is time to re-establish the central importance of these goals in ensuring a sustainable future for all. Studies on female leadership are somewhat hampered by statistical samples – only 18% of European monarchs between 1480 and 1913 and fewer than 4% of all national leaders between 1950 and 2004 were female. However, one thing we know for sure is that modern history has not produced an authoritarian female leader that brought us to the brink of a world war. Studies show that better female representation leads to more peaceful policies and that inclusion of women in peace mediation and negotiations leads to dramatic improvements in outcomes.

While war is the extreme of political behaviour, milder forms of aggression and domination are unfortunately rampant across our societies. Domestic abuse and sexual violence are extremely prevalent, with less than 5% of reported cases of assault being prosecuted and a much larger number of cases going unreported. Bullying in schools is an ongoing issue. Most of us can point to an experience of a domineering manager and others to hierarchical organisational structures that concentrate the decision-making among a few at the top. When power is concentrated in the hands of a few, the strength of our democratic institutions are at risk. When we are at war, when free media, free speech and the right to free assembly are thwarted, climate change is not going to be at the centre of our minds.

This type of behaviour seems to be inherent in our DNA and our evolution as a civilisation. But does it have to be that way?

What we witness today is the repeating cycles of history with more deadly technological weapons in our predisposition. We meet aggression with more aggression and hope for a better outcome. Most likely we are just bottling trauma and resentment that will materialise again in a similar fashion down the line.

We must break from these cycles of aggression.

One of the most important levers at hand has to be increasing gender equality and gender representation.

Within the 800 years of British parliamentary history, less than 100 included the full right of women to vote. We’ve gone a long way but we have much further to go. Without full gender equality, without 50% of our community being fully represented in decision-making across politics, society and economy we can only be a meagre mirage of our real potential, unable to break from the behavioural patterns of the past.

  • Deputy Tina Bury

After introducing myself, the very next line of my manifesto says, ‘I’m passionate about equality, inclusivity and seeing Guernsey led by a representative government’, and that’s because the decisions that get made by our people’s deputies affect everyone, so I want to see as diverse a group of competent people making those decisions as possible.

Sure, our skills are important, but deputies bring their personal values and particular life experience to the table too.

As we celebrate International Women’s Day 2022, I’m only too aware that women are the most significantly under-represented group in Guernsey politics. And while that’s a concern, it leads me to be even more concerned about other under-represented groups. If we can’t create an environment where the views and life experience of 50.5% of our population are fully represented, then we’re going to really struggle to include younger people, older people, working-class people, people of different ethnicities and people with disabilities.

But voters can only choose from the candidates that put themselves forward. If that huge election brochure that thumps onto your doormat is mostly full of middle-aged men, then inevitably we’ll have an Assembly where Guernsey’s decisions are mostly made by middle-aged men – whether that’s how much tax to raise or how to prevent sexual violence.

So, why don’t more women stand for public office? The answers are multi-faceted and the ones I list here are just some of them: We have busy lives, working and caring for others. We don’t tend to get approached or invited to apply as often. We overestimate the requirements of the job and under-estimate our own capabilities. We’re reluctant to put ourselves and our families in the public eye. We have fewer role models doing these jobs to inspire us.

Two years ago, all of those barriers were holding me back too. Rather than recognising my own potential, I let those barriers cloud my vision and instead of setting to work planning my own campaign, I joined Women in Public Life, keen to help, inspire and support other women to put themselves forward.

One day my 12-year-old daughter asked me why I wasn’t standing myself. As I went to respond I realised that none of the reasons I was about to give her would align with the values that she knew me to have. They were just excuses and if I answered in that way I wasn’t being the example I wanted to be to her.

In that moment I understood that if I truly wanted better representation, I needed to BE that representation. So, for my daughter, and for all young women in Guernsey, I took a deep breath and jumped in.

The barriers don’t all fall away once elected. The ‘struggle to juggle’ certainly remains but I want women to know that it’s doable (most days!) and the days when it feels like it’s not, often something wonderful will happen, like a woman coming up to me in the street, or sending me an email, to thank me for being their voice and representing them. Their support reminds me how important it is that I’m there and to remain true to what I stand for.

  • Deputy Lindsay de Sausmarez

I care about gender equality, not least because I care deeply about sustainability – and we can only build more environmentally and socially sustainable, climate resilient communities if women are as fully involved as men.

Women and girls comprise 51% of humanity. Their needs, ideas and perspectives must inform decisions, and they must be involved in both the planning and the implementation for solutions to be as effective as we need them to be. Research shows that communities do better in resilience and capacity-building strategies when women are involved, as they tend to share information about community wellbeing and are more willing to adapt to environmental changes.

Educating girls and improving women’s access to family planning are two of the single most effective global actions we can take to mitigate climate change – far more effective even than technological solutions such as electric vehicles, for example.

Investing in faster progress towards gender equality has myriad positive knock-on effects too, creating a virtuous circle. Research shows that jurisdictions with higher female parliamentary representation make better social and environmental progress, creating more equitable and inclusive societies.

However, there’s a very steep hill to climb. Worldwide, women represent only 25% of national parliaments. Guernsey’s female representation is lower than the worldwide average, incidentally, at just 20%, meaning 80% of the States of Deliberation is male.

While women’s representation in leadership roles is still well short of the mark, under-representation in media output is even worse. A 2016 large-scale study of millions of items of English language media content concluded that women are routinely marginalised in the news, while men’s views and voices are given disproportionate space. While men are much more likely than women to feature in both images and text, women are more likely to appear just as a picture rather than as someone mentioned in the text.

A more recent study in 2020 found that – while there has been a small but steady rise in references to women and in the reporting of their voices and opinions – women are still hugely under- represented in areas like business and finance reporting in particular. Just 18% of quotations in the Financial Times, The Economist and City A.M. over a six-year period were attributed to women, for example, meaning of course that 82% were attributed to men.

Meanwhile, in entertainment media, analysis of high-grossing films shows that there are roughly two male characters for every female character – a ratio that has stayed remarkably stable over the decades – and that the vast majority of the dialogue goes to men, sometimes even in films where women play the lead role. Only about half pass the Bechdel test, where at least two women have a conversation about something other than a man.

Even on social media, women have to shout louder than men to be heard. Women on Twitter, for example, tend to have only half the followers of men and generate fewer average likes, irrespective of their activity levels or professional rank, yet women face three times as much online harassment and abuse compared with men.

Why does it matter? It has a material impact. Women’s voices and experiences are sidelined – they are judged as less authoritative, credible and competent, and even when they are objectively shown to be as competent, they are considered less likeable. This is particularly problematic in science and politics – two areas where the apparent crime of having an opinion while being female is still punishable by disproportionate insults and threats of physical harm.

Thankfully, that scale of abuse is not something I and my colleagues here have to put up with on a daily basis, but the shortfall of women in the States does make itself felt all the same. Not only do we female deputies shoulder a proportionately bigger share of committee roles (including senior roles) compared with the men, but there is sometimes a totally unnecessary level of aggression in meetings that does seem to be worse when there are fewer women round the table.

So, back to sustainability and climate change. There are women playing absolutely pivotal roles in government, climate science, nature conservation and community building around the world, but because of under-representation in the media we don’t hear enough from them or about their work.

Climate change is not gender neutral: women face greater risks and burdens from its impacts and our ability to act on climate change effectively is constrained by pervasive gender inequality.

A report called The Climate Action Gender Gap, which looks at how corporations can reach net zero emissions, argues that for effective results women should be actively considered as climate action leaders, investors and influencers. More women should be in leadership and decision-making positions as they’re typically more open than men to action that will drive climate action. Women are important investors as they have a stronger preference for investing that prioritises environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG) factors. Women make a higher proportion of relevant household purchasing decisions, which makes them important influencers – especially as they’re more likely than men to change their habits to reduce emissions.

Everyone – male and female – who cares about the environment, climate change and the fate of our children and the generations to come can make a valuable contribution by pushing against systemic gender inequality in business, science and government. They can encourage, support and facilitate more women to play an active role in their community, and in doing so build a more sustainable future.

When the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the subsequent sanctions are putting pressure on energy and food supply chains across the world, and the IPCC is telling us that the window of opportunity to make meaningful changes to mitigate climate change is closing rapidly, never has there been a more important time to focus on sustainability – and therefore the gender equality that can best deliver it.

  • Deputy Sue Aldwell

Last week I felt very honoured to be part of a delegation from Guernsey to Parliament on a three-day visit, which was an incredible experience, not only meeting many members of the House of Commons and the House of Lords, but also observing debates in both Houses, which included Prime Minister’s Questions.

To witness the standing ovation in solidarity for Ukraine brought the whole House together and was an emotional historic moment.

As I walked those corridors of Parliament, my mind turned back to how extraordinarily times have changed – 67 years earlier my aunt by marriage, Patricia McLaughlin OBE (nee Aldwell), would have first walked those corridors back between 1955-1964, being the first woman in a Northern Irish contested seat, elected in Belfast West to Parliament. With 21 other women holding seats in Parliament at the time, the landscape would have looked considerable different to her today with 225 seats won by woman, out of 650 available in Parliament.

My admiration for this brave, ground-breaking woman of her time grew, as I wondered how she would have felt in her world very much dominated by men in Parliament.

Patricia stood up for women’s rights in many areas. One bill she did bring to Parliament which we possibly take for granted today, was against flammable materials. The bill was to make provision for greater safety of women and children throughout the country, as flammable material used in nightwear had caused loss of life with open fires and these materials were banned by the bill on 4 March 1964.

Today times are very different, with opportunities available for women to have a career in all fields, as all avenues are now open.

The world’s priorities have also changed with the decades and climate change would not have been a priority back in 1955 but it most certainly is across the globe today, with women and girls leading the way, as we saw at COP26.

In all our major States committees, we have women as members, presenting a different dynamic, an alternative point of view and understanding, which can ultimately change a direction, which a committee may have previously taken, and so with fresh eyes, women bring an invaluable contribution, working alongside their male counterparts as part of a team.

Since being elected to the States in 2020, I am fortunate to sit on two committees – Home Affairs, where we drive to prevent sexual assault and violence against women and girls, and Education Sport & Culture, where we continue to educate across our settings, now and into the future, promoting respect, but also empowering our students, not only to deal with personal and sexual issues, but we endeavour to shine the light on climate change and environmental issues which are also our priorities today, affecting everyone in this ever-changing world.

As we continue to educate women and girls, we recognise their contribution, where they influence our lives in a positive role, involved in initiatives in sustainability, finding a place in the world, where they are encouraged to make a real difference to their future to be brave and bold.

  • Deputy Victoria Oliver

The person who inspired me from a very young age is Tracy Edwards – she skippered the first all-female crew in the Whitbread Round the World Race in 1989.

Being a woman it was difficult to find financial backing and sailing was considered very much a man’s sport. Tracy changed sailing forever, in my opinion, winning two legs out of six.

This is an equal sport nowadays and is one of the few sports where men and women compete together. Tracy really inspired me that if you put your mind to something you can achieve it. Also don’t let other people stop you doing what you really want.

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