The great debate

Written by Kate Shannon on 23 July 2014 in Feature

Is gender inbalance still an issue within the public sector?

In April this year, First Minister Alex Salmond said the Scottish Government would “practise what we preach” as Shona Robison and Angela Constance joined the cabinet, meaning women now make up 40 per cent of its members.

He said: “The Scotland we are seeking to build will be an equal Scotland. With these two outstanding ministers in the Scottish cabinet, we practise what we preach. The cabinet is our board as a country, and subject to a parliamentary approval, women will soon make up 40 per cent of the members of the Scottish cabinet.”

At the beginning of June, figures released by the Office for National Statistics showed that female employment in Scotland is at its highest level since comparable records began in 1992. Scotland’s female employment rate of 69.8 per cent is also higher than the rate for the UK as a whole, at 67.9 per cent. In total, 35,000 more women in Scotland are in employment than one year ago, out of a total rise in employment of 48,000.

While this is to be welcomed, the situation for women in the labour market is far from rosy. In Scotland, the gender pay gap is 13 per cent, when you compare women’s full time hours with men’s. The Scottish Government has recently launched a consultation on introducing mandatory quotas to ensure at least 40 per cent of public boards are made up of women. Meanwhile, Margaret Curran, Shadow Scottish Secretary, pledged that Labour would mandate for 50 per cent of public body boards to be women.

The Scottish Government consultation aims to gather views on how Scotland could best use the power to legislate to address this imbalance, if required. Currently this power sits with the UK Government. 

The Scottish Government said the legislation would bridge the gender gap and create more effective boards. The consultation examines the imbalance in women’s representation on boards and gathers views on how we can address any inequality, if required.  The consultation, Women On Board: Quality Through Diversity, asks how mandatory quotas could be implemented for public bodies, and if potential legislation should be extended to company boards.

Cabinet Secretary for Equalities, Shona Robison, said: “It’s clear that even in this day and age we still have gender inequality on our public boards. That is why we are taking our commitment to women’s representation further than any other Scottish Government has done before. Our ambition is for Scotland’s public and corporate institutions to properly reflect the communities they serve, which will contribute to moving us towards the more equal Scotland we wish to see. This consultation is looking for views on how mandatory quotas that ensure a minimum of 40 per cent of women’s representation could be introduced.

“The results of that consultation will help make our case to the Westminster Government that Scotland should have responsibility for these issues. Following independence, these powers would come to Scotland anyway and we will not have to rely on Westminster’s agreement. Every woman should be able to fulfil their potential in the labour market and in their wider life. Scottish women make up 52 per cent of our population. They clearly have a voice to be heard and we will do all that we can to make sure this happens by driving forward this consultation on legislation.”

According to the consultation paper, although significant progress has been made in recent years, women continue to be underrepresented on public boards, and also as the chairs/convenors of public boards. In Scotland, women represent 52 per cent of the population, however in 2013, only 21 per cent of chairs were women, while currently, female representation on regulated public boards stands at 35 per cent.

As of January 2013, there were four public boards with no female representation at all, and 10 per cent of public boards had fewer than 20 per cent of women on them. The largest number of boards had between 20 and 40 per cent. Boards with over 60 per cent of women accounted for around eight per cent.

So what are the barriers to increasing diversity on public boards?

The Scottish Government said there is a general lack of awareness of public appointments among underrepresented groups, while women also have a tendency to “undersell themselves” and feel the need to meet all aspects of a job specification before applying. The application process itself has also been cited as a barrier.

The consultation paper stated: “These barriers are significant, however, there has been some improvement in recent years, but more needs to be done, which is why alongside pursuing the power to introduce quotas, the Scottish Government is also developing a programme of actions to further address this issue. The Public Bodies and Corporate Diversity Programme was established in December 2013 to oversee the development and delivery of a programme of work that will increase diversity on public boards and within the Scottish Government workforce.”

According to information collated by Glasgow Caledonian’s Women in Scotland’s Economy Research Centre, as of January 2014, while women make up 51 per cent of the labour market, only four per cent of women in employment in Scotland are corporate managers or directors.

Meanwhile, 36 per cent of women are employed in the public sector in Scotland; 71 per cent of local government workers are female; and 44 per cent of women work within public administration, education and healthcare sectors.

Within Scottish local government, 13 of the 32 council chief executives are currently women, while at directorate level with the Scottish Government, three of the seven are women. These include Leslie Evans as director-general of learning and justice; Alyson Stafford as director-general of finance and Sarah Davidson as director-general of communities.

Speaking to Holyrood about her own career path, Sue Bruce, chief executive at City of Edinburgh Council, said she hadn’t felt gender was an issue in her career. She said: “I have worked and studied (as a self-funder) hard to develop my career path, although there was never a grand plan about it. I started at the ground floor and have worked up. There was no ‘silver spoon’ and I have always had several roles at each stage before progressing further.

“I have always believed in developing strength in depth before progressing. There have been a few occasions over the years where I have encountered dismissive or patronising attitudes, both from within public service and from elsewhere, but I think society is much more aware of equalities and the accountability of organisations and individuals for their behaviour.”

Hopefully, this means things are going to change for women, though in many people’s opinion, it can’t come soon enough.

Chief executive of North Ayrshire Council, Elma Murray, said: “When I started working in local government, there were few women in senior positions and I have seen that change markedly, particularly in the last 10 years. Local councils are a good example of that change.

“Over my 30+ years in local government I have come across those who do have some difficulty with gender, however, when applying for promotion, I have been assessed on my ability, rather than my gender, and on that basis, gender has been a non-issue for my career development.”

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