Women in public leadership – my experience. (Talk delivered to RGU Advanced Nursing Practice course)

Good morning,

I was invited along this morning as a “Woman in Leadership” and that is the perspective I am going to take in this talk this morning.

Even today, despite making up 52% of Scotland’s population, women only make up 36% of public boards, less than 35% of MSPs and 24% of Councillors. In addition, only 6 of the leaders of Scotland’s 32 council are women, and only one of those has held office since 2012.

The under-representation of women in local councils is despite the fact that Scotland has a system of proportional representation with single transferable voting, which was supposed to refresh politics and provide new opportunities for women to be selected and elected.

The current situation is not good enough, and it is estimated that unless radical change is pursued, it would take another 50 years for us to reach an equal parliament.

It also matters to every one of us here, because it means that a large proportion of the population. Is not adequately represented – that issues which many people want discussed, might not get air-time.

We need to use every opportunity to talk about women in public leadership in Scotland.

What then stops women standing as councillors and becoming leaders?

Looking across our communities, I’m sure we can all name women who are contributing to civic life – perhaps running parent councils, allotment groups, community buses, local charities. Yet only a small proportion of these ever considering standing for election.

The reasons given by academics Johnston and Elliot from Glasgow, include the conflict between home life and political duties. Now, I appreciate that I am talking to a room of people for whom long hours and weekend working are very familiar – but they are a barrier for many, as Johnston and Elliot found in a survey they conducted.

Despite more men taking on domestic and caring responsibilities in the home, we have a long way to go until society accepts this change.

As Brenda Trenowden, the Global Chair of the 30% Club said, it is usual to hear the question “are you a working mother?” asked, but very rare to hear the question “are you a working father?”

There are also cultural barriers to women standing as councillors.

There is still a perception that politics is for men. The image of the confrontational nature of the political arena, the reality of continual competition, and the existence of an “old boys network” in political parties, does not inspire many women to enter the fray.

Perhaps women also have a natural tendency to trust, which can soon turn to disillusionment in the political world.

There is also unfortunately a practice for people not to accept women as elected representatives: I have indeed had to insist on doorsteps and at meetings that yes, I am the councillor in a way that I have not seen male colleagues having to do.

It reminds me of my grandfather years ago not wanting to be treated by a female doctor – in his words, she can’t be properly qualified can she???

The media too reinforces these barriers – who remembers the image of Nicola Sturgeon swinging from a chain clad in a tartan bikini used by The Sun before the 2015 election? Or the description in The Daily Mail in 2016 of “The Iron Lassie. Kickboxing lesbian Ruth Davidson? Or the debate about whether the fact Theresa May did not have children weakened her case as a party leader? How often do we see similar portrayals of male politicians?

As Talat Yaqoob of the Women 50:50 campaign said, “When you have media critiquing women leaders or potential leaders not for their policy stances, but what they wear, their haircuts, their personal lives and the pitch of their voices, it is not surprising that fewer women than men come forward to take on these roles. Who would put themselves under that level of cruel scrutiny? It is old, it is tired, it is time for it to stop.”

But I stood for election in 2012 and became co-leader of Aberdeenshire Council this year.
What made me cross these barriers?

I had an issue for which to fight.
As a teacher and a parent, I could see things happening in education which I did not feel comfortable with. I could sit and moan, or I could do something.
I took inspiration from Barack Obama’s Chicago speech of February 5 2008 :

“Change will not come if we wait for some other person or if we wait for some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek. ”

In terms of leadership – I had an aim.

I have three daughters.
We know that women in Scotland have played a central role in securing social and economic progress – among them the women who joined Mary Barbour’s army to fight against rent rises and the trade union women who campaigned to secure fair representation in the first Scottish Parliament.
But progress for women seems to have slowed – the glass ceiling is still there.
I want the world which my daughters and their peers enter on leaving education to be different from the one I entered.

In terms of leadership – I had a vision.

I was willing to take a risk.
In 2011 I had a permanent teaching job in Mearns Academy in Laurencekirk – a job which Ioved. I had to give this job up to stand for election – with no certainty of electoral success.
Sometimes in life, being willing to take a risk is the only way.

In terms of leadership – I saw an opportunity and went for it.

And what makes it work?
This is Aberdeenshire – we do things differently here!
We believe that flexible working can bring benefits not only to individuals but also to the organisation.

In Aberdeenshire, in 2014/15 61.1% of the top 5% of earners were female – the best ranking in Scotland. We are developing Work Smart practices for staff – using technology to enable flexible working practices that make it easier for everyone – male and female – to work at times and in places that suit them.

And we have a unique council leadership too – in that we have a job-share arrangement in place
We are the only council in Scotland, perhaps anywhere, with this modern arrangement.
It means that my co-leader Richard Thomson and I can specialise in the areas most closely associated with our own particular experience and expertise.

It means that we can acknowledge the family and caring commitments each other has and support each other to achieve balance while also undertaking all council duties.

It means we can bring together a wider group of councillors in work in co-operation to deliver for Aberdeenshire.

We have a leadership developed for the circumstance and designed to work.

But what difference does a female co-leader make?

Firstly – leadership style:

Looking at the male environment in which I now find myself, I would say that my natural style is more about co-operation, about partnership and working together to make things happen. I see potential in others, and seek to help them develop it. I am more willing to identify common goals and to work towards them through regular communication.

And coffee!
I’ve never drunk so much coffee!

It’s about bringing people together as teams.

I always thought that my particular style of working had evolved from my experience working in schools.
In my experience in schools, the collegiate has always shone through – all staff, whether teachers, support staff, clerical or janitorial staff, have worked together for the common goal of the best teaching and learning possible for the pupils. And whatever the formal hierarchy, there has always been a spirit of respect for each other and the skills they bring.

But now I read in work by Bryan Krinzman that my style is actually a female leadership model.
Women, he says, lead and create flat organisational structures that allow for a more collegial atmosphere. Female leaders typically promote cooperation and collaboration amongst team members. And place emphasis on mentoring and training colleagues.

I recognise myself in this.

Secondly: the issues which now have prominence:

I do believe that I have contributed a particular view to the workings of Aberdeenshire.

Yes, my colleagues in Administration do share a concern to deliver the best to our residents and communities across Aberdeenshire.

But as we are in the middle of the Sixteen Days of Action against Gender Based Violence, it is appropriate to reflect that it is me as a female leader who has given high priority to tackling gender based violence in our communities.
As we look back on the successful St Andrews Day March in Aberdeen at the weekend to celebrate diversity and combat racism, in which I marched alongside our Aberdeenshire Syrian New Scots, we can see how far we have come since I put my motion to Full Council to accept Syrian refugee families. Family groupings of refugees.

And the work in Aberdeenshire to support looked after children is championed by female councillors.

And it is female politicians across Scotland who have led the campaign to combat period poverty – to give all the girls in our schools the ability to focus on their studies rather than worry about personal hygiene and thus the confidence to achieve and contribute to breaking down that attainment gap.

So, to conclude, what can we draw out from this as reflections on leadership:
We need to continue the work for equality between men and women in councils and public bodies so more of the population can be fairly represented.

In my experience, once in office, it is developing a sense of purpose that will motivate these women to step forward and lead.

That once they do so, the working practices in the organisations they lead, will become more inclusive, more focussed on co-operation than confrontation. And the issues that are scrutinised will reflect more accurately those experienced across our communities.

The work for equality in the leadership of public bodies is something to which we can all contribute.

To finish – the words of Hillary Clinton:
“Always aim high, work hard, and care deeply about what you believe in. And, when you stumble, keep faith. Never listen to anyone who says you can’t or shouldn’t go on.”