THERE is a significant underrepresentation of carers and parents standing for elected office in Scotland, a survey has shown.

A Scottish Government ­diversity questionnaire invited all 2548 ­candidates who stood in the ­council elections in May this year to take part, but only 720 responded (28.2%).

Despite the small pool of replies, the poll highlighted a number of key points; the majority were aged over 45 (70%), white (67.8%), did not have any additional caring ­responsibilities (72%) and did not provide any care for children under the age of 16 (77%).

A previous Sunday National ­investigation found that none of the five Holyrood parties managed to ­produce a gender balanced candidate list ahead of the 2022 local ­authority vote, with men representing 66% of all candidates who stood, while ­women accounted for just 34%.

The recent survey highlighted the additional barriers for many women entering into local politics - as the majority of caring, particularly unpaid, and parenting responsibilities fall to them.

Marion Davis, director of policy for One Parent Families Scotland, said that the figures are a “bleak but unsurprising reflection” of the extra hurdles for carers and parents.

She said: “It’s disappointing that the research does not highlight the numbers of single parents specifically, but we can predict that those figures would be lower still. Single parent families are amongst those at highest risk of poverty, bearing the brunt of policy decisions made in rooms they are rarely in.”

READ MORE: BBC 'peddling company line' on Royal Mail strikes, say union

With nine in 10 single parents’ women and generally having “disproportionate caring responsibilities”, Davis said that addressing the issue is key to reaching gender equality in political representation.

She added: “If we want decisions to be made which reflect the needs of all sections of society, much more needs to be done to ensure that some groups aren’t shut out from involvement in politics. All employers need to offer greater flexibility and understanding of caring responsibilities, and that example should be set at the top by every level of government and by every political party.”

Martha Mattos-Coelho

AS a New Scot who found herself suddenly separated from her ­husband three weeks before the Covid-19 pandemic took hold, Edinburgh councillor Martha Mattos-Coelho took a lot of convincing to stand for election.

A mum-of-two who moved to ­Scotland in 2015 from Lisbon, Portugal, Mattos-Coelho felt she didn’t have enough political background to take on the job, but becoming a single parent gave her a unique perspective.

The 45-year-old said that as an ­immigrant with no family in the country to support her or help with childcare, she wanted to make sure her voice was heard and give back to the society which embraced her and her family.

She said: “The way Scotland sees us we are an asset, compared to what we see down south [where immigrants are] almost treated as criminals.

“I thought the way society ­welcomed me as a new Scot I could pay back this way by trying to help and the fact that I could give a voice to the single parents, especially single mums because we are 92% of single parents.”

Mattos-Coelho didn’t want to take her sons, aged five and 12, on the campaign trail, and insists that she wouldn’t have been able to run ­without the support of her friends who offered up childcare.

“My friends were the biggest sponsors of my campaign, honestly, no money will pay for the amount of time they gave me to look after them,” she said. But life as a councillor can be all consuming, and the Gilmerton and Liberton ward member has noticed that flexibility can come down to the whims of a committee convener.

On the two committees she takes part in, Mattos-Coelho said that one convener pays more attention to the fact that on certain days she needs to leave at 2pm to pick up her children, while on the second committee she has found less flexibility if the meeting runs over.

She explained: “Ideally the ­meetings would be held during school hours. I think it’d be ideal for everyone, if a meeting is too long, divide it into two days. Do it [on] Monday and Tuesday. One of my conveners, I can’t complain, she’s been fabulous and very understanding, the other not so much.”

Kim Lowe

LIFE as a councillor can certainly be unpredictable as Kim Lowe explained, having had to grab her wellies and run out to an emergency flooding call in her ward at short notice on a Thursday afternoon.

The 60-year-old has the added complication of being the sole carer for her husband George, 65, who has mobility issues and postural hypotension, which can cause him to collapse if his blood pressure drops.

A councillor for Abbey ward, a ­rural part of Dumfries and Galloway, Lowe was elected for the first time in May last year and had to put her part-time business on hold due to the combination of her work on the local authority and providing crucial care for her husband.

The couple are approaching their 30th wedding anniversary, and Lowe admits that the salary from her ­councillor job has given them more ­financial stability.

The survey found that 28% of ­respondents had some form of caring responsibility, but the majority (22%) were providing one to 19 hours of care a week, while only 5% provided over 20 hours of care, and only 2% of those over 50 hours.

Lowe said: “Certainly with the current cost of living crisis, it’s helpful because we would have struggled before, we’d probably been completely dependent on the government handouts for all the cost of living stuff now. We do get some cost of living help because of his disability as he gets PIP [Personal Independence Payments].

READ MORE: FM celebrates inclusion of loss and damage fund in COP27 agreement

“It means that we’re more than ­surviving and actually kind of doing OK, so in that sense the salary does make a difference, but the thing that is difficult is the flexibility.”

As the times and number of ­meetings change week on week, Lowe said: “Nobody is flexible enough to say well, what times do you need me this week? So that’s actually quite ­difficult.”

Although Lowe, from Dalbeattie, believes it’s possible to do every council meeting from home, she admits that you could “miss out” on conversations between meetings or at crucial decision-making points, but that it isn’t critical to taking on the job.

She said: “You could even get by with putting nil travel expenses in and just work from home. It is ­possible to do that. Every meeting is available online, and I think that needs to be said to people.”

Lowe believes that allowing for more flexibility with what care ­support you receive, which the ­current system doesn’t allow, could help to encourage more carers to stand for election.

She cites the recent SNP ­conference in Aberdeen where carers took over George’s care for four days while she made the trip, and how it helped quell the constant worry she feels.

She added: “To be honest, it was a total lifesaver, and I just completely relaxed the four days.”

Kim Long

FORMER Scottish Greens councillor Kim Long stood down at the last election for a variety of reasons but cited the added caring responsibilities of her terminally ill grandmother as one of the big factors.

“I would say it was in my top 20 ­reasons, but not in my top 10,” she explained.

The 32-year-old represented Dennistoun on Glasgow City Council (GCC) for five years and said the hardest part for her was running a full-time campaign and trying to put contingencies in place for any emergencies with her grandparent’s health.

She said: ­“Having to say this could ­happen at very short notice that I’m not able to attend something or I would have to take time out.

“Trying to put that in place when everybody’s a ­volunteer including me is really hard going. I found it less of a barrier once I was a councillor, but I feel Glasgow was maybe different to other local ­authorities.”

GCC holds meetings during ­daytime hours and councillors have a ­decent amount of autonomy to set their own timetable but having ­added caring responsibilities on top of the role meant Long couldn’t take on a second job like many of her ­colleagues.

She said: “There was definitely a ­financial penalty for that. There were times when it was incredibly hard ­because caring doesn’t follow a political timescale or respect when you have important meetings.”

READ MORE: Chef hopes pie will become Scottish tradition on St Andrew's Day

Long recalls one point where she was leading the Green group’s ­response to the council’s budget at a time where her grandmother was ­suffering from poor mental health and calling her frequently.

She added: “I was going in and out of these incredibly tense, very important meetings that had enormous ­consequences for the people of Glasgow and was absolutely exhausted.

“I was in fight or flight response because I was waiting for the next phone call. That was really hard, and not a lot of people understood.”

One of the big issues for Long is the “infinite workload” combined with the low wage. The basic rate of pay for councillors is set nationally, and in 2022 is £19,571. “I think we will never ever get fair representation without a decent salary for councillors and without recognising that it is more than a full-time job”, Long said.

Hannah Stevens

THERE is no easy solution to the litany of barriers which stop parents and carers from standing for election, but a culture shift is critical, camaigners said.

Hannah Stevens, left, chief executive at Elect Her, a group who support and encourage women to stand, said that modernising the culture within local authorities and maintaining hybrid working are two of the key issues.

She explained: “That point became more prescient when we did a lot of work with the island communities where the travel time is even greater. You’re talking about an overnight stay and a ferry trip to attend a meeting in person.

“There are [rural] areas and places like the Highlands where it’s not just about managing the kids, it’s about physical access.”

Introducing formal parental leave and ensuring work and travel policies within administrations consider caring responsibilities is also important. “Overall tackle the culture that enables sexist, racist, ableist, homophobic attitudes to persist and create a non-aggressive space where women feel able to voice their ideas,” Stevens added.

READ MORE: What Yessers say about a Twitter declines impact on the indy debate

THE Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (Cosla) welcomed the survey and said it helps the body to understand the makeup of councils, the challenges they face, and which groups are being underrepresented.

A spokesperson added: “The Scottish Local Authorities Remuneration Committee (SLARC) is being re-established this term to look at councillor’s pay, one of the main barriers to elected office - particularly for those with caring responsibilities or from lower-income backgrounds.”