IT IS 25 years, almost to the day, since a senior politician complained in a States meeting about a committee whose troubles reputedly emanated from it having too many women members. Women regularly fall out with each other and so a committee dominated by women was bound to be distressed, querulous and unstable, so the argument went. What the committee required, obviously, was a strong man or two to sort out the emotionally erratic women. A senior colleague agreed, arguing that the committee needed a man – specifically a man – with business experience.
In some ways, much has changed since then, including the boundaries of respectable language, outlawing of sex discrimination in the workplace, and statutory maternity pay and leave. But local politics, numerically at least, remains dominated by men, with only eight of the 40 seats in the States occupied by women. In fact, the proportion of women deputies fell at the last election, from roughly one in three to closer to one in five.
The local charity Women in Public Life, set up by Shelaine Green, wants to do something about this. Next Monday it is hosting a public event – ‘It doesn’t have to be this way’ – to explore how the States can move beyond what it has described as growing tribalism and disrespect, which it sees as especially discouraging to women who might otherwise consider entering politics. Another of its initiatives is a politics group: members get updates and commentary on States meetings and some meet monthly to discuss a hot topic.
When I recently met three of its members – Daisy Chapple, Susie Gallienne and Christine Potter – I started by asking them whether their politics group was different, healthier even, because of the absence of men.
‘It’s hard to draw a conclusion, but we are careful to be respectful of each other. It’s a safe place for a frank exchange of views,’ said Christine.
‘By the way, men are allowed to join us, but we’re trying to avoid characters who might come in and not fit with the sort of debates we have, which are constructive and informative.’
‘I also think it’s important to note that women have been excluded from politics historically. Providing a space like this means there’s easier access for women,’ said Daisy.
‘The history here – here particularly – has been of a place where the great businessmen and people who had enough money not to work made the laws and it’s been like an old boys’ club, which has changed only to a certain extent,’ said Susie.
One female deputy, Sue Aldwell, recently wrote in the Guernsey Press that she would not encourage any woman to enter the States because of what she saw as prejudice against women from outside the Assembly, in particular in the media. Though her recommendation was rebuked by female colleagues who want to see more rather than fewer women in the States, several recognised her experience of misogyny in and around politics.
‘I’ve noticed a marked difference this term,’ said Lindsay de Sausmarez.
‘I’ve been in several meetings which have become very aggressive in tone and sometimes even abusive, and I do think the fact these meetings tend to be very male-heavy is a pertinent factor.
‘I’ve witnessed and heard of behaviour that would not be acceptable in any other workplace, and while it’s sometimes directed at men my impression is that women are disproportionately subjected to it.’
‘Is it because I am a woman? I think that plays a large factor in the tone of negativity played out in print,’ said Andrea Dudley-Owen, a panellist at next Monday’s public event. ‘I have seen comments about my appearance, my performance, my ability and more recently, and quite amusingly, my voice. These are designed to undermine me and my reputation rather than seeking to challenge my policies or leadership.’
Susie, 64, a retired health visitor who now runs the charity Wigwam, is not put off and intends to stand at the next general election in 2025.
‘I feel strongly that a politician’s job is to take out barriers to good health as much as possible. It’s a chance to be part of the engine which gets the island going,’ she said.
‘Our Women in Public Life group is great training. Shelaine puts together notes, we get lots of information, and we debate issues thoroughly. I have always felt it is disgraceful that we have some politicians who haven’t done their homework before they start.’
Daisy, 23, who hopes to start a university course in the near future, also sees politics as the best instrument to shape society. ‘I had a political upbringing because my parents were into politics. We were very poor and part of what got me interested in politics was learning about wealth inequality. I’m also a diehard feminist,’ she said.
‘I was thinking of going into education and being a teacher or maybe a social worker, but I eventually concluded that important change comes from within a system, and to me that means politics. I think you can do great work outside politics and many people do, but I feel like I could make the most difference inside politics, whether that means standing for election or just existing within the political sphere, if that makes sense.
‘Through Women in Public Life, I’ve had the opportunity to step out of the echo chamber we all tend to live in and speak to women with very diverse views, and I’ve found that exciting and helpful.’
Christine, 59, had always followed international politics, but it was Women in Public Life which stoked her interest in local politics. ‘I think this group is extraordinary. It is a great source of factual, up-to-date and relevant information,’ she said.
‘It provides a safe environment, encouragement, training, and shared knowledge. The majority of our members might not want to stand for election at the moment – it’s not an obligation. But we provide encouragement and support which were not there before.’
Women make up a majority of parliamentarians in only a handful of countries. But in much of Europe women now hold between 25% and 50% of seats. Guernsey made big strides to get up towards the global average at the 2016 election, after a campaign backed by the States to encourage more women candidates, but since the 2020 election, when the States made no such effort, the island has lagged a long way behind again. Women in Public Life has calculated that women who put themselves forward for election or interview are just as successful as men, but not that many have been standing in the first place.
‘Something is stopping them, and Guernsey is losing out on talent and experience as a result. We’re working to identify those barriers and help overcome them,’ said Shelaine.
Heidi Soulsby, who until recently was vice-president of the States’ senior committee, Policy & Resources, and who is also a panellist at Monday’s event, does not think misogyny is the problem. Indeed, she fears that exaggerating the presence of misogyny in local politics could needlessly put women off standing.
‘I have not experienced misogynistic behaviour in the States, either personally or to others, until this term. It is limited to a minority of individuals, but it has been unedifying to witness nonetheless,’ she said.
‘In my experience there is not a lot of misogyny directed from outside the States. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, but really it is not a big issue at all. I think one must not confuse speaking truth unto power as misogyny. Certainly, it would not be good for democracy were any political commentator to feel that they could not criticise the actions of a female politician for fear of being accused of misogyny. As a politician, you have to accept that what you say and do will, quite rightly, be open to challenge and not everyone will agree with you. That is nothing to do with whether you are a man or a woman.’
Daisy is not so sure. ‘This is a global issue. Generally, you find fewer women in leadership positions because of historic sexism and misogyny which remains rampant even in the 21st century,’ she said.
‘I hear it in States meetings. Deputies have said they have been bullied. There was one who spoke in the Press recently about the level of misogyny she had faced. In a lot of cases, it may not be outwardly and consciously misogynistic, but there’s still this underlying tone which is ever present.’
Christine thinks self-doubt is bound to be a factor behind the relatively low number of women candidates. ‘Without wishing to generalise, it’s true that we often tend to say we’re not up to it – we don’t meet the requirements, we haven’t got the experience, we’re not good enough, we wouldn’t want to do it half-heartedly, and so on,’ she said.
Christine is referring, of course, to a generalisation with more than a grain of truth: men tend to overstate their ability while women tend to understate theirs. A point which always reminds me of something once said by the controversial Canadian politician and journalist Charlotte Whitton: ‘Whatever women do they must do twice as well as men to be thought half as good. Luckily, this is not difficult.’
Susie believes that maternal considerations are also easily overlooked. ‘Women who want children also want to look after their children alongside work. Men maybe less so. I think that stands in the way. Making politics more childcare-friendly would make it more accessible to women,’ she said.
This all matters, of course, because a woman should find politics as accessible as a man, and it’s politics, not women, who should do the adapting. But I’m also interested in their views on how politics in Guernsey might differ if the Assembly comprised the same proportion of men and women as society does, which would require another dozen or so women States members.
‘I think we often have more of a view on helping and supporting people who aren’t as fortunate and making sure everybody is included,’ said Susie.
‘I think you would have a fairer view from a more diverse demographic,’ said Daisy. ‘But gender is just the beginning. We were talking about this in our politics group this week. I think having different levels of wealth represented is a big issue as well. We need more people in the States than wealthy men. If there were more people in the Assembly who the general public could identify with, I think a lot more people would be interested in politics and have some encouragement to get into politics themselves. We’re a more diverse community these days and that needs to be reflected in the States.’
The youngest member of the politics group is only 15 years old. Christine described her as ‘phenomenal’. And Daisy believes perceptions of political apathy or indifference among young people are somewhat misplaced.
‘I have a few friends who are really interested in local politics. If something crazy happens, we’ll text each other about something said in a debate, and we discuss local politics quite a lot,’ she said.
‘Then there’s a wider group of people I know who aren’t as interested in local politics but are politically minded and they want to talk about politics generally.’
Monday’s event also features a guest speaker, Jennifer Nadel, who is co-founder of Compassion in Politics, a cross-party organisation that works for compassion, inclusion and co-operation in UK politics, and runs the Global Compassion Coalition. She trained as a barrister and is an author, campaigner and award-winning TV journalist.
For more information about Monday’s event, go to https://womeninpubliclife.gg/index.php/2023/05/03/it-doesnt-have-to-be-this-way/
For more information about the politics group run by Women in Public Life, go to bit.ly/WIPLPoliticsGroup