Stirking a balance
When the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA) announced its intention to form a commission looking at the future of local democracy, the news was widely welcomed. Any opportunity to refresh and revitalise Scotland’s councils was seen as a good thing, however, it was the gender imbalance on the commission itself which caught the attention of some commentators. Of the 20 commissioners, only four are women, causing claims that this is indicative of the situation in Scottish public life as a whole.
According to findings from Glasgow Caledonian’s Women in Scotland’s Economy (WiSE) Research Centre, while women comprise 52 per cent of the Scottish population, they represent only 48 per cent of the Scottish labour market. Women workers in Scotland are more likely to work in the public sector – 41 per cent of women, compared with 22 per cent of men. Local government represents 53 per cent of Scotland’s total public sector workforce and women make up 67 per cent of that workforce.
With higher proportions of women working in these sectors, you would expect to see more females in the top jobs. However, this is not always the case, despite women making up almost half of Scottish council chief executives – 13 out of 32. Recent figures obtained by the office of Labour’s equalities spokeswoman, Jackie Baillie, under freedom of information legislation, showed just 30 per cent of board members on Scottish Government executive non-departmental public bodies, such as Creative Scotland and the Scottish Legal Aid Board, are female. However, the same figures revealed female board membership of executive agencies such as Historic Scotland and the Scottish Public Pensions Agency, averaged 47 per cent.
In September, the Scottish Government said 39.2 per cent of all appointments to public body organisations in the last year were women and they now account for more than 35 per cent of all board members on public boards. The Government has stressed it is keen to see women represented at a minimum of 40 per cent of all board positions. Last week First Minister Alex Salmond announnced that Minister for Commonwealth Games and Sport Shona Robison, who also has responsibility for equalities, is currently working on a section 30 order to tranfer powers regarding gender quotas on boards from Westminster. Robison said: “The Scottish Government is aware of historical issues of women getting onto board positions but that situation is clearly improving. There has clearly been good progress in this area and we are rightly proud of what has been achieved to date but we recognise there is much more that is still to be achieved. We have done a lot of work around gender to ensure that women are represented on public boards and in senior management roles. However, we also acknowledge that other groups also face barriers and we reach out to those groups as well as part of our plans to improve diversity and drive forward progress in a modern and equal 21st century Scotland.”
Women on Boards UK is an organisation for women seeking to leverage their professional skills and experience into board and leadership roles.
Fiona Hathorn, managing director in the UK, said the group advocates best practice targets of 40 per cent men, 40 per cent women and 20 either. She said: “We are operating in a very fast moving and competitive world. The best companies know their gender data. Their boards understand that losing talent has a negative effect on their business. These companies therefore not only know the cost of losing their talent (recruitment, client retention and lost business opportunity) but crucially, these companies have also worked out how to ensure that their business line managers also understand the business cost of losing talent to ensure that they are as focused on talent management as the board. These companies have therefore set specific gender targets to ensure that their line management know the talent behind them and promote accordingly. They recognise that what gets measured gets managed and what gets managed gets done.”
The organisation advocates the use of mandatory targets to improve gender balance in the boardroom for government sector boards.
“More than ever, companies in all sectors need new thinking, new blood and new people with different experiences. Many of them could get this by simply appointing a few more women into top roles. Not really rocket science, but many women are starting to think it might be easier to get to the moon,” Hathorn added.
Women’s Enterprise Scotland (WES) is a community interest company focused on the contribution women’s enterprise makes to the Scottish economy. WES believes there is great potential to help enterprising women across the country to connect with each other, and also to connect with the business support services, networks and opportunities which will help them to start, sustain and grow their enterprises. It aims to inspire more women in Scotland to set up and grow their businesses or social enterprises, while also informing women of help available and where to go for support, and providing a voice to influence and advocate for women’s enterprise to be at the centre of Scotland’s economic development policy and strategy. WES chief executive Margaret Gibson told Holyrood: “I’ve been in the enterprise arena for 25 years and I think now seems like a really good time to be thinking about business in Scotland. The support is there and there’s a real will to help each other but having said all of that, we still have issues about the number of women coming forward.
“Role models, good case studies, offering encouragement and support, and ensuring we’ve got good networking opportunities for women, all of these things help. To put legislation in, it’s not going to work overnight but making small changes and being mindful about the gender make-up of conferences or the gender make-up of the people you’ve invited to an awards dinner, these are small things but they start to make a difference.”
Holyrood asked Scotland’s female chief executives if they felt gender had negatively impacted on their own careers.
Valerie Watts, chief executive at Aberdeen City Council, said: “I do not place, nor have I ever placed, an importance on the male and female balance in the workplace. Having the right attitude, energy and enthusiasm to work in local government, in my opinion, far outweighs any emphasis placed on gender. During my career I have been very fortunate to work in local authorities where gender has never been an issue.
“If anything, I have found there to be a gender mix in the corporate management teams I have been a part of and have always found this brings an exciting dynamic to operations. I am in no doubt there was a time in local government when certain jobs would have traditionally been carried out by men, but this is not the case now and certainly not an issue I have ever felt has impinged on my career.”
Sue Bruce, chief executive at City of Edinburgh, also said she hadn’t felt gender to be an issue in her career. She added: “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 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.”
In South Ayrshire Council, recently appointed chief executive Eileen Howat said she found both colleagues and politicians to be very supportive, regardless of the role she was working in at the time. She added: “On a more general basis, I believe the number of women chief officers both in South Ayrshire Council – six of the 14 corporate management team members are women, and we currently have two vacancies – and more widely across Scotland reflects that that is also the case elsewhere.”
Joyce White, chief executive of West Dunbartonshire, believes local government is a supportive atmosphere for everyone, not just women. She added that “it makes sense for employers to embrace this, as when people are happy at work and feel supported, they will also produce better results”. Having worked both in the private and public sector, White said she has never experienced discrimination in either, adding: “We are all the same – people are people and we have a job to do. I treat everyone in the same way and I can honestly say I have never been treated differently because I am a woman.”
Chief executive of North Ayrshire Council and current chair of the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives (SOLACE) Scotland, Elma Murray believes the environment in local government for women is more supportive now than ever. She said: “I think women still need support and encouragement to be more confident about applying for promotion and to put themselves into situations that will afford them an opportunity to shine, and expose their talents. So, on that basis, I think we can still do better.
“When I was much younger, in the early to mid 1980s, there was still quite a strong attitude in some parts of local government about women being more appropriate to fill certain types of jobs only. That had changed quite a lot by the early 1990s although I was often still the only woman in the room at meetings – even though more women were coming up through various management levels. It still feels across Scotland that we could do more to create opportunities for more women to reach more senior levels.”
Fiona Lees, chief executive of East Ayrshire Council, highlighted the authority’s most recent employee survey which showed nearly eight in 10 employees described their current arrangements as allowing them to balance home and work commitments, while seven in 10 also agreed that East Ayrshire Council encourages a policy of equal opportunity for all employees. She said: “I got into local government to try and make a difference to people’s lives. The glass ceiling is not something I have experienced in my own career, but I recognise that this may not necessarily be the experience of others.
“It is true to say that a greater number of senior positions are now held by women, but this should not give rise to any complacency.”