SCOTLAND is leading the way in the UK when it comes to women politicians, with a “slow cultural shift” – but there is still far more work to be done, campaigners say.

The Holyrood elections of 2021 saw a record number of women elected to the Scottish Parliament. They won 58 seats and make up 45% of the total number of MSPs, including the first women of colour. 

At Westminster, women make up 35% of MPs. Whether that figure will improve at the next General Election, remains to be seen.

The Elect Her campaign is working to do just that, with the aim of “building a world” where women will make up 51% or more of elected officials in all forms of political office.

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Since the campaign was set up seven years ago, more than 8000 women have attended workshops and gained practical skills to assist them in progressing in a career in politics. Elect Her supported 60 women at the 2022 local elections in Scotland, with half of them elected as councillors.

CEO Hannah Stevens (below), says much of Elect Her’s work initially involves “demystifying” the process and dispelling misconceptions, such as  people needing to study politics before standing for election.

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She said: “At the very beginning of women’s engagement, we do a lot of demystifying – what is politics, what does a councillor do, what does an MSP do, what does a community councillor do?

“It’s very much about demystifying the process and political literacy and providing a safe space for women to ask the questions they want to ask about the fundamentals of Scottish democracy.

“A lot of women think you need a certain qualification and to have studied politics of some sort. They think they just don’t know enough, which just absolutely isn’t true. So we really affirm where you do and don’t need experience or educational qualifications.”

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Another stage of the process is helping women to explore how to get more involved, such as whether to join a political party or remain independent.

Stevens said: “You might be a single-issue campaigner and not choose the political party route. We offer coaching and training around identifying what your values and goals are and then connecting where you can make a change. For example, if you’re passionate about green space in your local area, then the local council is the place for you.

“Whereas if you’re passionate about the defence budget, then it’s got to be Westminster. Or if you’re passionate about Scottish healthcare, then it’s the Scottish Parliament. So your area of interest determines which political space you should be exploring a journey towards.”

The next focus for the campaign group is the General Election, as well as local elections in England in May.

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The programme of support available to women candidates includes practical training workshops in public speaking and using social media, advice clinics and monthly care sessions to “connect as human beings”.

The group has also launched an election toolkit encouraging women to get involved, with advice ranging from how to influence candidates to how to organise a hustings.

Stevens said the campaign also includes support for women of colour and women with disabilities who face additional barriers and a key element is that Elect Her is not party political.

“We’re there as human beings –we’re not there as a member of the SNP or a Scottish Conservative,” she said. “We’re just there as women who are on this journey, contributing in whatever way, and we kind of leave party politics at the door.”

When it comes to progress in recent years, Stevens said the “leap forward” that was made in increasing the percentage of women MSPs in 2021 was a “real positive”.

“There is a slow cultural shift within Holyrood which sometimes you can’t see,” she said. “But I really do think there have been conversations, improvements to the way parliament operates.”

She added: “So at this moment in time, the Scottish Parliament is leading the way in terms of the percentage of women in any sphere of government across the UK and I think you can feel that.

“I am optimistic, and I think we’ve started to see a shift there ever so slowly and slightly, but I’d say it’s certainly there.”