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Hopes that SIC gender imbalance will change

Vaila Wishart says the council would function better if there were more female councillors.

MORE women need to consider standing at next year’s local elections if a chronic gender imbalance in Shetland Islands Council is to be tackled, according to leader Gary Robinson.

Robinson also urged more young people to think about standing in the election in May next year, with all but three councillors currently aged over 50.

At present, only three out of 22 councillors – Andrea Manson, Amanda Westlake and Vaila Wishart – are female.

Robinson believes the current gender balance in the council is “one of the poorest” in history.

At one point in the past nearly one third of councillors were female, but the current crop equates to only 14 per cent.

“I think if it’s to be resolved, then we need to see more women putting themselves forward for election,” he said.

“The statistics show that in areas where there are female candidates, they probably stand as good or even better chance of being elected than their male counterparts.

“At this stage, we’re really just trying to raise awareness and to get people to think about putting themselves forward to being a councillor.”

Wishart said she feels the “big question” is how to effectively encourage more women to get involved in local politics.

In the 2012 election, only five out of the 43 candidates up for election were female.

SIC leader Gary Robinson.

“I was thinking that there should some sort of gender campaign in Shetland to try to persuade more women to stand,” Wishart said.

“I think the council would definitely benefit from a better gender balance.”

The Shetland Central member believes that having more females sitting as councillors would encourage more to stand, forming an almost Catch 22 situation.

“The more women that were on it, then it would become the norm for men and women to stand on an equal basis,” she said.

“I think the main difference is that men work in a particular way amongst themselves. I think women work in a more sociable way together.

“I also think the agenda would change. I don’t think it would be quite so esoteric if there were more women on it. It would be more down to earth.”

Robinson added he recently attended a working group formed local authority umbrella group COSLA that focused on gender balance of councils.

However, he feels that age is also a pertinent issue within the council.

Robinson said that younger people shouldn’t be worried about telling their employers that they’re considering standing to become a councillor.

“From my own experience, I had an understanding employer who helped and supported me when I became a councillor,” he said.

“Folk shouldn’t always assume their boss isn’t going to like it – they might be pleasantly surprised.”

Some progress, at least, has been made in recent years. The current council has, for the first time in Shetland’s history, an average councillor age that is below retirement age, Robinson said.

The youngest councillor at present is North Isles member Steven Coutts, who is 33.

Robinson admitted that the money on offer for becoming a councillor, which comes in the form of a £15,000 a year allowance, “may put some people off”.

However, he feels the chance to participate in local democracy outweighs any negatives.

“Let’s face it, being a councillor isn’t well paid if you’re looking to make it your full-time job,” Robinson said.

“I don’t think anyone would become a councillor for the money, but it is a very rewarding thing to do.”