THE standard response when someone announces that they are expecting a baby is to say “congratulations” and offer well wishes to them and their new addition.

Except when you’re a politician. In that case, the response from various strangers online is more likely to involve political digs, personal insults, and maybe some not-so-thinly-veiled misogyny or racism to ice the cake, depending on who the lucky expectant parent happens to be.

We’ve seen this in recent days following the news that First Minister Humza Yousaf and Economy Secretary Màiri McAllan are both expecting a new baby in their respective families this summer. It seems a sad reflection on the state of Scottish political debate that so many felt unable to demonstrate the basic decency it would take to simply say nothing at a moment like this.

However, the most intriguing reactions were from those who felt so moved to type out a response and post it publicly on the internet, only to express a sentiment along the lines of “who cares?”.

The National: Mairi McAllan Image: PA

Well, clearly you do, would be the obvious retort. But it’s also something that anyone invested in a truly representative and equally accessible political system should care about.

Considering that McAllan is only the second serving Scottish Cabinet Secretary to take maternity leave (after Kate Forbes), while Yousaf will become the only First Minister to have taken parental leave, this is an important step forward in sending a message that political leadership is not only for those who are able and willing to sacrifice any semblance of family life. There are still a great many barriers to political participation, and one of the hardest to overcome is having caring responsibilities – a circumstance which has a disproportionate impact on women.

McAllan summed up the significance of this well in her announcement on X/Twitter regarding her plans to take a “short period of leave” before returning to her duties: “I hope my example can show to all women & girls – and to Scotland generally – that starting a family should never be a barrier to holding senior positions. And that we’re stronger as a nation when our politics & government reflect our society (& when women and mothers are involved).”

The volume and vehemence of some of the responses to McAllan’s unremarkable but accurate comments – including accusations that she was being self-obsessed or out-of-touch, or somehow implying she is the first woman to have ever been pregnant – says a lot about what it means to be a woman in politics today.

One newspaper columnist even told McAllan “get over yourself” because low-income mothers struggling to balance paid work and childcare have it harder. This sort of reaction exhibits a total failure to grasp the point: the two issues are not mutually exclusive – in fact, they are two sides of the same coin.

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National Centre for Social Research data from as recently as 2019 found that more than two-thirds of childcare in mixed-sex couples was still carried out by women, while Scottish Government figures show that 85% of working-age people who are “economically inactive” because of caring responsibilities are women.

There is a direct link between these figures, women’s resulting economic inequality, and the fact that women are still underrepresented in all levels of our political system.

Drawing attention to that reality is not self-absorbed – it’s essential if we ever want this outlook to change. It was only through concerted efforts to increase the numbers of women elected to the Scottish Parliament that the 2021 election saw the proportion of women MSPs rise from 35% to 45%, while it remains the case that women make up only 35% of local councillors, and only 35% of MPs across the UK.

IT was just a few short years ago that several women MSPs stood down from their positions ahead of the election, citing the difficulty of balancing their job with family life. One of those was Aileen Campbell, who was balancing life with two young children alongside her role as Cabinet secretary for local government and MSP for Clydesdale – the same constituency McAllan represents today.

I seem to recall considerable discussion around that time about the implications of this for gender equality and a truly representative democracy in Scotland. Indeed, these concerns prompted the Scottish Parliament to conduct an audit of how its procedures and practices affect women’s participation, and published a series of recommendations just last year. Realising those recommendations, the report acknowledged, will be a long-term process which requires political commitment.

Attempts to denigrate efforts to highlight the importance of equality of access to political positions as somehow frivolous by comparison to other issues of the day are self-defeating. It is those who have access to those positions who ultimately get to decide that issues really matter.

If entire sections of our population are shut out from those opportunities – from “the room where it happens”, to quote the song in the musical Hamilton – their voices can be ignored or misrepresented.

This is apparent in the decisions made at Westminster to slash social security benefits while low-income women are plunged into poverty – an experience that very few of those with the chance to who vote on these cuts have ever had to countenance.

Conversely, the role of women in the history of Holyrood to date can be seen as fundamental to driving the strength of commitment the Parliament has shown to advancing gender equality on multiple fronts.

Perhaps it is a sign of the individualistic nature of our times that some can’t see past their own opinion of one person and how something might have an impact on them to appreciate that there is a much bigger picture at play which affects us all.

For every MSP, government minister or even first minister who works to change the culture of our politics to be less exclusive and more compatible with family life, there will be people around the country whose hesitations about getting involved in politics might be chipped away, even a little.

That’s not a small thing, and it’s one we should all be celebrating – regardless of our politics.