Gender equality: time for quotas in Scottish politics?

We can't just sit around and wait for equality to happen.

Talat Yaqoob
5 January 2015


We have a woman who is First Minister if that’s not an example of us reaching gender equality, what is?

It’s a statement the Women 5050 campaign, seeking a 50/50 representation of women in Scotland’s public life, hears at least daily. It is indeed true that Nicola Sturgeon becoming First Minister is a sure sign of a more gender equal society, but it is only more gender equal than the day before, it is not an illustration of the issue of women’s inequality in leadership being over. The truth is, the media reaction to her tartan shoes, to her not being a mother and how she will create a feminine debate style, illustrates perfectly how far we have to go.

We now have fewer Members of the Scottish Parliament who are women, than we did in 1999; 34% down from 40%. Only 24% of councillors are women and 36% of members of public boards are women. The peak of 40% was reached by political parties, mainly the Scottish Greens and Scottish Labour, taking the incentive to implement processes, such as all women shortlists, to encourage a fair split between candidates. The reality is however, that whilst we rely on voluntary processes, fairness will not be reached, as is evidenced by the decrease of women parliamentarians and the stubbornness with which the percentage of women councillors has never exceeded 25%. Given how often on the ground activism and organising is led by women, it is extraordinary to not recognise the very real institutionalised barriers that are preventing women from sharing the political platform.

Women who have the ability to be candidates but decline, cite reasons such as not having the confidence and feeling that the political sphere is so male dominated that it would eclipse their ability to have their voice heard. Women who have run for selection (whether successful or not) have told us that they experience inherent sexism and are asked questions about their abilities and personal lives that would never be asked of their male counterparts. This culture needs to change, and it will only change when we push for fair representation. It will only change, when we make a decision that will clear the barriers for women and open up the doors to welcome their capabilities.

The Women 5050 campaign, launched in September, is pushing for 50% quotas for women in the parliament, councils and on public boards. The quota system we seek needs to be adopted in a way that is democratic and pushes for political parties to take the progress of women within their structures seriously; legislating for political parties to put forward 50/50 candidates is one way this can happen and happen quickly. The campaign is cross party and we are proud to have SNP, Scottish Green and Scottish Labour MSPs on our steering group.

Of course, quotas are not appealing to everyone, they have created much controversy when they have been considered in the past. The main controversy created is the misconception that somehow quotas will allow a flood of unqualified women to suddenly take on roles in public life. This notion is not only inaccurate, as every women would be under the same scrutiny and elected through the democratic processes as candidates are now, but it is also insulting to women. It assumes that women do not have the capabilities to be in decision making roles and that the current unequal split is a reflection of the abilities of our society – of course this is untrue, it is only a reflection of who power favours.

Across the world, almost half of parliaments have adopted some form of quota system, Rwanda, Spain, Argentina and Belgium being just a few. The Nordic countries are often used as examples of good practice when it comes to gender equality, however with them comes a package deal – a better childcare and education system which supports women in a way we have yet to deliver in Scotland but desperately need to. Norway implemented quotas for corporate boards in 2003 and not only that, but ensured there was a penalty if it was not complied with. The current landscape in Norway, has corporate boards with at least 40% women and a higher number of younger women are applying and seeing that board positions can be for them too. In Norway it is now a case of “you can be what you can see”. The tide is turning across the world. Where once, quotas were laughed out the door, there is now an increasing support for it. According to the 2014 International Business Report, in 2013 37% of business leaders supported the idea of quotas, by the end of 2014, this has increased to 45%. The same change can be seen within Scotland and by the cross party support the campaign has so quickly achieved.

The time is now for quotas to be implemented. Sitting and waiting for equality to happen, has never worked, as it assumes that those who have the path clear for them to take power are willing to share it. If we were to wait, on the current trajectory, it is estimated that it would 100 years for us to reach an equal parliament. When there are women with the ambition, the capabilities and the strength to be in decision making roles now, we owe it to then to clear the attitudinal and institutionalised obstacles that still stand in their way.

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