Gender and Politics in the Devolved Assemblies

by Sylvia Shaw

Is a new, more woman-friendly, politics developing in the devolved institutions?

First published: 10 January, 2014 | Category: Gender equality, Politics

This article is from Issue 55 of Soundings and is available online exclusively at NLP. 


Women’s under-representation in political institutions continues to be a problem that does not diminish significantly over time. Some gains have been made within Britain in the last decade or so, most notably in the devolved institutions of the UK. The National Assembly for Wales now boasts a proportion of 40 per cent women members, and in the Scottish Parliament women hold 35 per cent of the seats. However, the representation of women in the Northern Ireland Assembly and the House of Commons still lags behind, at 19 and 23 per cent respectively. 

Furthermore, it is now widely recognised that the achievement of a greater numerical representation of women (or any other under-represented group) in an institution is not enough on its own to improve the position of the group: the progress and influence of such a group is also dependent upon the existence of ‘critical actors’ within the group, and on their ability to perform ‘critical acts.’ If under-represented groups are to become influential members of an institution, they need to participate in a way that enables them to perform these critical acts. 

One way of investigating the progress or otherwise made by women within British political institutions is to focus on the kinds of language that are used in debates, both at Westminster and in the devolved institutions; examining these more closely can give insights into the ways in which women and men politicians participate in political discourse. And it may also contribute to a more fruitful discussion about the necessary conditions, procedures and conventions that could lead to more egalitarian political institutions, and encourage the equal participation of their members. 

Gender, language and politics

The House of Commons at Westminster is often described as the archetypal parliament: it has been used as a blueprint for the proceedings—and in some cases the physical layout—of parliaments in a number of different parts of the world, while even more legislatures have adopted some aspects of the ‘Westminster System.’ Nevertheless, it is perhaps surprising that in the blank canvas offered to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland for the construction of new institutions after the devolution Acts in 1998, they also chose to emulate Westminster in most key respects. Thus, all the new devolved institutions took the Westminster Standing Orders as a starting point, and retained most of the Westminster speech events—such as Prime Minister’s Question Time—although they did to a certain extent modify them to incorporate what were viewed as more egalitarian measures, such as timed speeches for members in debates. 

The influence and status of the Westminster parliament make it an inevitable comparator when it comes to describing the devolved institutions. And it is also a key focus for any investigation into gender, language and interaction in political institutions, given that it is typically described as a ‘masculine,’ adversarial forum, and one in which women find it hard to participate. 

Many linguistic studies of political language have investigated the rhetoric of political speeches, and their content, but it is also possible to investigate the ways in which politicians take, hold and yield speaking turns on the debate floor. The ability to take up the discursive space in a political arena can be viewed as one of the ways in which politicians can gain power in an institution and perform critical acts. Although strict debate rules exist in the House of Commons, as in other institutions, in order to permit the fair turn-taking mechanism of the debate floor, such rules often represent an ideal rather than actual practice: the ideal is rarely achieved because in most institutions there is a set of informal and ‘illegal’ practices that have gradually evolved as an integral part of its communicative norms. Thus illegal contributions, such as speaking out of turn from a sedentary position and ‘barracking’ other members, are practices that have, over time, become a feature of House of Commons debates. The Speaker may on some occasions intervene to enforce the rules, but there is some degree of acceptance of the illegal turns, to the extent that the rowdy jeering, cheering and verbal jousting associated with Prime Minister’s Question Time are popularly seen as characteristic of the House of Commons.

Linguistic analyses of the debate floor of the House of Commons have shown that gender is salient in relation to these legal and illegal turns. Within the parts of the debate that are conducted according to the legal rules men and women politicians participate in proportion to their overall representation: the percentage of legal speeches and give-way interventions that men and women make corresponds to their relative numbers in the House. However, when it comes to illegal turns and barracking there is a different pattern. Illegal turns are taken more by men than by women.[1] That is not to say that women never shout out of turn (in the sample two very senior women MPs intervened illegally), but that it is not undertaken proportionally by women as much as men. This difference also extends to other rule-breaking practices, such as filibustering. With the exception of Margaret Thatcher, this rule-breaking practice (which—ironically—dwells for too long on the ‘importance’ of minutiae of a sub-clause of a Bill simply to waste time in debates) has been a practice exclusively undertaken by men. 

It is in some ways unsurprising that this highly formal institution, which has only admitted women in significant numbers over the last fifty years, is one that inhibits or restricts their behaviour. Rule-breaking activities such as speaking out of turn are fundamental linguistic practices in this context, and these gendered linguistic practices serve to construct women as peripheral members of the institution. One possible explanation for such differences is that women consciously choose to behave differently by rejecting the male, elitist, old-fashioned traditions of the Commons. An alternative explanation is that the different behaviour of men and women MPs is a result of coercive forces within the institution through which women are made to feel like ‘interlopers,’ and are subject to negative sanctions such as sexist barracking and negative stereotyping. Both these explanations play a part in explaining the differential linguistic practices of men and women MPs; and they are also related to the ‘visibility’ of women in a traditionally male-dominated forum, and to the nature of traditional parliaments as a ‘linguistic habitus’ in which ‘silence or hyper-controlled language’ is imposed on some people, while others are allowed the ‘liberties of a language that is securely established.’[2]

Traditional parliaments can therefore be viewed as a ‘gendered space’ in which the setting and the communicative tasks, taken together, become an index of a gendered style. A gendered space is a context in which activities and practices become symbolically gendered over time as they are regularly and consistently associated with men or women. 

Another example of a gendered space and historically male-dominated institution is the Church of England, and Clare Walsh has made an analysis of the marginal position of women priests within the church. She argues that women’s marginalised position is partly the effect of their own belief in women’s ‘civilizing difference’ and the resulting avoidance of conflict, and partly the effect of sexist reactions to them by male priests and the media. She also finds that ‘their language and behaviour is more likely than those of male colleagues to be fractured by competing, and often contradictory norms and expectations.’[3]

New parliaments, new politics?

In contrast to the House of Commons, the newly devolved political institutions of the UK have claimed to give women an unprecedented voice and place. This is because of some key differences between them and the House of Commons. Firstly, women have been involved in the creation of the institutions from the beginning; secondly, the assemblies have been constructed with egalitarian ideals as a priority; and finally, it is possible for them to achieve a better representation of female members because of different forms of voting systems and shortlists. In Scotland and Wales this new politics was embodied in the buildings of the Scottish Parliament and National Assembly for Wales. Both buildings symbolically and physically reflect the egalitarian ideals of consensus and openness: the chambers are laid out in a circular formation to avoid the confrontational ‘opposition’ of the Westminster benches, and public galleries and viewing points were a priority in their design. The new institutions are also much smaller than the House of Commons; there are just 60 Assembly Members in Wales, 108 Members of the Legislative Authority in Northern Ireland, and 129 Members of the Scottish Parliament, compared with 650 MPs in the House of Commons. 

In aiming for a new consensual style of debate, a distinction can be drawn between adopting a less aggressive, combative manner in debates and the wider meaning of the notion of ‘consensus politics.’ While a consensual style can settle deep political divisions in an amicable manner, a political consensus implies general political agreement on a given issue. Similarly, as has been often noted in the discipline of philosophy, the term ‘adversarial’ can be used to refer to aggressive argumentation that can include ‘name-calling, put-downs, or quips such as “that’s ridiculous,”’ or it can refer more positively to the perfectly orderly conduct of oppositional arguments for the purpose of progressing a debate.[4] The discussion here is about the aim of ‘new’ institutions for a non-combative style that is less intimidating and more inclusive for its members; it does not refer to a wider politics of agreement, or a style that does not encourage oppositional views to be articulated. 

I recently completed a research project aimed at providing ethnographic descriptions of the linguistic institutional norms and practices of the three institutions, both through interviewing politicians and observing and analysing the interactions of debate discourse.[5] Taking the salience of gender in House of Commons debates as a starting point, the project aimed to investigate whether the new parliaments had similar practices in terms of ‘legal’ and ‘illegal’ debate discourse; whether particular interactional changes to the debate proceedings had led to a new culture in debates; and whether equality was being manifested in the speaking turns between women and men. As with the House of Commons research, an initial quantitative assessment of the proportion of turns taken in each assembly was undertaken, using a sample of debates representing thirteen days of debate discourse in each institution. This showed that, unlike in the House of Commons, women and men participated equally (in proportion to their numbers overall) in all types of speaking turns, including illegally speaking out of turn.[6]

Out of the three institutions, the Northern Ireland Assembly most closely resembled the House of Commons in terms of the amount of illegal speaking turns taken overall (in both institutions approximately six per cent of all turns were illegal, whereas in Wales and Scotland respectively, one and three per cent of all turns were illegal). However, unlike in the House of Commons, this was not a gendered activity: men and women spoke or shouted out of turn in proportion to their overall numbers. The example below shows a woman SDLP Member of the Legislative Authority, Dolores Kelly, first asking Martin McGuiness a question, and then interrupting him multiple times (only one of the many examples recorded during the research): 

Mrs D Kelly: Will the Minister also confirm that the parades working group is a set-up, and that the Ashdown proposals are the only ones on the table? 

The Deputy First Minister: I can certainly confirm that if Sinn Féin had accepted the SDLP position in relation to how we deal with this issue, policing and justice powers would reside in the hands of British Government direct rule Ministers for the remaining term of this Assembly. 

Mrs D Kelly: No nationalist need apply. 

Mr Speaker: Order.

The Deputy First Minister: That is the reality. The contention that has been made is absolutely without any foundation whatsoever. [Interruption.]

Mr Speaker: Order. 

The Deputy First Minister: The confusion that is clearly evident in the SDLP’s mind — 

Mrs D Kelly: There is no confusion. 

The Deputy First Minister: Well, we certainly had confusion when the former leader of the SDLP said that he wanted to see d’Hondt being run again, which would have meant the collapsing of a Department and absolute certainty that the justice Department and its responsibilities would have been taken by a unionist Minister. To then have — [Interruption.]

 Mr Speaker: Order. I must insist that the deputy First Minister be allowed to answer the question. I remind Members not to try and speak from a seated position. 

The Deputy First Minister: The SDLP is obviously afraid to hear, or does not want to hear, the answer (speech continues for 1 minute) If the Member is not interested in going, that is a matter for her. However, I am reliably informed that all parties in this Assembly will receive an invitation from the working party. 

Mrs D Kelly: Very inclusive. 

Mr Speaker: Order.[7]

In this example, Dolores Kelly not only speaks out of turn, challenging the Deputy First Minister; she also challenges the authority of the chair by refusing to comply with his directions. Although this is a particularly incendiary discussion in the context of power sharing and the devolution of Police and Justice, similar exchanges can also be found in less contentious debates in all three devolved institutions. The fact that women politicians engage in this type of activity as much as men in the new institutions suggests that it is unlikely that women have been positioned as ‘interlopers’ in the same way as they have been in the House of Commons. 

However, the frequency of these highly adversarial exchanges in all the new institutions perhaps shows that a ‘new’ politics of consensus and cooperation in debate discourse has not been achieved. Furthermore, the involvement of women in these adversarial exchanges challenges the long-held assumption that women will make a civilising difference by bringing a consensual style to political forums. This assumption therefore needs to be questioned just as much as assumptions about the tendency of the institutions towards adversarial exchanges. 

The adversarial nature of so much of the debate within the devolved institutions can partly be explained by the inclusion within them of speech events (such as First Minister’s Question Time) that import into their discourses—along with the Standing Orders from Westminster—the cultural norms of confrontation, public verbal jousting and aggression. But the research did not lend any weight to the essentialist assumption that women are somehow intrinsically consensual: the empirical evidence is that it is not just men, but women politicians too, who engage in adversarial exchanges. This is hardly surprising given that such an assumption flies in the face of theoretical ideas about the flexible and ongoing construction of identity in interaction. 

In the research interviews women and men politicians from all the assemblies admitted to ‘barracking’ or speaking out of turn. Many had contradictory attitudes towards this, saying they did not approve of the practice but nevertheless took part in it. In Scotland some MSPs felt that barracking was justified when a minister was failing to respond to a question or not giving a ‘straight answer,’ but not when making personal attacks on other members (thought to be a rare occurrence). Some MSPs felt that the Presiding Officers should make more effort to control barracking, and that certain ‘repeat offenders’ were responsible for most of these interventions. One or two MSPs admitted using barracking in an adversarial way, ‘to go in for the kill,’ although this was uncommon. It was also noted that it is easier to barrack from the back of the chamber, and that young or inexperienced MSPs tend to be barracked more often, ‘because they haven’t got a clue.’ When such behaviour was aimed at inexperienced MSPs with the intention of putting them off, some members described it as ‘bullying.’ This could take different forms, including the ‘constant muttering of back-chat,’ or saying ‘rubbish’ when an individual is making a speech, in order to undermine their confidence and put them off their stride. This is also borne out by MSPs who had been targets of barracking when they were new members, but less so as their experience had grown, and who had developed strategies for ignoring it. 

One female MSP said that when she had used part of her speaking turn to respond to an MSP who was barracking her it was described by her colleagues as ‘her finest hour.’ Although both women and men MSPs take part in barracking, some MSPs viewed it as a male practice. One female MSP described it as ‘unladylike behaviour,’ and claimed that she judged women who barracked more harshly than men. When asked if female voices were characteristic of barracking in the chamber, one MSP, affirming that women’s voices could be heard, then added that these tended to be the more ‘strident voices.’ 

In the Northern Ireland Assembly some members noted that it was a male-dominated space that could be intimidating for women—and one of them observed that ‘people here think it is their divine right to shout at a woman’; some felt that women were particularly targeted because ‘they think we’ll just give her a hard time and she’ll fall in and collapse.’ A woman MLA said that she had been surprised by the masculine ‘performance’ aspect of the chamber, which involved ‘back-slapping and insincere comments passed across the chamber for political gain.’ Women MLAs also agreed that barracking was characteristic of proceedings, one MLA saying that ‘it is important to shout out’ and join in because ‘you have to find your voice in these male-dominated assemblies.’ MLAs suggested that the debating chamber seemed to be the place where animosity was expressed, whereas in other speech events, such as committees, there tended to be ‘less grandstanding’—‘adversaries in the chamber work comfortably together in committee.’ It is also worth noting that the wider working environment of the Assembly does not reflect the animosity in the chamber and has a friendly, helpful and non-hierarchical atmosphere. 

AMs also agreed that barracking was characteristic of the Welsh Assembly, although it tended not to be personal in tone, and most commonly occurred as muttering or single word interjections such as ‘rubbish’ or ‘shameful.’ One AM pointed out that the small size of the Assembly means that ‘you can’t detach yourself from the person you are attacking’; because of the more ‘human scale’ of the assembly there could be interpersonal consequences if anyone was verbally attacked in the chamber. A range of tactical behaviours related to barracking was noted by AMs, and these included ‘flouncing out’ of the Assembly to express opposition, or making comments in a ‘stage whisper’ to a neighbour in order to ‘put someone off.’ 

In spite of these adversarial exchanges and tactics, there has been some success in the new institutions in terms of achieving a more consensual, egalitarian culture. In Wales, Assembly Members in interviews generally agreed that the small circular chamber had a relaxed atmosphere which led to a non-threatening environment for speakers. Similarly, most MSPs interviewed from the Scottish Parliament liked the horseshoe ‘spread out’ nature of the debating chamber, describing it as ‘non-confrontational’ and ‘less intimidating.’ Observational and interview data from the Northern Ireland Assembly suggest that the Assembly remains sharply divided along Nationalist and Unionist lines, described by one Alliance Party MLA as ‘red and green issues: tribal politics.’ However, a number of MLAs from across the parties agreed that some elements of this animosity had ‘mellowed with time,’ and although it was still evident that ‘they are going to be a while getting over the history,’ there was some sense that ‘we’re getting there.’ The Speaker of the Assembly was universally liked and respected by the MLAs who were interviewed. He was praised for ‘not overdoing it’ in relation to enforcing the rules, but was seen as someone who would ‘tell off a Member without fear or favour.’ 

These opinions and observations suggest that the informality and flexibility that are key features of the new institutions have been important for contributing to a less regulatory and more inclusive atmosphere in debates. The clearest example of this is in relation to parliamentary language and the relaxation of the formal address forms in the new assemblies. In the House of Commons MPs must address each other as ‘The (Right) Honourable Lady/Gentleman,’ or by their constituency title. In the Northern Ireland Assembly, MLAs can use the constituency title, as in the House of Commons, but mainly refer to each other as ‘the Member,’ although there is much more variability in the use of address terms, and people also use first name and surname, and first name only. Interviews with MLAs showed how this flexibility reflected a diverse range of opinions about formality in the Assembly. Some MLAs found the formal conventions restrictive and ‘old fashioned’ and described them as ‘stuffy’ and ‘over Westminsterised.’ However, for others, the traditional, formal rules of the parliament ‘served a purpose’—to give the proceedings sufficient formality and gravitas. Flexibility in the enforcement of the rules allows these opposing stances to be accommodated. 

The National Assembly for Wales is the least formal of the institutions, and AMs were mostly in agreement that they preferred the use of informal address terms. In the Scottish Parliament, first name and surname, or an address title (Mr, Mrs, Sir, etc) and surname, are commonly used. However, it is also common to hear the less formal first name only as a form of address. MSPs commented that the regulation of these interactional rules governing forms of address have become more strict over time, and that at the beginning of the parliament it was much more common to use a MSP’s first name. The Presiding Officers now tend to correct this informal use and insist on the more formal forms of address. The impression that the Scottish Parliament is becoming more like Westminster over time is also an observation that has been noted in relation to an increasing adversariality in the proceedings. This in turn has been associated with a perceived increase in the severity of the whipping system, and increasing constraints on MSPs associated with party divisions and allegiances. 

New politics, new progress?

The prevalence of adversarial exchanges in the devolved institutions is at odds with the hope for a more consensual, less combative style of politics. One of the problems for the development of such a politics is the sheer lack of options in relation to the speech events themselves. What kind of event could there be—other than Prime Minister’s Question Time—that would be non-adversarial (or non-combative) but could still achieve the necessary plenary functions of scrutiny and accountability that are offered by an adversarial forum, whilst at the same time offering media-friendly sound bites? It seems there are currently very few alternative models available. And although committees seem to offer promising opportunities for cross-party collaboration and decision-making, many politicians feel that that the success of the committee is over-dependent on an individual chairperson, and that partisan politics were often still pursued in committees to the detriment of their function. 

The interviews with politicians highlighted another major constraint on the progress of women in politics—and indeed in professional life more generally: the persistence of gendered stereotypes. For example, the expectation that women politicians will bring consensual styles to political life actually helps to strengthen the double-bind that operates against women in politics: if they behave adversarially they are seen as unfeminine, yet if they are not combative they are seen as ineffectual. Although women’s ‘civilising difference’ is often presented by political campaigners as a reason for the inclusion of women in politics this notion can actually become an additional burden for women, who evidently vary greatly from one another in relation to their interactional styles. These kinds of expectations also contribute to a persisting set of problems for women with high-visibility public roles that do not exist for their male counterparts: in each institution women told of the harsh judgements that had been made about their appearance and behaviour, especially by the media, which they saw as constituting the single main barrier to women’s entry into, and progress within, politics. 

Women’s progress in politics is often measured by the success or otherwise of the mechanisms for the election of women; by women’s numerical representation in institutions; and by the extent to which ‘women’s issues’ such as domestic violence, childcare and social justice, have been promoted by women MPs. By all these measures women have made progress in the new devolved institutions. But an analysis of the interactional details of the debate floor offers an additional lens through which to view women’s representation in political institutions. 

The finding that women participate in illegal exchanges in the devolved political institutions perhaps shows that a degree of equality has been reached: it appears to be easier in the new parliaments than in the House of Commons for women to participate in all the different types of speaking turns. The smaller size of the institutions and increasing numbers of women representatives appear to play a part in making women’s presence an integral, rather than peripheral, membership; while the informality and flexibility of the debate proceedings give all members fewer formal barriers to participation than they experience at Westminster. However in my view, above all it is the status and confidence afforded to women as founding members that gives them a greater sense of belonging and ownership than has ever before been experienced in UK political institutions. 

Sylvia Shaw is a Senior Lecturer in English Language at Middlesex University, and has recently completed an ESRC funded research project into Gender and Linguistic Participation in the Devolved Parliaments of the UK.

Front image via 'Next Left Turn'

[1] This data is based on two different studies. One was undertaken in 2000, and showed that women take up one per cent of illegal interventions. The more recent study in 2010 also showed women taking one per cent of illegal turns, which falls short of their representation of 20 per cent at that time.

[2] Pierre Bourdieu, Language and Symbolic Power (Polity and Blackwell 1991).

[3] Clare Walsh, Gender and Discourse: Language and Power in Politics, the Church and Organisations (Longman 2001), p. 217.

[4] Phyllis Rooney, "Philosophy, Adversarial Argumentation and Embattled Reason," Informal Logic 30.3, 2010.

[5] ESRC funded project: Gender and Linguistic Participation in the Devolved Parliaments of the UK (RES 000223792).

[6] In the period between October 2009 and May 2011, women’s representation was at seventeen per cent in the Northern Ireland Assembly, thirty-two per cent in the Scottish Parliament, forty-seven per cent in the National Assembly for Wales and twenty per cent in the House of Commons.

[7] Quote from the Official Report of the Northern Ireland Assembly, 10.02.10, 4pm.

All comments are moderated, and should be respectful of other voices in the discussion. Comments may be edited or deleted at the moderator's discretion.

Remember my personal information

Notify me of follow-up comments?