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How Sian followed her political dream; It took almost 25 years until Sian Gwenllian could say she had finally been able to follow her dream in politics. Ruth Mosalski chats to the AM about her career, being a single mum of four and the tragedy of her husband's death...

N May 5, 2016, Sian Gwenllian was named Assembly Member for Arfon with a landslide of almost 11,000 votes.

OIt wasn't just the two years of campaigning as a candidate, but almost 25 years of work to get her there.

Originally from Felinheli, on the south side of the Menai Strait, her involvement in politics began at school.

As a student at Aberystwyth University, she was involved with the National Union of Students in west Wales. She studied journalism in Cardiffand went on to work for BBC and the-then HTV.

In her early 30s, Sian returned to north Wales, met her husband and the couple had their first child.

They had four children together, but in 1999 when their youngest son was just three, Sian's husband Dafydd died from cancer.

"I became the main carer and brought up the four children as a single parent," she said.

She had to return to work, balancing a parttime job and childcare responsibility.

She worked in communications for Gwynedd council and for Golwg.

That may have left most people busy enough, but she didn't stop there because she took the first steps into the political world by becoming a school governor and joining her community council. Doing so was a very conscious decision not to hide away after her husband's death.

"I decided that wasn't the way. I wanted to be a role model for the children and I wanted to show that we could carry on and be a family and do normal things even though they had lost their dad and me my husband.

"I really didn't want anybody to take pity on us. We did lots of stuffwhen the kids were small, lots of holidays.

"When I look back, I think, 'Wow, that was a difficult period' and I wonder how I did it and how I came out of it, but it was a natural thing to be doing at the time," she said.

She went on to chair the community council and in 2008 was elected to Gwynedd council representing Felinheli. Two years later she was given the finance portfolio.

At the 2012 election, when the council introduced the leader-cabinet model, she was deputy leader and the sole woman in the cabinet.

It was another two years before she was selected as Plaid Cymru candidate, replacing the retiring Alun Ffred Jones.

She spent two years campaigning ahead of the 2016 election, which was the first time she had felt in a position to stand at a higher level.

She admits she did consider putting herself forward in the 2003 election for the north Wales seat.

"But, as a single parent raising four young children plus needing to travel from north Wales to Cardiffand having to be away from home for two or three nights a week, that was clearly impossible," she said.

It was in 2016, aged 60, Sian was appointed as an AM.

Throughout each of those stages of her political career, she has championed the role of women partly because she has experienced all the things which put women offfirst hand.

She remembers, as a new councillor, going into the chamber.

"It was quite daunting going into the council chamber for the first time and finding that the atmosphere was not conducive to being able to express yourself.

"It was quite formal. "I had to really push myself to stand up to speak for the first time," she said.

At that time, she'd guess around a quarter of the councillors in Gwynedd were women.

"It was predominately male," she recalls. "When discussing that with other female councillors we knew we needed to support each other so we set up a mentoring group for elected representatives.

"We were encouraging each other and sharing experiences and discussing policy and everything else.

"It wasn't just about supporting each other in a kind of psychological way, we were supporting each other about policy and strategy," she says. She still speaks to the women she was part of the group with then and it still exists now.

Her former council colleague, Liz Saville Roberts, now an MP, is also hoping to set up a group with female councillors as a discussion forum.

"At the last local elections in 2017, I made a concerted effort to try to encourage women I knew would be good as councillors to be candidates.

"Just to encourage them and to show, if I can do it, anyone can.

"We did have a lot of councillors standing again so there wasn't a lot of chance to get new blood in, but we did manage to get some really good female councillors elected."

The Assembly, her current workplace, prides itself on being more inclusive. It did have 50% split between men and women, but that's slipped to 42% in the current term.

"I noticed the different in the chamber straight away. I felt much more comfortable even just standing up for the first time. I have thought about it and tried to analyse why.

"I think it's just because there are more women there.

"It does feel that even in different parties there is a kind of bond.

"We do encourage each other, all the women from the different political parties. The women here were really positive towards me right from the beginning."

She is clearly disappointed that the number of women has fallen back and spoke, for example, on International Women's Day this year for a 50/50 gender quota in the Assembly.

She warned, "the time for warm words is over".

"I have been conscious that my party has fallen back and contributed to some of that decline and at the Plaid Cymru conference in October we passed a motion so we have a policy that in future elections we will look, whatever the voting system, that we will have some mechanism in place to increase equality," she said.

For her it is simple, more women in politics gets more voices across.

"I think we need more women in politics. "I think if there are more women in decisionmaking roles, where policy is being made, then the focus will start to shift towards introducing policy which will lead to more equality across society.

"There is evidence which shows that the more women there are in a jurisdiction, the more emphasis there is on removing the barriers to make it easier for other women in any sphere of life to move on and more equality."

That starts, she says, with the Assembly. "It's about showing leadership. If the National Assembly believes in equality of opportunity, we have to find ways of creating equal representation.

"The rest should then be able to achieve equality because there are more people who are concerned about achieving gender equality leading discussions and the agenda.

"There are barriers there and some of them are deeply entrenched cultural barriers.

"They stem from years and years of women being stereotyped into certain roles and certain behaviour.

"We, as women, have to break through those barriers and we have to push issues forward.

"There need to be role models who will help other women break through their lack of confidence, but also the practical issues as well.

CONTINUED ON PAGES 20&21 CONTINUED FROM PAGES 18&19 "Some of these practical issues are that women are still, in the main, the main carers of children and with elderly parents. It's not just caring for children any more.

"We need anything that starts to make life easier, be it men taking more responsibility, that's an obvious one, but also making it more flexible for women who do want to share caring responsibilities.

"Better childcare facilities, flexible hours and flexible working is also important.

"Job share comes into that." Sian spends Monday to Thursday in Cardiff, 156 miles away from her home.

She is very aware that the location of the Assembly in Cardiffdoes have an impact on those in north Wales.

"With north Wales AMs there is an inequality that maybe isn't talked about very much - there's an inequality because we're four hours away from Cardiff. There's a geographic inequality in terms of the time spent travelling which could be spent doing something profitable and more constructive.

"It's much easier for somebody who lives locally because they can go back to their families at night.

"If you're somebody from north Wales, you have to factor in the travel time, but also have to think about the actual volume of time you're away from your family. If you're away from your family for three whole days and you have got small children it's very, very difficult.

"In my case, if I had wanted to become an AM when I was 45 it would have been impossible at that point because I was a single parent looking after four children, working part time in my home area.

"I wouldn't have been able to come to the Assembly.

"But now, of course, my children are grown up so my caring responsibilities are done. I am much freer. When I'm in Cardiff, I can concentrate on what's happening.

"I can't imagine how some AMs who are here now do manage."

Having spent decades trying to encourage more women into politics, she isn't stopping now she's in the Senedd.

In 2017, an expert panel released their report on Assembly electoral reform.

The headlines were all grabbed by votes for 16 and 17-year-olds and increasing the number of Assembly Members.

But there was another proposal in the 255-page document that Ms Gwenllian thinks would encourage other women to stand.

That proposal is two people sharing a single AM role.

The authors found that while "one of the principles integral to the Assembly's ethos is that, as far as possible, family-friendly working should be embedded in its culture and procedures" the nature of political life means that offers "limited flexibility".

But offering job-sharing as an option to candidates "could lead to an increase in the diversity of representation within the Assembly".

"The flexibility to stand on the basis of job sharing could be particularly beneficial for older candidates, those with disabilities or those with caring responsibilities. Of course, whether it did so would be a matter for electors, who would be able to decide whether or not to vote for candidates standing as a job-share.

"It would be important for any candidates wishing to stand for election on this basis to clearly set out for the electorate how the arrangement would operate, for example in relation to constituency work."

The report says that should job-share be accepted, rules would have to be in place.

If one resigned, both would have to, for example.

They would have to draw up rules about funding and there should be "no additional costs beyond those of a single Assembly Member". Everything from office costs, staffing and accommodation allowances would all count as a single one.

Ms Gwenllian explained how she could see it working in Wales.

"It would be two people from the same political party agreeing a way of working and presenting that to the electorate.

"We would be on a joint ticket. "It could be two men, two women or a man and a woman and then the electorate, should they wish to support the two people, they would be offered to the electorate.

"In terms of the party, they would still be answerable to the whip.

"I imagine a scenario where you could have, say, two women deciding to job-share.

"One who was an older woman and one younger who still has caring responsibilities.

"So it could make sense for the younger woman with children to be in the constituency and the older woman down here in Cardiff.

"That wouldn't be forever. They could swap, maybe every year or every week.

"There are all kinds of permutations that would need to be worked through and agreed beforehand."

She is Plaid Cymru's spokesperson for local government, the Welsh Language, equalities and planning and on two committees - the Culture, Welsh Language and Communications Committee and the Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee.

She would expect to share both portfolios and committees if there was a job-share situation.

There are voices calling for job-shares in Westminster and Cardiffalike.

In 2012 Labour MP John McDonnell said he wanted the law changed to allow MPs to job-share in Westminster.

Three years later, Green Party candidates Sarah Cope and Clare Phipps lost their High Court battle to job-share. Cope was the main carer for two young children and Phipps has a disability, so they said they could represent the constituency better together. But their bid failed.

Caroline Lucas MP, the Green Party's only MP, shares the leadership role with Jonathan Bartley.

Ms Lucas has said she thinks it would allow politicians to "keep a foot in their communities".

"Job-sharing MPs could keep their caring responsibilities, they could keep voluntary work, they could continue part-time in their profession," she said.

But there are no job-share positions in Scotland or Northern Ireland.

In a paper published in September 2017, Dr Sarah Wollaston MP wrote for the Fawcett Society: "It should be possible for two people to combine their candidacies and stand as job-share MPs for a constituency.

"I job-shared as a GP before entering Westminster. Providing there is good communication, the arrangement can work well and broaden the skills and experience brought to the role, including for jobs involving complex decision making.

"People have fair questions about how it would work and candidates would need to lay out their process for making decisions and resolving conflicts to the public and then, as ever, the electorate would have the final say.

"Permitting MP job-sharing would be a proportionate step towards making it possible for more people to consider standing and to diversifying parliamentary representation".

Ms Gwenllian says there have already been discussions within Plaid Cymru.

"It's definitely something that we should be exploring more," she said.

She says she knows women who could be great AMs, but who are unable to stand due to other commitments.

"It's about encouraging people who don't feel confident about going the whole way but to do it in a more gradual way.

"It could even be a transitional arrangement," she suggests.

"It's all about flexibility. "We need to be open to working in all kind of ways and not be rigid in our thought processes and really open to how we can encourage more women and more groups and diversity."

I wanted to be a role model for the children and I wanted to show that we could carry on and be a family and do normal thingsWe need anything that starts to make life easier, be it men taking more responsibility, that's an obvious one, but also making it more flexible for women


Sian Gwenllian wins Arfon for Plaid Cymru and, below, Sian with her four children

Sian chats with Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood and Liz Saville-Roberts MP

<B Sian as an HTV presenter in the 1980s and, top left, Sian's children with husband Dafydd
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:May 5, 2018
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