Western Isles workshop aims to attract more women into politics

Elect Her founder Lee Chalmers will be leading the Western Isles workshop.

Some 40 women in the Western Isles have signed up for a workshop aimed at encouraging more females to enter local politics.

Comhairle nan Eilean Siar has organised next week’s online event in a bid to overturn its unwelcome label as the UK’s only all-male local authority.

It is hoped that by offering support and advice through the workshop, more women will be motivated to stand as candidates in May’s elections, resulting in a more diverse local authority.

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At the last local elections in 2017, for the first time in its history, all 31 councillors returned to Comhairle nan Eilean Siar were male. Seven women stood for election but none were successful.

Traditionally, female representation on the comhairle has been low. The largest cohort of women to serve was in the 2007-12 session, when there were five.

Tuesday’s workshop is being run by Elect Her, a group which works to combat gender inequalities in government, nationally and locally.

Elect Her director Hannah Stevens has applauded the Comhairle for taking “proactive steps” to encourage women to come forward as candidates.

Hannah Stevens, director at Elect Her, said: “To have 40 women signing up for the workshop is impressive and really encouraging.

“I think there are a few additional challenges specific to the Western Isles such as the geographical make-up of the islands, the use of in-person meetings and the travelling involved, which has been a barrier in the past. However the pandemic has demonstrated that virtual council meetings are possible and that can make a massive difference to being a councillor.”

Hannah said another possible deterrent for Western Isles women standing for office was the fact that you can’t by law be a council employee and a councillor. Comhairle nan Eilean Siar is the biggest employer in the Western Isles, with a staff of around 2,185.

She said if elected, women employed by the council would have to give up a stable job for, in many cases, a reduced pay and with no certainty that they would be re-elected in five years’ time.

She added: “We applaud Comhairle nan Eilean Siar for taking proactive steps to encourage women to come forward as candidates for the May 22nd elections.

“Dismantling male-dominated political spaces is long-term work and we hope we can continue these partnerships through the next term of office.”

The Western Isles council ran a similar workshop with Elect Her in 2019, when 20 women attended. Elect Her subsequently held an event in the Scottish Parliament with satellite groups including in Stornoway and which resulted in the town having its first community council in 19 years – with an all-female membership.

Chief executive of Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, Malcolm Burr, said: “This workshop, which the comhairle is running in partnership with Elect Her, is a fantastic opportunity for women who may be considering standing in their ward to learn more about the work of the council, the support which is available to councillors and to hear about the experiences of former female councillors in the Western Isles.

“We have been very pleased by the numbers registering, with 40 to date, and very much look forward to the workshop.

“The Covid pandemic has seen a huge uptake in the use of online services such as Microsoft Teams, and of technology in general, for meetings and general work practices. This will continue to make participation in meetings ever easier which should be encouraging to candidates from all backgrounds and situations, including women, to participate in the democratic process.”

The free workshop, which will be led by Elect Her founder Lee Chalmers from Edinburgh, will take place on Microsoft Teams on Tuesday 18th January at 7pm.

Anyone interested can register for the event by clicking here.

Article by Jackie MacKenzie.