“FROM MY own experiences I can understand why more women don’t stand for election. Let’s make Shetland a place where women can stand up without being attacked merely because they are women.”
That is the view of council election candidate Debra Nicolson, who has spoken up after being on the receiving end of “very hateful, vile and disgusting comments” on social media as the campaign begun.
Writing in a letter to Shetland News, the Green candidate also said she was disappointed that only nine out of 36 people who came forward to stand were women.
“[That’s] one fewer than five years ago. Only half them actually got elected,” she said.
“So that’s nine women and 27 men standing. I’ll leave you to do the maths.
“So, after five more years we now have fewer women running. I know some of our women councillors have been working to encourage women to stand for office but this doesn’t seem to have had much of an impact. We need to do more.”
Five councillors have already been elected to the council after North Isles and Shetland North wards were uncontested.
Two of those five are female, but other wards appear less representative. Shetland South’s five candidates are all male, for instance, while in both Lerwick wards only two out of the combined 12 candidates are female.
Nicolson feels that attitudes towards women need to change, with social media amplifying misogynistic views.
“Unfortunately, getting sexist comments is not new to me as every time I run for election or put my head above the parapet, I receive them,” she said.
“But enough is enough. I would class myself as a strong, resilient person but this time it did stop me in my tracks a bit before I decided the best way to deal with it was to call these people out.
“I have had many supportive messages and thoughts which have given me the strength to keep putting my head out there to be shot at but please only attack my political views and not me personally.”
Fellow Green candidate Alex Armitage, who is standing in Shetland South, said it was deeply regrettable that a recent press release about the party’s idea for a Shetland Investment Bank had resulted in “some individuals on Facebook using extremely sexist and despicable remarks” directed towards Nicolson.
He said the toxicity “is fuelled by the fact that a lot of political debate happens online, on Facebook or other social media. There are controversial issues in Shetland, but we believe that actually meeting people and speaking face to face, human being to human being, is much less likely to cause that friction and sometimes unfortunately traumatic abuse that happens when people communicate”.
Asked whether she thought such misogynistic abuse was one of the reasons why under a quarter of candidates at the forthcoming election are women, Nicolson said: “I think that is part of – I’m not sure that’s the whole reason because women do traditionally tend to have some roles… where they can’t probably commit to being a councillor.”
Armitage said the party wanted to help “create a standard of politeness and kindness in communication” and that it was important to “look at things that enable that abuse to happen in a wider context”.
A recent local media story covering a policy disagreement was given a headline stating that fishermen had “slammed” the Greens, and Armitage said such language was unhelpful.
“If you were to ask the leader of Shetland Fishermen’s Association whether he would ‘slam’ the Greens, I think he would disagree with that. The fishermen that I speak to are very happy that we’re engaging together.”
Meanwhile prior to nominations opening up the council ran a special event in a bid to encourage more women to stand in the election.
A programme of speakers including Shetland Islands Council’s depute political leader Emma Macdonald and director of the Elect Her group Hannah Stevens shared their experiences and spoke about the opportunities and challenges open to women in the islands.
Macdonald, who was one of the councillors elected in the Shetland North ward, said generally having uncontested wards is a “really worrying sign”.
This particularly applies to the North Isles, where only two candidates came forward for three seats. A by-election is due to be held in the coming months.
“As a council, we have tried to encourage more people to stand and within that more diversity however as we have seen this hasn’t been successful,” Macdonald said.
“I have been part of a cross-party group at COSLA representing the Independents group on Barriers to Elected office and we are working hard to make standing as an elected member more appealing and more flexible.
“I know from speaking with others within this group that things are very different here as we are not ruled by parties so we have the ability to not attend meetings and to leave early if we have caring responsibilities for example. This isn’t so easy when you are part of a party system.
“In Glasgow City Council’s last full council meeting one of the members of this group raised a motion on the structural and cultural barriers women face.”
Macdonald said she has heard of concerns around the “toxic nature” of being a woman in local politics.
While the councillor said she has not personally faced offensive comments, “nobody should face abuse or name calling no matter what sex they are for simply doing their job or for saying they are standing for council”.
“You get people on social media who behave in a way that isn’t appropriate, but that is the same for all members both male and female,” she said.
“I think we need to focus on making it a place that anyone can stand without being attacked regardless of their gender.
“We have worked closely with Elect Her to encourage more women to stand and as we have seen this hasn’t had a significant impact.
“I think politics in general needs to change before we will encourage more people to be part of it. It needs to be a place where people work together and focus on making a positive difference rather than on being critical and negative, debate is good but make sure you are polite civil and respectful.
“I would love to see more diversity within the chamber but more importantly I want to see all wards contested with candidates who want to work together for the good of the Shetland community.”
The Shetland News team would wish to reiterate that we are committed to taking steps to weed out any abusive comments on our social media pages. Our pages are moderated but any comments of concern can be reported to email@example.com.
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