Women and equality in Scotland: still room for improvement

Written by Jenni Davidson on 16 June 2016 in Inside Politics

Women have some of the most prominent roles in Scottish politics, but that doesn't mean we have reached equality

We have a female first minister. Half of the cabinet are women. Three of the five party leaders in Scotland are female. The most senior civil servant in the Scottish Government is a woman. So we’ve got there, right? Equality.

Well, no. In this current Scottish Parliament, female MSPs still make up only 34.9 per cent of the total, 45 out of 129 MSPs, exactly the same number as were elected in 2011.

Since the first Scottish Parliament in 1999 female representation has stayed fairly static at around a third: there were 48 female MSPs in 1999, 51 in 2003, 43 in 2007 and 45 in 2011 and 2016.

The highest ever proportion of women, in the 2003 parliament, still did not quite reach 40 per cent.

While Labour has achieved 45.8 per cent female representation this time round and the SNP was not far behind on 42.8 per cent, the other parties lagged behind, with the Conservatives only getting six women MSPs or 19.3 per cent elected, the Greens one and the Lib Dems none.

Behind the scenes too, most of the parties’ special advisers and communications staff are male. All the corporate posts in the Scottish Parliament have gone to men: the Presiding Officer and members of the corporate body and business bureau are all male.

In last year’s general election, 20 of 59 MPs elected in Scotland – 33.9 per cent – were female, slightly lower than the Scottish Parliament, but above the overall Westminster average of 29 per cent. Only one of Scotland’s six MEPs, Catherine Stihler, is female.

Thirteen of Scotland’s 32 local authorities have a female chief executive, as well as local government body COSLA, but just five of them or 15.6 per cent – Aberdeen, East Dunbartonshire, Highland, Midlothian and Stirling – have a female council leader, and women make up only 24 per cent of councillors.

In a paper presented to last year’s Political Studies Association annual conference, Glasgow Caledonian University’s Professor Karen Johnston and Donna Elliott of Glasgow University noted that the low number of women councillors has a knock-on effect throughout other levels of political representation, with nearly 29 per cent of MSPs having been local councillors.

“Arguably, the paucity of female representation in local government has a detrimental effect on their political career trajectories in other legislative assemblies,” they said.


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There are still substantial differences between men and women in the workplace, with a pay gap of 14.8 per cent between men’s and women’s pay. On average, women in Scotland earn £175.30 per week less than men.

However, recent research from the Hay Group suggests the gender pay gap is not so much due to women being paid less for doing the same job, which accounts for just 0.8 per cent of the difference, but women being less well represented in higher paid roles.

Women in Scotland make up 52 per cent of the population and 48 per cent of the labour market, but just 38 per cent of public boards.

Around 80 per cent of those in administrative, secretarial and personal service jobs are women, 97 per cent of those working in childcare and early years education, 98 per cent of classroom assistants, but only 10 per cent of senior managers in science, engineering and technology professions.

Only 22 per cent of the top jobs in the civil service are held by women and the head of the UK civil service recently had to defend appointing the top jobs in six UK government departments to men.

“When I hear women – senior women – saying they have never encountered sexism during their career as they climbed the ladder – and I often do hear that – I simply don’t buy it. It doesn’t correlate with my experience,” said the Permanent Secretary to the Scottish Government, Leslie Evans, at the recent Women into Leadership Scotland 2016 Conference for senior women in the public sector.

Part-time working is also a factor, with 42 per cent of women in employment in Scotland working part-time compared to 13 per cent of men, and women making up 75 per cent of the part-time workforce.

The difference between the mean male full-time hourly rate and the female part-time hourly rate is 33 per cent.

It’s not all bad news, though. As well as having a female head of the Scottish Government, two out of the six director generals leading directorates and nine of the 14 positions, including all three of the non-executive directors, on the strategic board, the ‘top table’ of the Scottish Government, are women.

Gender balance in the Scottish Government has improved in recent years and 40 per cent of senior civil servants are women. At just 0.6 per cent, Scotland has the smallest gender pay gap in the UK for top public sector jobs.

The cross-party Women 50:50 campaign is pushing for 50 per cent representation for women in parliament, on councils and on public boards and change is beginning to take place.

At this year’s Scottish Parliament election, the SNP introduced all-women shortlists where a sitting MSP was standing down and equal numbers of men and women on regional lists.

Over 50 per cent of Scottish Labour’s constituency candidates were women and Labour had ‘zipped’ alternate male and female candidates on regional lists. Scottish Labour’s shadow cabinet is also gender-balanced.

The Greens also operate zipped lists, but not having MSPs elected across all regions affected the result.

It has been the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats who have lagged behind on gender equality.

Two of the Tories’ regional lists had no women at all on them and most of the top spots on lists were given to men. The Conservative shadow cabinet has only one woman, Liz Smith, apart from Ruth Davidson herself.

Although only male Lib Dem MSPs were elected, Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie took the unusual step of appointing a gender-balanced shadow cabinet, with the female spokespeople all non-MSPs.

While the practical implications of having spokespeople who will not be able to participate in parliamentary debate is questionable, it does show how far women’s representation has risen up the agenda that the party felt the need to be seen to be addressing the issue, albeit after the horse had bolted.

At their party conference in February, the Scottish Lib Dems voted to ensure women would be selected in the five most winnable Westminster seats and five of the 10 most winnable Holyrood seats at the next elections.

The lead candidate for the 2019 European Parliament election will also be a woman.

In addition, Katy Gordon, a female parliamentary candidate who was not elected this time round, is to oversee the party’s campaign for the local government elections next year.

The Scottish Government launched Partnership for Change, promoting a voluntary commitment by public, private and third sector organisations to achieve a 50:50 gender balance on their boards by 2020 under the banner  of ‘50:50 by 2020’.

A year ago this month, the First Minister called on companies, third sector organisations and public sector bodies across the country to make a commitment that 50 per cent of their board members will be women by 2020 and late last year Nicola Sturgeon committed to bringing forward legislation for equal representation on public boards if re-elected.

A recent report produced for the Scottish Government, ‘Increasing Representation of Women on Scottish Boards’, described the two rationales for improving the diversity of private sector boards: business benefits from broadening the range of perspectives and expertise and an equalities requirement that individuals with protected characteristics are represented across all aspects of the labour market, including at board level.

The report notes that the lack of female candidates for board positions reflects differences in aspirations across genders, with many of the ‘potential board members’ interviewed feeling that board positions were not for them, perceptions that boards are a ‘male-dominated culture’ where they may not fit in and more limited social networks amongst women.

The lack of women in senior management roles and time out of the labour market due to caring responsibilities limiting the amount of experience women had accrued compared to men were found to be major factors in the lack of skills and experience among female candidates, but the report also suggests that unconscious bias and narrow consideration of the type of skills and experience companies are looking for were also factors.

It suggests that unless there is wider recognition of the organisational, cultural and structural barriers and action taken to address them, it will be difficult to make sustainable inroads into tackling this issue.

At the Women into Leadership Scotland 2016 conference, Scottish Government permanent secretary Leslie Evans told attendees: “Talking about and tackling inequality can no longer be seen as a moral imperative but an economic one too. Evidence shows that inequality acts as a barrier to growth and harms business over the long run.”

Evans suggested women have some leadership advantages in the current uncertain global climate, with the traditional view of leadership that “we could protect, we could steer and we could control” no longer feasible or desirable in the culture we now live in.

“A different kind of leadership is now required, one that doesn’t pretend to know all the answers, but is comfortable with ambiguity and is capable of responding to the moment, leadership that is inclusive, cooperative, agile and open.

“This kind of leadership, I think, sits comfortably with many women’s core strengths as leaders, and which I think plays to their intuitively collaborative styles.”

Melanie Dawes, the permanent secretary in the UK Government Department for Communities and Local Government, one of only two female permanent secretaries at Westminster  and the UK civil service gender champion, noted that although gender balance across the senior civil service as a whole is at 39.8 per cent, the highest in Europe, it still is not equality.

“Gender equality means equality. Forty per cent isn’t equality,” she said.

She cited the issue of unconscious bias, in/out group behaviour and not looking for a wide enough range of skills in senior roles as factors in continuing inequality, noting research that suggests when women are in a minority of less than 30 per cent they are perceived as talking ‘as a woman’ rather than as themselves.

And it’s not just women at the top level of leadership that needs to be addressed. Recent research for the UK Government’s Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) on maternity discrimination and employer attitudes to pregnancy highlight some shocking statistics.

More than three-quarters of mothers surveyed – 77 per cent – said they had a negative or possibly discriminatory experience during pregnancy, maternity leave or on return from maternity leave. 

One in five said they had experienced harassment or negative comments related to pregnancy or flexible working from their employer or colleagues and ten per cent said their employer had discouraged them from attending antenatal appointments.

Eleven per cent of the women reported that they had been dismissed, made redundant or treated so badly they felt they had to leave their job.

Over two-thirds of mothers had submitted a flexible working request and although around three-quarters of those requests were approved, half felt it resulted in negative consequences.

Although the majority of employers – 84 per cent – said it was in their interests to support pregnant women and those on maternity leave, 70 per cent said they felt women should declare upfront during recruitment if they are pregnant and a quarter of employers said they believed it was reasonable to ask women about their plans to have children during recruitment.

Seventeen per cent believed that pregnant women and mothers were less interested in career progression and promotion than other employees.

Last week the EHRC responded to the report by launching the #PowertotheBump campaign in Scotland to make young women aware of their maternity rights in the workplace.

Talking about flexible working in the senior civil service, Leslie Evans said: “I am, to use a civil service word, ‘disappointed’ at the level of job shares and part-time work that takes place, particularly in the senior civil service … Every single job in the senior civil service is eligible for job share and I keep saying this to people and they sort of look at me slightly quizzically.”

She added: “The other thing I would say is those people who work for me who have been in job share have been the most productive, the most productive: they are crisp, they delegate, they’re absolutely on the button about time management – because they have to be.

“I think I was probably most effective in my job sometimes when I came back after 10 weeks maternity leave. I was out that door, down to the nursery – not quite fast enough sometimes, but mostly. I was so much better at delegating.

“So when you have that work-life balance, actually, your focus is crisper and sharper.”

Poverty too still affects women in Scotland disproportionately. According to the Poverty in Scotland 2016 report, 18 per cent of adult women live in poverty compared to 16 per cent of men and this difference has not changed over the last decade.

The report puts this down in part to women living longer than men. According to Scottish Government estimates quoted in Poverty in Scotland, 17 per cent of female pensioners living alone are in poverty compared to nine per cent of male pensioners who live alone.

“For far too many women, later life is one that is characterised by poverty,” says Professor John H McKendrick in the report.

The analysis suggests that while the risk of poverty for male pensioners has fallen over the last two years from 16 per cent to nine per cent, it has increased for female pensioners, from 11 per cent to 17 per cent.

“Gender dynamics for pensioner poverty in Scotland appear to be particularly regressive for women at the current time. This may reflect women’s vulnerability in not having the same level of protection as a result of historically poorer provision of private pensions and lower national insurance contributions,” he says.

Speaking to Holyrood earlier this year, one of the report’s authors, Gill Scott, noted that women are also disproportionately affected by austerity.

One of the things that will change the future is influencing young women to know their rights and put themselves forward equally in the workplace.

At Women in Leadership 2016 Young Scot, chief executive Louise Macdonald focused on young women “because fundamentally for me, helping female leaders succeed by building a culture of inclusion and respect starts young”.

However, she warned against an over-reliance on programmes to help women succeed. “From where I stand, working in the third sector and with a young people’s charity, the picture I often witness is one where we are in danger of repeating the same models of creating support structures or ladders of progression for young women that actually lead to this cookie-cutter model.”

Mentoring schemes and programmes in schools and universities that support girls and young women were useful, she suggested, but would not reach some of the girls who most need them.

“Some of the most brilliant, resilient and courageous young female leaders I know will never be reached by those programmes,” she said. “They’re in places and facing challenges that many others would shrink from.

“They are care-experienced young women, young carers, young women courageously facing mental health issues, either in themselves or their families or those they love.

“Or they are the forgotten group in the middle of the classroom. They’re not the ones at the front with their hands up. They’re not the ones at the back heading out the door.

“They’re in the middle, simply waiting for their opportunity to shine, to be given the space and the encouragement to let loose their talent. An opportunity that too often doesn’t come because the spotlight is shining elsewhere.”

She challenged attendees to think differently about who they were engaging and where they were taking their message, “particularly for those young women who have incredible talent and potential, but aren’t even making it onto the glass floor, never mind being given a chance to put another crack in the glass ceiling”.

Macdonald notes Scotland’s poor performance in the most recent Health Behaviour in School-aged Children report, which compares statistics from a number of western countries.

“For 13-15 year olds in particular there are some stark findings about Scotland’s comparatively poor performance relating to key wellbeing indicators,” she said.

It clearly shows that something happens between ages 11 and 15. “The figure that most shocked me, but also confirmed a lot of what we see and hear in the work that we do, was that between 2002 and 2014, 15-year-old girls in Scotland showed the steepest decline in mental health of all 42 countries measured.”

The report also found that only 4.2 per cent of 15-year-old girls in Scotland said they felt confident in themselves. “If we’re not confident, what’s the message we’re giving to young girls? This is flowing through,” she told the 250 female attendees.

“Fully empowering young women will have untold benefits for all of Scottish society. We just can’t go on not making full use of the incredible talents of half of our young population,” she said.

Of course, we shouldn’t forget that we have made a great a deal of progress. There was a marriage ban on women in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office as late as 1973 and in 1979 only three per cent of MPs, 19 MPs, at Westminster, were women.

Leslie Evans tells of being asked in a job interview in the 1980s what her husband thought of her applying for the post and of being pressured to come back from maternity leave only a month after the baby was born in the 1990s. We have come far, but we clearly still have a way to go.

While it’s important to have figureheads at the top as role models, we also need to make sure that we have the succession in place that women at all levels of the workplace can come through behind them.

And if we cannot yet manage equal representation for half the population, how are we to achieve real representation for other parts of society such as BME people and those with disabilities who are actually in a minority?

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