International women's day is a day for celebrating the contributions of women in our lives and in our institutions, and encouraging more women to take up space in public life. It is a day well known for its power to inspire lengthy articles and editorials about how much better public life, business, and politics would be if we had more women in senior positions.
Improving gender representation in politics is a worthy pursuit. Any political environment without women, or where women are underrepresented, isn’t making the most of the incredibly diverse range of skills and experiences every community has, and isn’t recruiting the best of the best to challenge the complex issues our political climate is characterised by. The way women act and approach the political process is often from a very different perspective.
But let us remember that women are not a different species.
International women's day brought with it, as it often does, many an article on how our political and economic problems simply would not have happened if we had just elected some women. A few too many of these articles became a tired repetition of that often quoted Lehman Sisters line, followed by sweeping paragraphs about women being free of bravado, explosive conflict, and cutthroat ambition. Veritable utopias painted of women sitting in small circles, conversing in indoor voices and reaching miraculous agreement by sheer virtue of being women, free of testosterone and anything that could be remotely described as a backbone.
I often wonder if the writers of such articles stumbled across a species of soft domestic animals, assumed that’s what women were, and went from there.
Women are socialised from a young age to value communication and cooperation, and having attended women only political events it’s beyond doubt that such skills in action make the political experience far more enjoyable. However, when we take an increased drive for cooperation and willingness to communicate at a reasonable volume and exaggerate such traits to construct a mythical ‘perfect’ woman politician we create a dangerous catch 22 that turns politics into an unwinnable game for the women we so desperately want to share our town halls and parliaments with.
Nicola Sturgeon, in her International Women's Day interview with The Herald, outlined this catch 22 in a way many women in politics will recognise all too well. In her interview she says:
It’s a no-win situation and you quickly realise this. If you behave in the way people expect women to behave, the danger is you are treated as not being serious enough. If you emulate the behaviours of the men around you, you are accused of not being feminine.
The women who attempt to conform to this extreme perfect model of women in politics, who sit in rooms and chat over tea until they come to amenable compromises but would never feel up to spitting fire at the dispatch box, struggle to climb the ranks in a deeply, and by the very nature of political ideology in democracy inherently, competitive political climate.
The women who behave in a ‘masculine’ fashion, leading the fight with fiery speeches and a fair but critical eye in opposition fare no better. These women, who are often characterised as taking on masculine traits to occupy space in a male dominated field, become ‘imperfect’ women who ought to be more like the other girls, take themselves less seriously, and build the quiet and conflict free utopia we place the heavy burden on women to create.
This becomes yet another unattainable standard of perfection women are expected to aspire to.
Women in politics should come from all walks of life. All of the women described in the previous example, and every woman in between, has a complimentary part to play in the political process. No one group of women is more of a woman than any other by virtue of how they fit into the diverse tableau of politics. We need all of these women to play different roles to make our political world work.
We will only achieve true equality in politics, and all other aspects of life, when we accept the fundamental fact that women are people. Women in politics are as diverse in their attitudes as men. Women can be as good at any aspect of politics, whether it’s public policy writing or Prime Ministers questions, as the men they compete and collaborate with. Women can be as awful, cruel and cutthroat in politics as men can be. Women are as capable, and as morally blameworthy, when they crash world economies while drinking £1000 bottles of champagne.
Excelling, or failing, in any aspect of politics doesn’t make a woman more or less ‘masculine’ because there's nothing masculine about being good or bad at politics.