By Gavin St Pier
THE past twelve months or more have not been so good for women in senior political positions. Deputy Kristina Moore may disagree, having been elected last year as Jersey’s first female Chief Minister, but look a little further afield and many other female leaders have left the political pitch.
Within the Channel Islands, Deputy Heidi Soulsby threw in the towel as Guernsey’s Deputy Chief Minister, having tried extremely hard to make her participation in the Policy and Resources Committee work effectively.
Sanna Marin, who became Prime Minister of Finland in 2019 at the age of 34, lost her office when her Social Democratic Party ceased to be the largest party in 2023’s Finnish parliamentary election.
In the southern hemisphere, her Kiwi counterpart, Jacinda Ardern, resigned both as Prime Minister of New Zealand and a member of parliament, saying she “no longer had enough left in the tank” and she wanted to spend more time with her young family.
Within days, the Scottish First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, echoed Ardern when she said the job “takes its toll on you.” In any event, subsequent inquiries by Police Scotland into her and her husband’s affairs would almost certainly have made her position untenable, had she still been in office.
Liz Truss had both a good and a bad year of her own making, albeit concertinaed into 44 days, making her the United Kingdom’s shortest serving Prime Minister.
So far, so factual. But by digging a little deeper, some common themes faced by women in politics start to emerge. Following a meeting between the two of them, Marin and Ardern faced a question from a male journalist asking if they were meeting “because you’re similar in age and got a lot of common stuff there.” Ardern challenged whether a similar question would have been put to men.
Indeed, there is no record that the youthful Chancellor of Austria, Sebastian Kurz, who first took up the post aged 30, ever faced anything like this. Marin rightly pointed out that she and Ardern were meeting because they were both Prime Ministers, not because they were women.
In 2017, the Daily Mail ran a front-page headline, “Never mind Brexit, who won Legs-it!” following a meeting between Prime Minister Theresa May and First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, accompanied by a half-page picture of the two seated women side-by-side with their legs in view. The sub-heading billed the article as a “light-hearted verdict on the big showdown.” It was demeaning objectification, and it is inconceivable following a meeting of two male leaders, there’d be a similar headline.
Sarah Vine, the journalist in question is unlikely to have written, following the meeting of Chamberlain and Hitler in Munich in 1938, in ‘a light-hearted verdict on appeasement,’ ‘Never mind the war, who’s got the more attractive moustache?’
Whilst in office, Marin faced intrusive questions in relation to how she relaxed in her personal downtime. This followed video footage of her partying and dancing in a private apartment which led to speculation of drug use, following which she voluntarily took a drugs test that proved negative. Similarly, Sturgeon faced speculation about her sexuality and love life.
This was in the same Johnsonian era of British politics when the number of the Prime Minister’s affairs and children was seen as being no political interest, although it might reasonably have been argued that his personal conduct and relationships spoke to his character, which informed his public life.
It is perhaps easier as a man than a woman to say that it is tougher for women in politics. In all but a handful of jurisdictions, women are in a minority.
If a man raises his voice, he may be characterised as passionate, strong or committed. If a woman does so, she may be described as shrill, angry or hysterical.
It’s perhaps no accident that Margaret Thatcher lowered the pitch of her voice, although it’s disputed whether or not this was as the result of any kind of training. A woman’s appearance and hair style are always seen as fair game for comment, whilst men’s rarely so, however ill-fitting the suit. Indeed, Johnson’s crumpled suits and artificially ruffled hair was dismissed as a by-product of the happy-go-lucky persona.
It’s pretty common in many meetings for men to talk to other men in the room, particularly if they are in the majority. If I sometimes feel uncomfortable at the limited eye contact with the women in the meeting, even if it is their question or comment being responded to, I do wonder how the women feel.
Many women can share anecdotes of how arguments they have presented are dismissed until re-presented or ‘mansplained’ by a man.
In Guernsey, there was a kerfuffle following an observation that when Deputy Lindsay de Sausmarez spoke in the Assembly, it appeared that a number of elected members – more men than women – were leaving the chamber or chatting. In some cases, these behaviours may be the result of conscious misogyny. However, it is far more likely that in the vast majority of cases, the behaviours are unconscious from long and deeply ingrained societal attitudes and practices.
No doubt many men, myself included, who may have inadvertently displayed some of these behaviours from time-to-time, would be horrified if they knew the impact of their actions.
The bad news is the next 12 months are unlikely to see significant improvement for women in politics. Unless or until there is greater equality between the number of women and men in political life, it is going to be difficult to effectively challenge and recalibrate men’s behaviour.
The risk is we are in a vicious circle, where politically interested women see how their political peers are treated and decide it’s a vocation that is really not for them, diminishing further the pool of female talent ready, willing and able to contribute to political life.
Gavin St Pier is a Guernsey politician. He previously served as the President of the island’s Policy and Resources Committee.