International Women's Day 2019: Pursuing #BalanceForBetter through our Peer Support Circles

In honour of International Women’s Day and the theme of #BalanceForBetter, Nicola Waterworth, one of our lead facilitators in the North, considers how our hugely popular Peer Support Circles are helping women to #GetReadyToStand in pursuit of gender-balanced politics.

By Nicola, Parliament Project Facilitator

As we celebrate International Women’s Day, we are also nearing the conclusion of our second programme of Peer Support Circles, developed by Happen Together CIC and run in collaboration with The Parliament Project. In light of the #IWD2019 theme of #BalanceForBetter, it feels like a good opportunity to review the impact our innovative programme is having supporting women to create better balance in political representation in the UK.

Conservative Councillor Alice Jenkins speaks on a panel at the Parliament Project’s recent Milton Keynes event

Conservative Councillor Alice Jenkins speaks on a panel at the Parliament Project’s recent Milton Keynes event

Our Peer Support Circles are a six session, online programme over 12 weeks designed to support women to #GetReadyToStand. Key to the model is women working collaboratively within a small group of cross-party peers, using coaching and social learning tools to progress everyone’s journey to and within political office. As a self-facilitated model, we provide a framework and tools, heavily influenced by the clean language approach as adapted from pioneering work by David Grove.The circles are designed with equality and mutuality at their core, enabling the women involved to build rapport, trust and confidence in each other - regardless of differing political ideologies.

That over 170 women registered interest in this round of circles demonstrates a clear demand for further support by women on their political pathways. These women have widely varied goals and backgrounds: there are women aiming to be MPs, MSPs, and Councillors, from all political parties and from none. That the circles are cross-party is significant: traditional political structures can continue to be a barrier for many women, and a space outside of this enables reflection and collaboration. Moreover, many of the women participating are not currently party-aligned and may choose to remain independent, particularly in local politics.

It was a brilliant safe space to explore ideas and strategies with others across the political spectrum. It has definitely increased my motivation to run for political office.
— Peer support circle participant

We first piloted our circles in 2018, in response to feedback received at our workshops asking where women could go next to find spaces to share their experiences with others to learn, encourage and provide mutual support. The circles intentionally offer space in response to increasing calls for a different way of ‘doing politics.’ Most recently, I was struck by Sophie Walker’s demand when resigning from WEP: “We have got to get some new voices into politics, create systems that allow women to breathe.” This is exactly what I feel a peer circle is at its best: a space to breathe deeply and create the habits and skills to continue to breathe through a political career.

A group of women discuss at a recent workshop in Milton Keynes

A group of women discuss at a recent workshop in Milton Keynes

What the circles are not is a confidence-building initiative. Rather, they are an intentional space for those who are motivated and committed to reflect on and analyse their situations, acknowledge the barriers they face and gain insight and support to act. The programme focuses on defining political purpose and the experiences that brought us here; connecting with others through compassion and generosity; appreciating our strengths and knowing how to ask for help; building public presence and influence; and building resilience to the reality of drama and toxicity in politics. 

For many women, this approach is working. As I scroll through the comments, messages and posts by current participants, support and virtual fist bumps for achievements of all sizes is genuinely moving to see. Nearly ten weeks ago these women didn’t know each other, with many feeling alone on an isolated journey. It doesn’t work for all, and some of this results from the capacity, logistics and sometimes sheer gymnastics of women’s ability to attend a programme that continues to be very limited in supply. The demands of women’s busy lives, onto which they are often layering their political activism, can be endless. 

The feedback so far is phenomenal. Our evaluations demonstrate women feel significantly better informed about the process of running for political office, have greater awareness of the advice available to them, are better connected to those who can help them get elected, and are more confident in articulating their political purpose and plan for achieving political office.

I am more convinced that being an MP is achievable than I was originally, when I saw my age as a barrier.
— Peer support circle participant

We feel there is huge potential for these circles to support more women to create #BalanceForBetter in UK politics through reaching parity of representation. We know we need to work with others to develop the model so we can reach both greater numbers of women and the full diversity of women through an intersectional approach. All of this inevitably requires us to secure more funding, but it’s one of the most important investments we can make in creating a better future for all. Ultimately, we are hopeful our peer circles can play a part in delivering #BalanceForBetter, and better politics for all.

Do our Peer Support Circles sound like the right fit for you in your political journey? Commit to #BalanceForBetter and send an email to hannah@parliamentproject.com to register your interest in the next round!