Hard to reach or hard to hear? The price of finding women who count

In 2016, the Scottish Government committed to establish a First Minister’s National Advisory Council on Women and Girls (NACWG), ‘to help drive forward action to tackle gender inequality’. The NACWG formed the following year, with final decisions on appointments to the Council made by then First Minister Nicola Sturgeon.

The role of the Council is to play a ‘leading role in raising awareness of gender inequality’, to ‘act as a champion for positive progress and policies’, and provide ‘a challenging voice to the First Minister and her team’ as well as advice and support. Wider membership (termed the ‘Circle’) is open and consists of around 1,300 organisations and individuals.

This blog reviews a recent Scottish Government contract let on behalf of the NACWG, for almost £400,000, to establish a ‘lived expertise panel’ ‘made up of women and girls who are too often ignored in decision making and do not have access to influence’ to further support the work of the Council. It considers what this tells us about Scottish policymaking.

Twenty women

In late 2022 the Scottish Government issued a tender for a ‘Participation Panel to Support the First Minister’s National Advisory Council on Women and Girls’. The tender notice explained:

A dedicated participation panel of women (the Panel) is to be convened to support Phase Two of NACWG activity. The successful tenderer will establish and coordinate the Panel of around 20 women from grassroot organisations and be part of a wider network who are not usually given a voice in this type of space. The participation work will be led by lived experience and the re-distribution of power will be at the heart of the participation process. The overarching objective for the Panel is to work with the NACWG in their accountability process by providing lived experience expertise on how Phase One NACWG recommendations need to be implemented for them to have a tangible positive difference to women’s lives. The Panel will also analyse, discuss and develop solutions to be recommended to the NACWG on specific topics relevant to the current landscape and relevant to their lives.

Members of the Panel will be supported to do this role through capacity building workshops on gender equality, policy development and intersectionality alongside mentoring style support to ensure that they have the skills they feel they need to fully participate. A demand-led approach will be taken with the group identifying its own support needs.

Public Contracts Scotland, November 2022

The award for the tender was made in February 2023, to a small Community Interest Company (CIC), based in Dumfries and Galloway. The tender document states that the duration of the contract is for one year, and subject to renewal.

The award is striking on two counts. Firstly, the amount: £321,832.74 plus VAT (£386,199 inc. VAT) is an exceptionally large sum to elicit the views of just twenty women. Second, it is extraordinary that the award was felt to be needed in the first place, as the Scottish Government already invests heavily in groups who might be expected to be capable of doing the same work, as part of their existing funding, or for a marginal addition to that.

In addition to the NACWG, which is has an annual budget of £300,000, the Scottish Government also funds Engender under its intermediary funding stream, at a cost of £354,000 in 2021/2022, an increase of 125% on its funding six years ago. Engender describes its role as including:

‘work to bring women together in a range of ways to tell their stories, and influence decision makers. We hold regular events… We also offer support to organisations and local campaign groups. We’re proud to be a membership organisation and our members include women’s and equalities organisations, voluntary groups, and a huge network of individuals across Scotland.’

Engender: what we do

It is also in a very strong position to amplify women’s voices: a parliamentary question (2021) shows Engender represented on at least eighteen Scottish Government advisory and strategic groups.

The Scottish Government also funds the Scottish Women’s Convention (£196,668 a year). The SWC describes as its core purpose being that it  ‘undertakes a number of activities throughout the year, engaging with women on a local and national level. It is important that women’s voices are heard as part of the decision making process. The SWC therefore provides an effective mechanism for women to engage with politicians and key influencers.’ 

Distance and disconnection

The language employed by the Advisory Council, which does not speak to women’s everyday experiences, may be a factor in its disconnection with women situated outwith Scotland’s close-knit policy circles .

In 2020 the NACWG focused on developing what it termed ‘intersectional gender architecture’. Other recommendations included a ‘Gender Beacon Collaborative’, made up of ‘Scottish Government, a Local Authority, a public body, a third sector agency and a business to take a holistic and systemic approach to gender equality and work’. In August 2020 a joint response to a NACWG survey ‘on creating an Intersectional Gender Architecture’, by the Equality Network, SACRO, Zero Tolerance, Amina, and others described the term as ‘relatively unknown and inaccessible’, and called for more consistent use of plain English materials.

The response also recommended NACWG consultations should be advertised as open calls, not just limited to members, and that the Scottish Government should ‘go beyond consultation with the usual, larger organisations by increasing funding to smaller, grassroots NGOs that represent minoritised women…’.

Looked at another way, there is a fundamental tension between Scottish Government policy, which has seen ‘women’ redefined in subjective terms, based on gender self-identification, and the interests of women as a group defined by their sex.

The loss of sex as relevant to Scottish policymaking is writ large across a range of areas. The Chief Statistician advises against collecting data on biological sex in most circumstances, whilst Police Scotland record rape based on self-defined gender identity, stating that this reflects its ‘values’. The Scottish Government went to court, twice, to defend its ability to collect data on self-defined ‘sex’ in Scotland’s 2022 census, ignoring the advice of academic experts. Men, included convicted murderers, are placed in the Scottish female prison estate. Men can be accommodated on female hospital wards. A man charged with rape was able to have close contact with young women in a state of undress, because a further education college accepted his self-declaration as a woman. The revised Ministerial brief for the newly appointed Minister for Equalities in Scotland, as of this week, no longer even mentioned women.

At the same time, the Scottish Government has systematically excluded from policy development the voices of those advocating for women based on their sex. This is most evident in relation to the recent Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland) Bill, which saw the concerns of those arguing that the Act would negatively impact on women and girls dismissed as ‘not valid’ by the First Minister, and last minute, ineffectual engagement with critics of the Bill.  

Hard to reach or hard to hear?

In recent years, thousands of women from diverse backgrounds have tried to engage the Scottish Government and Parliament in a bid to defend their interests in the face of political naivety, uninterest, and, too often, hostility. They have responded to consultations in exceptionally large numbers, contacted their MSPs, written letters, signed petitions, protested, crowdfunded for court cases, and formed wholly voluntary grassroots organisations: For Women Scotland, Women and Girls Scotland, the Scottish Feminist Network, Forth Valley Feminists, Sole Sisters, and others. Many of these women have years of experience living or working in communities far removed from government circles. These women have not been ‘hard to reach’ but they do appear to be hard to hear, being actively excluded from the policy process.

Against this backdrop, a costly short-term initiative to elicit and centre the views of just twenty hand-picked women, to stand for marginalised female voices, feels symbolic of a much wider government failure.