Two years ago, almost to the day I sat in the Council Chambers in Midlothian moving a motion on maternity leave for Councillors. I was 6 months pregnant by then, and at that point had literally no idea how I was going to have time to give birth (!).
My motion passed and Midlothian became the first Council to in principle approve policy to give Councillors maternity and paternity leave, I am so proud of that.
But this isn’t about just a day off to give birth – though it’s a helpful part of it. It is about setting a culture change, and changing the expectations of women in politics.
The women Councillors that navigated this before me managed, but they did so with babes in arms in Council chambers, in voting lobbies, trying to find spaces and places to change and feed their babies.
I have heard countless experiences of women Councilors feeling pressured not to take time off, to attend votes, missed ante natal appointments to attend meetings or penalised financially and or demoted for taking leave at all. What an absolute outrage – I lost count of the horror and disbelief from people that couldn’t comprehend the fact that I could take no maternity leave.
I was lucky in a sense, that the post 2017 election brought with it a different demographic of Councillor. More women, more parents, more carers and it radically changed things. It gave me an opportunity to be a wee bit bolder, push the boundaries and capture the need for change.
In reality, my journey post-birth wasn’t six months off at home at tots groups. I still attended most main Council Committees but when I did, I breastfed freely, I had a changing facility in an office where I could shut the blinds and have privacy to express milk and feed Isla, if I wanted to. I was able to move around, video call into meetings for the first time in Midlothian. I was given the same rights to basic considerations like health and safety assessments, and protections for pregnant employees. Ultimately that is the choice that having a policy in place gives you. That’s no different to maternity leave for other employees – women may choose to go back to work earlier, but the choice was never there before.
There was also smaller changes that happened naturally that have really shifted the culture in Midlothian. I am lucky that the cross party support was overwhelming in Midlothian, and everyone has embraced Isla in and out of the Council Chamber. Though to be fair she sometimes behaves better than the Councillors, and has genius political comic timing as it happens! But that environment simply would not exist without the political will, and having a solid commitment to change. I genuinely believe that if every council in Scotland was to adopt a similar policy, and particularly using the recently published family leave guidance from COSLA, that this would remove not only some of the physical barriers, but it sends a message to women, parents, prospective parents and carers, that politics is a more welcome place for them.
This isn’t the holy grail of the structural change we need to increase women in local politics of course. We need political leadership to drive this through and that’s already happening in many areas already, and we’ve seen this also being led by men – Adam McVey in Edinburgh Council and John Alexander have been amazing advocates for change and have already put in place processes for making changes in their councils. West Dunbartonshire and South Lanarkshire also have policies and procedures in place, and I know many others are looking at this new guidance with sincere consideration.
The work put into the progress so far should be applauded, and particularly the work done by the COSLA Special Interest Group and others – it has been a journey and collaboration by many, but I hope it is only the start.
I am optimistic that changes like these can increase women’s participation at the next Local Elections, that we see more women elected than ever, and that those women pursue even further radical changes that makes politics even more accessible and reflective of our communities.
Councillor Kelly Parry, mum of two and Councillor for Midlothian West