Subscribe to Holyrood updates

Newsletter sign-up


Follow us

Scotland’s fortnightly political & current affairs magazine


Subscribe to Holyrood
Is Scotland closing the gender gap?

Is Scotland closing the gender gap?

When Nicola Sturgeon made her inaugural speech as First Minister she made a powerful statement to women across the country.

“If you are good enough and if you work hard enough, the sky is the limit and no glass ceiling should ever stop you from achieving your dreams,” she said.

She told parliament: “I hope that my election as First Minister does indeed help to open the gate to greater opportunity for all women.

“I hope that it sends a strong, positive message to girls and young women, indeed to all women, across our land - there should be no limit to your ambition for what you can achieve.”

Following on from her appointment, Sturgeon selected a 50:50 gender balanced cabinet, only the third in the developed world. She stressed that every member of the cabinet was there on merit, as well as being a “clear demonstration” the Scottish Government intends to work in all areas to promote women and create gender equality.

In February, the First Minister took another step forward in this mission by supporting the Women 5050 campaign which is arguing for 50 per cent quotas on public boards, councils and in the Scottish Parliament by 2020.

The campaign has had cross-party backing from the very start with MSPs Kezia Dugdale, Christina McKelvie and Alison Johnstone on the steering group. Talat Yaqoob, chair of Women 5050, said: “To have the support of the First Minister shows that the issue of gender equality is being taken seriously and that the need for fair representation is being recognised. 

“Currently, only 36 per cent of women are MSPs and a shocking 24 per cent of councillors are women. The number of women MSPs has decreased in every election of the Scottish Parliament and at the currently rate, it would take another 80 years for us to reach 50:50. Women should not be waiting for equality, they deserve it now and quotas are the fair way to make that happen. The campaign is looking forward to working with Nicola Sturgeon to make this a reality.”

Green MSP Alison Johnstone added: “I think the campaign has already helped to focus minds on the representation of women as parties have been selecting their candidates for the Westminster election, as they know that a seriously skewed list of potential MPs will no longer go unchallenged by the public or the media. 

“My own party is putting forward over 40 per cent women candidates, but we’re certainly not complacent and there’s a lot we still need to do to truly represent the makeup of Scottish society.
It won’t be long before attention turns to next year’s Holyrood election, and if we’re going to meet the Women 50:50 target by 2020, this will be an absolutely critical election. 

“All parties will need to take a fresh look at how they can maximise the number of women they put forward. If the usual flawed arguments about merit can be confronted and the right mechanisms put in place, this could be a really transformative election.

“The Scottish Parliament itself must also consider what action it might take to make the next session a more equal parliament, and we shall see what new powers that result from the Smith Commission process might be available.”

According to research published in December, more training and mentoring opportunities are key to improving the diversity of private, public and third sector boards across Scotland. A review by Napier University commissioned for the Scottish Government, found improving mentoring and social networking between existing and potential female board members is an effective approach to improving board diversity.

The review also found there is a need for greater public awareness on the role of boards in society, on reporting their diversity and for greater transparency when advertising vacant posts. Looking at the number of women on boards internationally, the review noted countries that have used legislation or implemented gender quotas have achieved higher levels of female boardroom membership than those that have adopted voluntary approaches.

It concluded by saying that although “considerable achievements” have been made women remain underrepresented in the boardroom.

Women’s Enterprise Scotland (WES) works to create an entrepreneurial environment where women-led businesses can flourish and grow. WES has worked with the Government and others to co-develop the Women’s Enterprise Framework, which aims to enable and encourage more women to start and grow enterprises.

The organisation’s chief executive, Margaret Gibson, recently became the first woman in Scotland to receive the prestigious Queen’s Award for Enterprise Promotion, recognising her experience in delivering enterprise support for over 20 years in Scotland.

Having started up her own food production business, Gibson spent many years working for the Prince’s Scottish Youth Business Trust (PSYBT), enabling young people to set up their own businesses. 

With WES, Gibson is helping to tackle the gender gap in enterprise, working to ensure that every woman who wishes to start up in business can access appropriate support. WES said despite progress in recent years, women remain less likely than men to start a business. Research by the Women’s Business Council has estimated if women were setting up and running new businesses at the same rate as men, there could be one million more women entrepreneurs.

Gibson said: “I am so proud that the work with WES right here in Scotland is leading the way for other countries. I look forward to the day when the gender gap is consigned to history.”
Indeed, the Scottish Government has also said getting more women into leading roles in business will help drive economic growth in Scotland. 

Scotland’s Economic Strategy, published in March, focused on investment, innovation, internationalisation and inclusive growth. It also aims to boost exports, build on the success of businesses in Scotland and encourage more women into work and leadership roles.

Recent figures show just a fifth of small and medium-sized enterprise (SME) employers in Scotland last year were majority-led by women, compared to 52 per cent being majority-led by men. The First Minister said: “I want to see more women getting into leadership roles in business and break through that glass ceiling. Rates of female business ownership in Scotland are persistently lower than in other developed countries. 

“It’s one reason why the Scottish Government has supported an action framework for women in enterprise – the only one of its kind in the European Union, and a priority area within the Scotland can do innovation and entrepreneurship framework. If as many businesses in Scotland were owned by women, as are currently owned by men, it could boost our GDP by as much as five per cent.”
In terms of women in work in Scotland, according to labour market statistics published in March and covering November 2014 to January 2015, the gap between male and female employment rates has shrunk to a record low of 3.8 percentage points in Scotland, compared to 9.6 per cent in the UK.
Cabinet Secretary for Fair Work, Roseanna Cunningham welcomed the news. 
She said: “[The] statistics show the real progress being made in supporting more women into work with increasing levels of female employment helping close the gender gap. 

“Our commitment to workplace equality will mean more role models for future generations, once and for all removing any suggestion that your gender has a bearing on your abilities.”

The General Election has dominated the news agenda in recent months and in between the political wrangling, gender inequality has reared its head once again. 

According to the Guardian, after some late changes prior to polling day, the final lists of candidates for the six main parties in Scotland showed there were 308 candidates overall and only 27 per cent were women.

Writing in March for the blog Gender Politics at Edinburgh, academics Dr Meryl Kenny and Dr Fiona Mackay discussed the Scottish general-election gender split.

They summed it up by saying: “A political earthquake is forecast for Scotland in the General Election 2015, but despite some positive developments, it doesn’t add up to a ‘genderquake’. 

“The SNP seems poised to take over from Labour as leaders on the issue of women’s representation, in this election at least, although it is far from clear whether that will translate into support for quotas in the future. 

“But without system-wide statutory quotas, it remains the case that gains in women’s representation are contingent upon party will or individual champions. 
“Whatever the outcome of the general election in May, we will still have a distance to travel before equal representation becomes a realistic prospect.”

Following the results of the election last week, Scotland now has 20 female MPs - all SNP. This is a big increase on 2010 but there is still a way to go.

Even with female party leaders, women have featured in barely a fifth of media coverage of this election, researchers at Loughborough University have found.

Academics from the university’s Communication Research Centre (CRC) are conducting a real time news audit of the 2015 general-election campaign, lifting the lid each week on what media coverage the parties, their policies, MPs and their partners are securing.

They have carried out news audits for every general election since 1992, enabling them to track reporting patterns and identify any changes. In their latest report, the research team found that yet again female MPs are receiving significantly less media coverage than their male counterparts, with 86 per cent of politicians featured in election coverage so far being male.

And the issue persists in the wider coverage of the election, with less than one in five of all people featured in election news being female.

Dr Emily Harmer from the CRC said: “Despite there being three female party leaders, a female deputy leader and several senior female MPs, coverage of women in the election remains markedly below that of their male counterparts.

“There has been a slight improvement on previous election coverage where the percentage representation of women was even lower, but considering the significant role of women in this election it is still a major issue.

“In several instances, the wives and partners of MPs have gained more exposure than leading female politicians. For example, in our first sample week, Samantha Cameron gained more column space and air time than either Leanne Wood of Plaid Cymru or Natalie Bennett of the Greens.”

Welfare reforms are still a big issue across the country and a new piece of work suggests that women are bearing the brunt. A recent report published by Engender, together with Close the Gap, the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations, Scottish Refugee Council and Scottish Women’s Aid, showed that since 2010, £26m-worth of cuts have been made to benefits, tax credits, pay and pensions – and 85 per cent of this has fallen on women’s incomes.

The report, containing case studies and analysis, highlights the impact welfare reform is having on women. Focusing on issues such as the move to Universal Credit, economic inequality, unpaid care work, and support for women facing domestic abuse, it calls on the Scottish Government to implement a gendered response to welfare reform mitigation. 

The study states further devolution of some powers over welfare to the Scottish Parliament offers an opportunity to reduce the impact of welfare reforms on women in Scotland, but also presents “very real concerns” over the complex division of different areas of social security between the UK and Scottish Governments. 

The report calls for a gender and human rights analysis throughout the process of further devolution, and for a halt on the roll-out of Universal Credit in Scotland until negotiations are complete. 
Speaking at an event on women and welfare reform at the Scottish Parliament, Lebo Mohlakoana, a member of the Refugee Women’s Strategy Group, said: “Decision makers need to stop talking and start acting to halt the negative impact of welfare reform on women. The policies on paper are not helping. Improvements on the ground for women only happen when we start taking action. 

“One of the most important things we can do for refugee women is to address stigma, discrimination and stereotyping in employment through more tailored employment support programmes and engagement with employers.”

Executive director of Engender, Emma Ritch, added: “We have long been aware of the devastating impact that welfare reform is having, and this report highlights the true cost to women in Scotland. The Scottish Government has done positive work to mitigate the worst effects but a gendered approach is needed to ensure women, particularly those facing multiple oppressions, do not continue to bear the brunt of welfare reform.”

Despite these issues, it does feel like there’s been a seismic shift in the past year towards the idea that women need to be around the table when it comes to decision making. The gender balanced Scottish cabinet and having a First Minister seriously committed to women’s issues is important but now we need to see action to ensure women are able to make a difference. As Emma Ritch from Engender told Holyrood, leadership alone isn’t enough to deliver the types of changes we want to see – Scotland needs to see an alteration to some deep seated attitudes. And that will be a much tougher job for the next 12 months. 

Holyrood Newsletters

Holyrood provides comprehensive coverage of Scottish politics, offering award-winning reporting and analysis: Subscribe

Read the most recent article written by Kate Shannon - The sex strike shows that even feminists can fall foul of outdated stereotypes

Stay in the know with our fortnightly magazine

Stay in the know with our fortnightly magazine


Popular reads
Back to top