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Devolution and women's participation

Middlesex University researcher explores women’s participation across the UK’s devolved parliaments

Research by Middlesex University's Dr Sylvia Shaw into the participation in devolved UK parliaments is being funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), and aims to further the understanding of factors affecting the political participation of women in the assemblies.

Devolved parliaments were established in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales in the late 1990s, as decision-making forums for their respective regions. The devolved parliaments aimed to create less formal and more inclusive debating arenas than in traditional parliament structures such as Westminster. The physical design of the devolved parliaments reflects this, with wide, open debating chambers, usually circular, offering easy visibility and good acoustics from all points in the room. But do participants find these debating forums more inclusive? And are these initiatives increasing the participation of female politicians – whose input into traditional parliamentary debates has sometimes been limited by excluding cultures and practices.

Dr Shaw’s research programme will cover the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Scottish Parliament, and the National Assembly of Wales and is the first linguistic research to look at women’s participation across all three parliaments. The ethos of the devolved parliaments is to aim for equal participation in debates and Dr Shaw’s research will explore how far this has been achieved, and how far old cultures have been replaced.

The new devolved parliaments have had women members from the outset – women make up 47% of the Welsh Assembly, 35% of the Scottish Parliament and 17% of the Northern Ireland Assembly. Women make up 20% of the House of Commons.

The research will be based on analysis of debating sessions and in-depth interviews with politicians. Transcriptions will also be made from televised debates to observe how men and women interact in the debating chamber – do they gain the debate ‘floor’ by breaking debate rules? Face-to-face interviews will explore participants’ experiences, to establish the ‘culture’ of different assemblies and whether these cultures encourages the linguistic participation of women.

The research findings will have implications for each assembly and could help to inform future policy and decision-making around gender and equal opportunities issues. They will also offer insight to researchers exploring the role of women in politics, commercial and professional life and to campaigning organisations such as The Fawcett Society. The findings may also have implications for political parties, and for national and international political research institutions. Above all, the research will offer a deeper understanding of how women interact in public life, which will be of interest public sector organisations, policy-making bodies and the general public.

Dr Shaw said: “As the devolved parliaments have now been in existence for ten years, this seems a very suitable time to explore their effectiveness in involving women members more. The findings should prove informative and create debate across a wide range of organisations – the assemblies themselves, different political parties, equalities research and campaigning organisations and national and international governmental advisory bodies”.

Dr Shaw has previously published research on women’s linguistic participation in the House of Commons and has also led workshops for third sector organisations campaigning for the increased representation of women in parliament.

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