Disappointing, but not surprising, is the way in which the news that only eight female candidates are standing for Western Isles Council has been summed up.
Comhairle Nan Eilean Siar is the only all male council in the whole of the UK.
Islanders and equality campaigners were stunned in 2017 when none of the seven women who stood were elected for the Western Isles. Only one, an incumbent, came close to winning a seat in the 31-member authority.
Alarmed council officials staged an online workshop in January to persuade more women to stand in these elections.
A spokesman for the council said: “Over 90 women registered to take part in the online workshops which were held with Elect Her, to discuss standing for election and the possible barriers which prevented women from standing. Former female councillors took part and shared their experience and thoughts.”
Hannah Stevens, chief executive of Elect Her, said: “We applaud Comhairle nan Eilean Siar for taking proactive steps to encourage women to come forward as candidates for the May 2022 elections. Women in the space shared with us their concerns over juggling the large responsibilities of the council with other work and caring responsibilities as well as the toxic culture that they see in the council chamber. We hear these reflections from women across the country, not only in this community.
“It was disappointing, although not surprising, to see little to no progress in terms of low numbers of women on the ballot papers in the Western Isles for the upcoming elections. We hope we’ll see progress on Thursday and see some of those women elected, to bring women’s voices back to the decision making table across the Western Isles.
“Dismantling male-dominated political spaces is long term, multi-generational work and is the responsibility of all those holding power.”
Maternity and paternity leave
She called for the introduction of formal maternity and paternity leave, work and travel policies that consider caring responsibilities and maintaining virtual access to council meetings.
The ban on council employees standing for election prohibits many women, given the local authority is a large employer. Another obstacle is pay, with councillors earning around £18,600 a year.
One of the candidates is Catriona Murray, 46, of Broadbay on Lewis.
She is a lecturer with UHI Outer Hebrides in Gaelic history and folklore.
Mrs Murray said: “I resigned my SNP membership to stand as an independent. There is an SNP incumbent who is standing again.
“I felt strongly about standing on an independent ticket. I don’t think party politics are particularly helpful on a council like this and priorities of the community have to come before party allegiance.
“The emphasis should be on getting the right candidate rather than political alliances.
“I want to see more women in there. I was elected four years ago to the board of Stornoway Trust, the community landowner. I was the only woman on there for three years.
Things are better with a combination of men and women
“My time with Stornoway Trust showed me that I think things are better with a combination of men and women working together.
“Men and women have different ways of working. I don’t think one way is better than the other.
“I think you need both. Different situations call for different perspectives. Any fully rounded organisation would have both.
“It is a shame that there are no women councillors in the Comhairle.
“People looking in from the outside might get the wrong idea that we are inherently sexist here.
“Women have a good chance of becoming elected, they are just not standing in great numbers.
“One issue to consider is the council is a big employer. A lot of women who might consider standing work for the council.
“That would mean giving up their job and the rate of pay for councillors is not going to attract you from a full time job.
Primary care givers
“Women with families are very often the primary care givers and it is very much a question of fitting it in with everything else they do.
“I went into this very much as an underdog. It is a three member ward and there are three incumbent councillors. I’m not hugely confident.
“We have had very strong female councillors in the past and they have set the bar quite high for other women. I would like to see that bar being set high right across the board.”
Frances Murray, 59, of Stornoway, is an SNP candidate for Stornoway South.
She said: “It is so unfortunate that we have had no female councillors in the last session.
“I feel that doesn’t reflect very fairly on the women of the Western Isles.
“I think one of the main reasons for that is probably a disproportionate number of us work for the council, which rules us out from standing.
“Unfortunately, it does mean that women’s perspectives aren’t being heard.
“I hope we can change that.”