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International Women’s Day

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:49 pm on 5th March 2020.

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Photo of Anne McLaughlin Anne McLaughlin Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Women), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Equalities) 12:49 pm, 5th March 2020

I absolutely agree. I was just going on to say that even when we cajole some women and say, “Come on, just tell me something you’re good at,” they will say things like, “Well, my friends think I am quite good at—” It is very difficult to get things out of them.

It is all to do with conditioning. Boys are brought up, on the whole, to be ambitious, bold and confident and to expect to be important in life. Girls are brought up to look after everyone else, including those important men, to be the peacemakers and to look pretty. How many times, when we meet a little girl, is the first thing we say to her that she looks really pretty? How many times do we say to a little boy how clever he is? Clearly that girl will grow up judging herself on how she looks or how she does not look, and the boy will focus on being clever and running the world.

I am not talking just about parents, although they obviously have an influence. I was brought up by two parents who regularly drummed into me that I was as good as anyone else—no better, no worse, but as good as. I was encouraged by them to conquer the world, but not by the society I grew up in. The influences around us, such as the media, teachers and other people involved in a child’s life, can be really powerful, so I was really impressed to read that the Scottish Government last month held the first meeting of a taskforce to tackle gender stereotyping in the classroom. We need a lot more of that.

The other thing we women need is our male allies. I am happy to say that there are many in here. There are many on the SNP Benches, and many in my own life. I want to make one suggestion about how men in politics can be our allies on a practical level, but before I do, I want to go back to the issue of conditioning and to acknowledge that not all the conditioning that boys receive is positive. One area where girls and women fare better is talking about emotions. We are allowed to do that, but boys and men are not. When I talk about conditioning, it is not to suggest that we get it right with boys either.

What can our male allies do to support women in politics? I did quite a bit of work last year in the Gambia to support political parties to get more women, among other groups, involved in politics. Almost every female political activist told me she needed training in public speaking, but I spotted something far more fundamental, which I have spotted in other countries, including our own. Many of the women were not even speaking in the small roundtable party meetings; those who did regularly had their sentences finished for them, and they accepted that. I am not singling out the Gambia, because mansplaining is a worldwide phenomenon, as we all know. I realised that I had work to do with the women on how to make their voices heard on a more fundamental level. I also recognised that I had work to do with the men. It is like all forms of unconscious bias: most people do not intend to practise bias. Most men would likely be horrified if they discovered that they were creating barriers.

The one thing that men can do is to look at their behaviour in meetings. They need to recognise that just because a woman says nothing or little in a meeting does not mean that she has nothing or little to say. It is simply that we often communicate differently. We are also often surrounded by very confident men who have a lot to say, and that is absolutely acceptable, but our voice inside starts to tell us to doubt the validity of what we were going to say. Women MPs may hide it well, but we are not immune to this behaviour. For example, right now, my pages are covered with notes saying, “Cut, if they are bored.” “Cut, if they are bored.” And, “Cut, if they are bored.” I had assumed that people would be bored and that I would have been talking for too long. Perhaps I am, but I am going to force myself not to cut my speech, if that is alright with you, Madam Deputy Speaker—yes, it looks like it is okay.

I am not just talking about women MPs; I am talking about people who come into Parliament for meetings with us. I am talking about our party members. I am talking about support staff. I have lost count of the number of times that I have left a meeting and been approached by a woman who did not speak a single word and who starts talking to me on a one-to-one basis and giving me some really important and interesting information. Therefore, one thing that our male allies, and also other women, can do is invite individuals to speak and not allow their sentences to be finished for them.

I did some training with women MPs—they were, in fact, Deputy Speakers—in Nepal this time last year. I was there to help them get media coverage, because the male MPs were getting it all. I turned up at the conference hall and it was half full of men. They had heard about the training—this is the male MPs—and they felt put out that they had been excluded. The women felt sorry for them and invited them to join the session, but it changed the entire dynamic and had I not found ways to work around it, it would have defeated the purpose of my being there at all.

I think it would be helpful to say how it changed the dynamic. When I was trying to establish what holds women MPs back from engaging with the media, I asked a number of questions. One was, “Hands up if you ever feel that what you have to say to a journalist is probably not that important after all.” Not one woman put her hand up, but I knew from speaking to them privately that most of them did experience that self-doubt; they just did not want to talk about it in a roomful of confident men. Some men put their hands up, but it was to tell me how vitally important their stories were to the media. Therefore, they gave me the opposite of what I was asking. As I have said, I found ways around that and one was to say, “May I take the first three responses from women, please?” That works in a larger setting. It is something that I have seen male allies do. In the more intimate setting of a round-table meeting, I ask men to please just remember that a woman who is saying nothing is not doing so because she has nothing to say.

Finally, I conclude with two asks of the Government. I spent recess in Malawi. As an aside, just because so many women have mentioned this, let me say that I went on a constituency visit with an MP, and her MP colleague gave the most passionate speech to hundreds of people about why they should retain her—there is a campaign called “Retain Her Malawi”. I thought that it was really nice that these two women in the same party were supporting each other. But they were not in the same party at all—it was the equivalent of my going along to a constituency in Scotland with a Conservative or a Labour MP, saying that they must vote for her next time. It was really interesting to watch the way that the women in that caucus supported each other.

Members will see that I have a piece of cloth wrapped around me. It was given to me by Linga, Oxfam’s Malawi director. I was in Malawi, as I have said, for the women’s caucus conference for all 44 women MPs in Malawi—23% of its Parliament is now made up by women. The conference was organised by Oxfam and supported by the Westminster Foundation for Democracy. The cloth is printed with the words, “Take action, say no to violence against women.” A lot of good work is going on in Malawi, much of it funded by both the Scottish and the UK Governments, so that is fantastic.