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New research: Devolved UK institutions “better for gender equality”

New research which investigated gender and linguistic participation in devolved governments of the UK: Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Women in the devolved institutions are performing better than their counterparts at Westminster, with Scottish MSPs leading the way, a Middlesex University academic has said.

Dr Sylvia Shaw, senior lecturer in English Language, analysed women members’ participation and attitudes towards the Scottish Parliament, Welsh and Northern Irish assemblies and the House of Commons. 

One of her findings was that women in the devolved institutions were far more likely to take part in all aspects of debates than in more traditional parliaments, including barracking whoever was speaking, an “illegal” intervention.

Dr Shaw said this was a marker of a powerful speaker who was confident in their environment, something her analysis of interviews with members of both sexes in all of the institutions reinforced.

Women in the Scottish parliament were found to have made far more so-called illegal interventions, as did Welsh and Northern Irish members, than their Westminster counterparts.

One of the key reasons for this, according to Dr Shaw, was because women had always been represented at the devolved institutions.

“If you feel like you’re an intruder then you’re on your best behaviour. You don’t speak out of turn, but women do this more in the devolved parliaments and assemblies, which suggests they have a sense of belonging and they’re not intimidated.  They don’t feel restrained,” she said.

“In my sample of debates, only two women in the House of Commons made illegal interventions Harriet Harman and Ann Widdecombe - between them they’ve had decades as Parliamentarians. So I think that really says it all.”

Female Scottish members led the way in participating in all aspects of debates. Dr Shaw said: “In the Scottish Parliament in particular, women participate across the board.  They make speeches, interventions and table questions in proportion to their numbers in the assembly.

“The banter between MSPs of different sexes was humorous rather than aggressive and there was even a flirtatious edge to the exchanges.” 

Dr Shaw added: “One of the female MSPs said she thought the relatively high participation of women in the chamber was down to the newness of the parliament, the fact there was a relatively high proportion of women from the start and also because they had always occupied key roles like Deputy Presiding Officer.  I think that’s an accurate way of summing up what’s going on there.”

In terms of “overall turns” women in the Scottish and Northern Irish Assemblies and House of Commons participated in proportion to their overall numbers.  Women in the Welsh Assembly did not but Dr Shaw suggests that this was more down to the way in which speaking turns are allocated and the gender make up of different political parties.  When interventions were broken down into different types, women in the devolved institutions fared better than in the traditional House of Commons.

In the Welsh Assembly, members thought that men and women participated equally in debates and the chamber did not feel “overly masculine”. 
“A number of male assembly members said gender made no difference in the assembly and people were judged on merit.  They also said that female members had less of a pantomime element to their style in general,” said Dr Shaw.

In the Northern Irish Assembly, some members interviewed thought the male-dominated chamber was intimidating for women and that women are targeted because they are thought of as “soft”, although others claimed they “give as good as they get”.

In keeping with her overall findings, Dr Shaw said that women at Stormont participated in all the different types of speaking turns and made sustained illegal interventions in debates.

 A common theme across all devolved assemblies was how both male and female members thought newer and younger women were given a “hard time” in the first terms of the new institutions, including in the media, but this had greatly improved.

And there were still examples of stereotypical attitudes towards gender in the devolved parliaments.

Dr Shaw said: “One male MSP described women as being ‘no shrinking violets when it comes to holding their own in debates’ and another described forceful women MSPs as ‘honorary men’.

For a more detailed analysis of Dr Shaw's research findings, read the summary of results.

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