Analysis: The representation of women in the Scottish Parliament

Written by Meryl Kenny, Fiona Mackay and Cera Murtagh on 13 May 2016 in Inside Politics

Meryl Kenny, Fiona Mackay and Cera Murtagh on how parties have fared in boosting women's representation

Scottish Parliament

A year ago, it seemed the tide had turned for women’s representation in Scotland. The past two years had ushered in change not only from the top down – evidenced in the ‘female face’ of political leadership in Scotland – but also from the bottom up, through the civic awakening that had accompanied the referendum and women’s grassroots activism through groups like Women for Independence.

In the end, however, the results of the 2016 elections are disappointing. Only 45 women MSPs (34.9 per cent) have been elected to the fifth Scottish Parliament, the exact same proportion as in 2011. Thus, despite optimistic predictions, the 2003 Scottish Parliament elections remain the high point of women’s representation in Scotland at all political levels (at 39.5 per cent). 

What explains these disappointing results? In the run-up to the 2016 Scottish Parliament elections, candidate selection trends were promising. All of the parties (except the Conservatives) saw improvements in their share of women candidates from 2011.


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In the case of the SNP, over 40 per cent of their constituency and list candidates were women, an increase that reflects the party’s implementation (for the first time), of gender quotas in the form of all-women shortlists (AWS) in constituencies with retiring SNP MSPs. These measures had a clear impact – 43 per cent of SNP MSPs elected in 2016 are women (compared to 27.5 per cent in 2011). Eight of the nine SNP women selected under AWS were elected – and a number of new faces have entered the Scottish Parliament for the first time (including three members of Women for Independence’s National Committee).

Turning to Scottish Labour, 46 per cent of the party’s MSPs are women (the same proportion as in 2011). While over 50 per cent of the party’s constituency candidates were women (in part due to the use of AWS), Labour’s poor electoral performance meant that they only held on to three constituencies – including Jackie Baillie’s Dumbarton seat. However, the party’s use of gender quotas on the list – in the form of ‘zipping’, or alternating, male and female candidates – meant that almost half of their list MSPs elected were women (48 per cent).

Yet while the SNP and Labour’s use of quotas has made a difference, the overall figures have stagnated due in large part to an unexpectedly strong Tory performance across Scotland. Only around 19 per cent of Scottish Conservative candidates were women – and one of their regional lists, Highlands and Islands, was men-only. Top list places were also predominantly taken by men – with the party’s North East Scotland list returning four male MSPs, while West Scotland included more candidates named ‘Maurice’ (two, both elected), than it did women (one, in tenth position). The same number of Conservative women were elected as in 2011 – six – but this is set in the context of the party more than doubling its seats, which means that only 19 per cent of Conservative MSPs are women.

The Liberal Democrats, as predicted, returned no women – having effectively de-selected their one sitting female MSP, Alison McInnes, in favour of controversial former list MSP, Mike Rumbles. The parliamentary party is now men-only at both Holyrood and Westminster, and has a solitary female AM at Cardiff, Kirsty Williams, its only female parliamentary presence in all of the UK. The Lib Dems have committed to adopting gender quotas at their recent Scottish party conference – but the question is whether this is too little, too late from a party with a continually dismal record on women’s representation across all Holyrood elections.

The Greens, meanwhile, did ‘zip’ their regional list candidates – and 50 per cent of their lists were topped by women. However, some unexpected wins and losses for the party meant that in the end, only one of six Green MSPs are women (17 per cent).

This is the fifth Scottish Parliament election where we have seen the same patterns – some parties taking women’s representation seriously, while others continue to be laggards. Without active intervention across the board, gains will remain slow and incremental at best, and are unlikely to cross even the 40 per cent threshold almost achieved over a decade ago. Increasingly, the call in Scotland, backed by a large body of international evidence, is for tough action in the form of legislative quotas that require all parties to take action on women’s representation.

As the influential cross-party campaign group Women 50:50 tweeted in the election aftermath, the change in women’s representation in 2016 has been ‘nil, nada, zilch... We have yet another parliament which fails to fully represent women in Scotland.’ If gender equality is something we take seriously as a society it can no longer be left to the discretion of political parties. For real and lasting progress, warm words must be backed up with statutory measures to embed equality in our political institutions. The time is now.

Meryl Kenny, Fiona Mackay and Cera Murtagh are all academics at the University of Edinburgh. Further analysis of the results can be found on the University of Edinburgh genderpol blog: www.genderpoliticsatedinburgh.wordpress.com

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