Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Against tokenism

Recently I’ve been finding myself in more and more situations where I’ve ended up raging against tokenism – specifically, given my own situation, token women. For one who is a feminist to my bones, it’s uncomfortable. However, my experiences in politics and at work have led me to conclude that ‘reserved places’ may tick the boxes for organisations but do nothing for women. Indeed, tokenism may well be detrimental to our interests. Here’s why.

First, it’s common for some to say that women occupying reserved places would not have got there in open competition. Of course this varies. But it does happen, in circumstances when we are called upon to make up the numbers in roles for which we are inexperienced and perhaps unsuitable.

Not only do we sometimes find ourselves outside our comfort zone, which can be dealt with over time, but what if we want to use our new position to actually (horror) bring about change? We may be surprised at the reaction. We may have been welcomed into our token role, not realising that the deal was ‘don’t rock the boat’. But then, should we want to speak up, one of two things are likely to happen. We may get ignored. Or we’ll lose the argument – because tokens are always in the minority.

Then there’s the time and energy involved in being a token. I’ve written about this before, in relation to women and politics:

Before you know it are on every committee going, simply because you are female. If women are in a minority in a particular constituency or ward party, but party rules insist that, say, half the officer places must go to women, then there is pressure to do more.

This is a serious problem in my political party, because the reserved places system is imposed at UK level and bears no relation to the actual number of women active in the constituency. We have to find four women for our Executive Committee; two of the four officer positions must be held by women; and on alternative years, our conference delegate must be female. It’s not easy.

However, I think it’s worse at work – and I’m talking about various jobs I’ve done over the years, not just my experience of several universities. Has anyone seriously thought about the time commitment it takes to sit on all those appointment panels, committees, mentoring, training days and so on? Even when there’s no formal reserved place, the cry will go up ‘we don’t have any women....’ I suggest that all this activity takes time away from the type of work that actually contributes towards progression within an organisation, rather than always being out of the office on yet another ‘equalities’ commitment.

But am I just being selfish by pulling up the ladder and preventing other women from having the same opportunities as myself? I don’t think so, because I don’t think tokenism is the way to make real change. Sure, you’ll get a few more female faces around the place – remember Blair’s babes? This is what some of them had to say ten years later. Tokenism gets you in, but it doesn’t get you much further, because it doesn’t actually change the culture of an organisation by tackling everyday episodes of sexism.

So what would I do instead? Women need to work together on skills development, critical mass, and solidarity. Skills development so that we are capable of competing for positions on offer; critical mass so that we encourage other women to join us; and solidarity so that once we are wherever we want to be, we support each other. These can be formalised, for example the Queen’s Gender Initiative, or can be the result of a strong group of women organising themselves.

My own experience has been that female solidarity is hard to come by – despite a few shining exceptions. Sometimes women genuinely don’t have the same interests. In other cases, there just doesn’t seem to be the political will. But one thing’s for certain. Tokenism doesn’t lead to real change for women because it doesn’t alter the balance of power between men and women. Maybe that’s why it’s so widespread.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

An invitation

Blogging has had to take a back seat recently given work, the Belfast Festival and other odds and ends such as a trip to the South to canvass in the Dublin West bye election. It’s likely that this hiatus will continue for a few months. But I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to comment on the SDLP leadership result today.

I’m very pleased with the win by Alasdair McDonnell, because it confirms the SDLP’s identity as a nationalist party first and foremost, and at best puts on hold the more innovative approach of Conall McDevitt. However, even McDevitt’s proposals did not seek to move the SDLP away from Irish nationalism towards the much needed cross-community democratic socialist electoral representation which Northern Ireland still lacks. I think it’s now reasonable to conclude that this representation will not come via the SDLP. Not now, and - despite the ‘McDevitt next time’ fightback that has already begun on Twitter - not ever.

So I’d like to suggest that the time may have come for some SDLP members to think about joining an actual cross-community democratic socialist party. Both the Irish and UK Labour parties allow dual membership, and in fact it’s possible to be in all three, given our common membership of the Socialist International. SDLP members, therefore, need not leave their current party but may begin to participate in a Labour party as well. I understand that some may prefer to join the Irish Labour Party, however they should bear in mind that after Irish Labour’s clear decision in 2008 not to stand candidates in the North, the residual membership consists of those who are dedicated solely to campaigning activity – as you might expect.

In contrast, the UK Labour NEC has agreed the start of discussions with the SDLP and Irish Labour about the way forward for democratic socialist electoral representation in Northern Ireland, in accordance with the recommendation in the Refounding Labour to Win document.

SDLP members may have the inaccurate perception that UK Labour Party members in Northern Ireland are all unionists. Not so, as Labour’s submission to the Refounding Labour consultation process stated:

Labour members in Northern Ireland want to see the development of anti-sectarian politics that can challenge nationalist and unionist polarities for the betterment of the whole of our society. Members do not believe that anti-sectarian politics can wipe out the past in Northern Ireland, but we do have a vision that can re-write the future. Some Labour members are unionists and some are nationalists, some have no strong views either way and others feel strongly that their identity and heritage is both British and Irish. The Labour Party’s policy UK-wide is to support the constitutional mechanism put in place for deciding this issue in the Good Friday/ Belfast Agreement and the 1998 Northern Ireland Act and we do not differ from this. However, we believe the current political priority should be uniting the communities here and now for a shared future.

UK Labour’s membership in Northern Ireland is growing and all new members are welcome.  No-one in UK Labour is going to make it difficult or uncomfortable for more nationalists to join and participate in the party. However, members are expected to accept and respect the fact that others may hold different views on the border, and that the subject may sometimes be debated in that spirit. I’m sure SDLP members on the ‘red’ wing of the party would have no problem with that. After all, surely the next stage for politics here is to have these debates in the same room rather than sneering at each other from different sides of the 'community designation' benches.