Women who served as councillors across Scotland have faced threats of violence, racist abuse, and sexual harassment during their time in office, as new figures reveal that one in three female councillors stepped down at the 2022 election.
Facing abuse online and offline, lacking support to juggle family and working responsibilities – combined with low wages – are said to be disincentivising women from participating in local politics and, as statistics show, running again once their term is up.
A freedom of information request to Scottish local authorities by The Ferret has revealed that nearly half of all councillors elected in Scotland stepped down ahead of the May 2022 local elections, equivalent to 46 per cent.
Proportionally, more women councillors left the role behind than men, even though they made up just 29 per cent of Scottish councillors. Based on the responses of 24 local authorities, at least 101 of 355 women elected to Scottish councils stepped down from their roles ahead of the May 2022 race, totalling 28 per cent of candidates.
Meanwhile at least 191 out of 871 male councillors stepped down from their position this year, equivalent to 22 per cent.
Pippa Hadley made history as the first Greens councillor in Badenoch & Strathspey on Highlands Council.
“Energised” by the Scottish independence referendum, the part-time Co-op shop assistant and counselling student decided to throw her hat in the ring in the 2017 local elections.
Hadley won the seat, which took her by surprise. Alongside her studies and job, she was a single parent, and hadn’t been able to campaign as extensively as the other candidates.
Now, on the other side of her five-year term and reckoning with the reality of the role, Hadley described her experience serving Highlands council as “an ordeal that I’m still processing.”
Like a myriad of women councillors across Scotland, Hadley felt limited and targeted in her role because of her gender.
Hadley claimed she was routinely mocked by colleagues for missing council meetings to attend classes, with a last-minute change to those meetings after she was elected putting her at a disadvantage.
Last October, she was subjected to a vicious verbal attack by a man who branded her “a cow who should be shot against a wall”.
The incident, which took place a week before the murder of Conservative MP David Amess, shook Hadley to the core. The man was sentenced to 12 months in prison.
But Hadley said the abuse and jibes were not limited to this attack – but something she experienced at the hands of her own colleagues.
“People do not behave properly at all. There’s no protection,” she said. “I felt like a fish out of water. There was a lot of talk of misogyny, and I didn’t know who to trust.
“One male councillor presented my motion in his name, one asked if I’d accused him of bullying after I disclosed confidentially to another colleague how his behaviour had made me feel. In this election, someone drew a penis ejaculating onto my face on the ballot paper. I’ve often been left in tears.”
Hadley’s time in local government chimes with the accounts of other councillors who spoke to The Ferret about the challenges facing women and representatives from minority backgrounds, who claimed they are being shut out because the role is not evolving with the times.
Added to this, there are just six female council leaders of local authorities in Scotland. Four of these lead outright, and another two co-lead with a male counterpart in both Moray and Inverclyde.
Overall, statistics point towards small gains being made. The percentage of women councillors rose from 29 per cent in 2017 to 35 per cent in 2022, according to figures released by a researcher from the University of Strathclyde.
While the percentage is on the up, it lags behind the growing gender parity in Holyrood, and falls significantly short of the 50/50 gender split campaign groups are hoping to achieve.
Kirsteen Sullivan is one of the councillors who faced those barriers first-hand. Sullivan, who has served as a Labour councillor in West Lothian since 2017, said the demands of the role mean that representatives often work the equivalent of “split shifts,” starting the role in the morning and ending the day at 9pm.
“The first few months were a difficult balancing act. I needed to drop my children off at school, but also attend a 9am meeting,” she told The Ferret.
“The minute my husband got in from work, I’d be back out the door again. My meetings finished at 9.30 in the evening,” she added.
The morning meetings were pushed back to 9.30am, which helped Sullivan juggle her responsibilities. Since the coronavirus pandemic, some meetings have migrated online, meaning councillors can discuss issues from the comfort of their own homes.
But Sullivan said that not every councillor has a support system around them.
“You’re working from nine o’clock to three o’clock, and then you’re back out again in the evening. Now, can you imagine doing that if you’re a single parent? I have found it very challenging, keeping all those plates spinning,” she added.
Evison, who also works as a councillor for Mearns in Aberdeenshire, said “an outdated working culture” inadvertently affects women and minorities, and correcting it is “crucial” in redressing the imbalance.
Councillor wages are at the mercy of the Scottish government, who are responsible for setting the rates under the The Local Governance (Scotland) Act, written into the law in 2004.
The hours and responsibilities of the job have changed drastically in the last decade, Evison said. Wages that were once suitable for part-time work, when the average councillor was a white male retiree , now work out lower than the national living wage.
“When I was first elected in 2012, it was more about committee based work, and decision-making at the table,” Evison said. “Now we are out in the community.
“This is crucial to get more voices heard, but it also changes the role of a councillor and the hours of work they are doing, “ she said.
The way business is done is also “ill-suited,” putting those with childcare and other responsibilities to the test.
“Changing the rules and times of meetings can prove challenging because they’re often written into standing orders [the written rules of a council],” she added.
For some councillors, the challenges started before their roles began.
Frances Murray, an SNP councillor for Steòrnabhagh a Deas in the Western Isles, attracted a lot of attention when she ran for the position in May. The retiree was among the women candidates in the Western Isles who broke an all-male streak of council representatives, which had been the case since 2012.
While the news was welcomed, Murray expressed concerns that the level of national press attention she and the other female candidates received could “actually put women off standing for election”.
“I was very concerned that the national coverage of the lack of female councillors in the Western Isles would actually put women off standing for election,” she said.
Murray said that she felt “extremely well supported” by the party to carry out the role, and has not faced any issues because of her gender so far.
“I have had a good reaction locally to being elected, particularly from other women, which I think is encouraging,” she added.
For women councillors of colour, LGBT+ and disabled councillors, there are additional hurdles in place.
Dr Soryia B Siddique is the Labour councillor for Southside Central, in Glasgow, and deputy leader of the Glasgow Labour group.
Siddique has experienced Islamophobia in the role, including members of the public commenting that she wasn’t “electable” as she “wasn’t westernised enough.”
“Sometimes people don’t expect someone who looks like me, born and brought up in an area of deprivation, to be in elected office,” Siddique said.
“But history has proven that to be wrong as I have been elected for the third term in what is considered one of the most politicised wards in Scotland, in the centre of the First Minister’s constituency,” she added.
Siddique has witnessed the impact of the lack of diversity first-hand in her role. “I represent one of the most diverse wards where over 50 languages are spoken. At too many meetings in the last ten years I have been the only woman of colour at the meeting. That is not ok,” she added.
Ethan Young, a former councillor for Edinburgh City, works on disability charity Inclusion Scotland’s access to elected office fund, providing financial support for disabled people who need to have their access needs met in order to run for office.
Young said while a staggering 50 per cent of people in poverty are disabled, or have a disabled family member, rendering the low wage attached to the role even less attractive, the biggest barrier for disabled councillors centre around attitudes.
“It’s a competitive environment. It’s unforgiving. That can even be within your own political party,” Young said. “The personal targeting of politicians can be a massive stress, on top of an already intensely stressful job. People can be forgiven for thinking they could earn a lot more money with a lot less stress.”
The hurdles “compound” for disabled councillors, who Young said are “struggling for support thanks to a backlog of Access To Work applications”.
Access To Work is a government grant available to those with disabilities or health issues.
“That access support doesn’t happen on the spot – access to BSL interpreters means that you need to book well in advance,” Young said. “It’s a weird hybrid. You’re paid by the council, but they’re not your employer. You don’t have access to HR like another council employee would,” he added.
As the challenges and barriers to working as a council representative mount, councillors like Evison said tackling the root of the issue will require “a cross-party effort.”
By taking lessons from the shift in working patterns in response to Covid, councillors will be better equipped to participate – and enjoy – their time in office.
“We need to carry that going forward to better serve both communities and councillors right across Scotland,” she added.
A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “The recent local government elections saw a six per cent increase in the number of women elected, up from 29 per cent in 2017 to 35 per cent in 2022.
“It is vital that we encourage a wider range of people to seek election, including more women, ethnic minorities and younger people, so that councils can better reflect the society we live in.”
The Ferret contacted Glasgow Council for comment. Highland Council declined our request for comment.
Are Councils Working? is an investigation by The Ferret, co-published with The Herald, exploring local issues, services, communities and more.
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Illustration by David Peter Kerr