Women in Scottish politics: travelling the distance?

Written by Dr Meryl Kenny on 24 May 2017 in Comment

Dr Meryl Kenny on another missed opportunity to achieve equal representation in Scottish politics

Gender balance: Picture credit - Fotolia

Another year, another missed opportunity to achieve equal representation in Scottish politics.

To be sure, some cracks have been made in the political glass ceiling, evidenced in the ‘female face’ of party leadership in Scotland. But these breakthroughs must be placed within their wider context - men from majority groups continue to be over-represented at all levels of Scottish politics. And while some gains have been made on women’s representation over time, for the most part, the trend has been incremental change at best, or stasis or setbacks at worst.


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In the recent Scottish local government elections, for example, women’s representation increased to 29 per cent. But the overall face of Scottish councils in 2017 is still male, pale and stale – less than one in three Scottish councillors is a woman, and 103 council wards across Scotland have no women representing them (including Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, a council now composed entirely of white men).

Meanwhile, at Holyrood, levels of women’s representation have fallen over time, stagnating at 35 per cent in 2016. At its high point in 2003, the Scottish Parliament would have been ranked fourth in the world for women’s representation (just behind Rwanda, now the world leader); in current global league tables, it would be 28th. It remains a key problem that there has never been a BME woman elected to the Scottish Parliament.

Presented with these figures, the uninterested (a label which could be applied to the bulk of Scottish political commentators) will simply ignore them. The optimistic, meanwhile, will tell you to be patient - increases in women’s representation will happen ‘naturally’ over time. But the evidence is clear, gains in women’s representation are too small and they are taking too long. Such a scenario also presumes an upward linear trajectory – which in Scotland and elsewhere is demonstrably not guaranteed.

Others will profess their support for the end (more women in politics), but not the means (gender quotas). They will tell you that candidates should be selected on the basis of ‘merit’, not gender. The underlying assumption here is that women have less merit than men – women are expected to earn their place at the decision-making table, whilst men in politics are generally assumed to possess merit unless proven otherwise.

There is very little research evidence to support these kinds of arguments – for example, analysis of Labour women elected to Westminster by all-women shortlists finds that ‘quota women’ are equally qualified for political office as their non-quota colleagues and have similar career trajectories. Moreover, voters do not penalize quota women (or women candidates more generally) at the ballot box.

The global evidence is also clear – quotas work. In Scotland, however, gender quotas have not fully ‘caught on’, and the use of these measures by political parties has been relatively one-sided. Election after election, we have seen the same familiar patterns – some parties taking women’s representation seriously, whilst others make little effort to address the issue, thus continuing to lag well behind.  

Of particular note are the Scottish Conservatives, whose laissez faire approach to women’s representation has had a negative impact on headline figures.  The party remains firmly opposed to gender quotas, arguing instead for supply-side measures to encourage more women to come forward, like the Women2Win campaign. But the impact of these strategies has yet to materialise for the party in Scotland. As the party’s electoral fortunes have surged, women have lost out – less than 20 per cent of Conservative MSPs and councillors are women.

All of this suggests that the prospect of equal representation in Scottish politics cannot rest solely on political will and individual party champions. Stronger equality measures are needed – in the form of legislative quotas that require all parties to take action on women’s representation. Without commitments from parties across the board, progress will continue to be glacial.

This is not to suggest that quotas in themselves remove all obstacles to women’s political participation. They need to be situated alongside other reform strategies, and they need to be properly implemented and enforced in order to make a difference (otherwise parties will find ways to get around them). But they are the most effective way of ensuring significant increases in women’s representation.

One of the most striking works of art in the Scottish Parliament is Shauna McMullan’s Travelling the Distance, comprised of handwritten sentences sculpted in porcelain by 100 women across Scotland. Women in Scottish politics have already ‘travelled a distance’, but still have a long way to go.

It is time.

Dr Meryl Kenny is Lecturer in Gender and Politics at the University of Edinburgh, co-runner of the @genderpol blog, and a member of the steering group for the Women5050 campaign

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