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Pursuing #BalanceforBetter through our Peer Support Circles

This blog reviewing the work we have done with the Parliament Project was originally posted on their site for International Women's Day. As Eve and I review the circles and plans for more of them in different spheres of life it was helpful to reflect on this learning. This was the second programme of Peer Support Circles run in collaboration with The Parliament Project to support better balance in representation in politics in the UK.

Our Peer Support Circles are a six session, on-line programme over 12 weeks designed to support women to #GetReadyToStand. Circles use coaching and social learning approaches to progress everyone’s journey to and within political office. As a self-facilitated model, we provide a framework and tools, heavily influenced by a clean language approach as adapted from pioneering work by David Grove, person-centred thinking tools and social learning work such as Working Out Loud. The circles are designed with equality and mutuality at their core; enabling the women involved to build rapport, trust and confidence in each other.

That over 170 women registered interest in this round of circles demonstrates a clear demand for further support from women on their political pathways. These women have widely varied goals and backgrounds: there are women aiming to be MPs, MSPs and Councillors. That the circles are cross-party is significant: traditional political structures can continue to be a barrier for many, a space outside of this enables reflection and collaboration. Moreover, many women 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 direct response to the feedback received at workshops asking about 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 to make this happen. 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 what I feel a peer circle at its best is like;

"a space to breathe deeply and create the habits and skills to continue to breathe through a political career".

What the circles are not is a confidence building initiative. Rather, they are a 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 the support and virtual fist bumps for achievements of all sizes it 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. Some of this results from the capacity, logistics and sometimes sheer gymnastics of women being able 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 and community activism can be endless.

The feedback so far is phenomenal. Our evaluations demonstrate women feel significantly better informed about the process for 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 continue 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.

You can learn more about our approach Collaborative Circles used in this work here.

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