Kirsty Strickland: High time a female politician’s opinions were more important than her ovaries and hairstyle

This article was originally printed in the National Newspaper on 28 October 2015.

AWARD-WINNING blogger Kirsty Strickland tackles the controversial issue of women’s equality on public boards in her latest article for The National after winning a bursary as part of this year’s Write to End Violence Against Women Awards.

THERE are many reasons why women are still vastly underrepresented in Parliament. The General Election in May saw a record number of women elected. The fact remains, however, that this “best ever” result of 29 per cent female MPs is still woefully short of true gender balance.

We can look to the way that female politicians are presented to us in the press to see with glaring clarity why for many young women public life just isn’t an option. There is a certain unique scrutiny about being female and occupying a politician’s platform.

A new hairstyle seemingly cannot be left uncommented upon. What she wears during an interview often gains more coverage than the words she used. The content of her wardrobe far too often has a higher significance placed upon it than her contribution to the debate. We require that she demonstrates that she is tough enough to do the job but deride her for being “cold” or “icy”. She must be presentable on camera, but if her dress rides up and we catch a glance of her knee then that is the photo that will be used in subsequent news stories. Sexy is frowned upon, but she also must not be frumpy or dowdy.

Similarly, if she has children, criticisms are levelled about her ability to juggle family and office. If she doesn’t, her womanliness and empathy is brought into question. Such as in the case of former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard. During her time in office, Gillard was accused by one senator of being “deliberately barren” and the fact that she didn’t have children was regularly commented upon by the Australian press.

Nicola Sturgeon has faced similar intrusive questions about why she doesn’t have children, particularly during the General Election campaign when her profile was raised UK-wide. When an STV interview was aired in which she was asked again about her reproductive decisions, the social media mood seemed to be: “It’s none of our damn business.”

Sturgeon, more diplomatic than the line of questioning deserved, replied: “Alex Salmond doesn’t have children. I’m not aware of reading an interview or seeing an interview with Alex Salmond asking that question.

“So yes, I understand it but I think it’s just one of these things. I’m not moaning about this but it’s just one of these things that I think is just a bit different if you’re a woman in politics.”

During the General Election campaign, sexism in the press reached peak silliness with The Sun’s crude mocked-up front cover of the First Minister in underwear, straddling a wrecking ball.

It is said to reduce nerves while giving a speech or presentation to imagine your audience naked. It makes them seem less intimidating. Objectifying a woman by Photoshopping her as scantily-clad reduces her power and credibility. Yes, she may be the leader of a country but we’ve shown you what she would look like in a tartan bra and she’s not so powerful now.

We are, albeit gradually, heading towards a political arena with more women in Parliament and positions of influence. It is critical, therefore, that our media gets over the novelty of powerful women and unfocuses itself from trivialities like aesthetics. As Talat Yaqoob, chair of the Women5050 campaign, points out: “Women leaders are discussed as clothes hangers rather than as leaders with political opinions.”

When women in public life are reduced to details about their weight or haircut that is space that could be taken up discussing their policies, achievements and contributions. This matters, because we don’t have enough women in Parliament as it is without creating an ever more off-putting and hostile media environment for potential new candidates.

With Holyrood elections just around the corner, we are in the exciting position of seeing three women leading the major parties. We need political reporting that scrutinises the leaders for their policies rather than their appearance.

We need the wider press to take a step back and ask themselves: is this really of interest to the public? If the article they are pondering is about the cooking ability, clothes choices or reproductive status of Kezia, Ruth or Nicola, then the answer surely can only ever be no.

ChamberRearIIHR20101006 (1)Women’s contributions here matter more than what they are wearing. Image © Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body – 2012. Licensed under the Open Scottish Parliament Licence v1.0.
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