Why hasn’t women’s representation ‘caught on’ in Scotland?

Meryl Kenny (UNSW) and Fiona Mackay (Edinburgh)

The modest levels of female representation at Westminster stand in sharp contrast to the Nordic levels of representation achieved in the Scottish Parliament. Yet, as the political representation of women continues to stall across Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom, campaigners and gender equality advocates are demanding tougher action, including the prospect of mandatory forms of candidate quotas.[1] Why haven’t gender quotas or gender-balanced representation ‘caught on’ across parties or different political levels? And what should happen next to take the issue of women’s representation forward?

New research, published online in Parliamentary Affairs this month, seeks to answer these questions. Drawing on election data from Westminster, Scottish Parliament, local government and European parliament elections since 1992, our research finds that:

1. Quotas have not caught on across political parties. For example, the SNP has not implemented any measures to promote women’s representation in Scottish Parliament elections (either formal or informal) since its one-off informal action in the run-up to the first elections in 1999. The Liberal Democrats have a ‘softer’ gender-balanced shortlisting policy in place, which is inconsistently applied. And the Scottish Conservatives have never used equality measures. Only Labour has consistently implemented strong gender quota measures in all Scottish Parliament elections, but, post-1999, these have been ‘low cost’ measures aimed at the regional lists (where until 2011, the party has not won many seats).

We can see these trends reflected in each party’s performance on women’s representation over time (see Figure 1 below), particularly the downward trajectory of the SNP with regards to women’s representation.


Source: Kenny and Mackay (2011)

2. Quotas have not caught on across different political levels. Trends over time in the percentage of women elected at different political levels (1992-2011) suggest that gains made at the level of the Scottish Parliament have not ‘caught on’ in any straightforward sense of leading to improved performance on women’s representation across the board at other levels of the political system.


Source: Kenny and Mackay (2013)

As Figure 2 (above) highlights, Holyrood continues to lead on women’s representation. The UK level, in contrast, has been a laggard on women’s representation. While the proportion of Scottish women MPs increased significantly in 1997, and again in 2010, this is largely due to the introduction of all-women shortlists (AWS) by the Labour Party in 1997, and the reintroduction of the same policy for Scottish constituencies in 2010.

At local government level, the representation of women has been traditionally higher than at Westminster. Yet, despite the introduction of PR-STV in 2007, the proportion of Scottish women councillors has remained relatively static over time, flatlining around 22% until 2012, when the numbers rose slightly to 24.3%.

At European level, it is difficult to make generalizations, given the small numbers of MEPs representing the Scotland region. However, there does not appear to be a noticeable impact after the introduction of proportional representation for the 1999 European elections. Two Scottish women MEPs were elected in the 1999 and 2004 European elections, but only one woman was returned in 2009.

3. Quotas haven’t caught on within parties. While Scottish Labour has been a ‘class apart’ on women’s representation in Scottish Parliament elections, it has been increasingly reluctant to adopt strong quota measures such as twinning or AWS in constituency contests or to make electoral capital of its record. Labour still leads on women’s representation at the Scottish parliament level, but this is largely due to candidate incumbency rather than its active promotion.

At local level, the party has also been reluctant to implement strong quota measures, with a detrimental impact on the recruitment and election of female candidates over time. Until 2012, the percentage of Labour women councillors has followed a pattern of decline, falling from 21.6% in 1999, to 20% in 2003, and finally to 17.5 % in 2007.  The dismal performance of the party on women’s representation has stood in stark contrast to the party’s trailblazing performance in the Scottish Parliament, where the party achieved 50/50 in 1999 and maintained gender balance in its parliamentary group until 2011. In the 2012 local elections, the party implemented a policy for the first time of placing female candidates in half of all vacant seats, with a stated long-term goal of reaching 50/50 gender balance in its council candidates within eight years. Although the number of Labour women councillors elected in 2012 is still low (26.1 per cent), these figures represent significant progress from the party’s poor showing in 2007.

At Westminster level, while there was an increase in the number of female Labour MPs representing Scottish seats in 1997 after the introduction of AWS, Scotland has traditionally been a laggard on women’s representation in the House of Commons when compared with its British counterpart. Scotland was also exempted from the British-wide policy of AWS until 2010, after the Scottish party successfully argued that it could not implement quotas at the same time that, as a result of boundary changes, the overall number of Scottish Westminster constituencies was being reduced. Thus, until 2010, increases in the number of women MPs elected have been smaller in Scotland than in the rest of the UK.

Why haven’t quotas caught on in Scottish politics?

Our research argues that the stalling of progress on women’s representation in Scotland can be explained by a number of factors. The ‘historical moment’ of devolution in 1999 – in the sense of opening up opportunities for women’s political participation – can be seen to have passed, resulting in a loss of momentum for activists and their allies. The Scottish Parliament’s record levels of women MSPs – as well as the high visibility of female politicians within most of the Scottish parties – have arguably engendered a sense of complacency among parties and political elites, making it difficult for campaigners to press for further reforms.

Subsequent institutional reforms have also left parties in Scotland with an overall ‘squeeze’ in seats – including electoral reforms, constituency boundary changes and the reduction of seats at Westminster. This has increased competition among candidates and sitting politicians alike, with a detrimental impact on numbers of women candidates selected and elected at different levels of the political system.

Efforts to promote women’s political representation have also been limited by an overall trend of party decentralisation and by the general lack of will on the part of party elites to effectively implement and enforce quota reforms. What matters is not only how many female candidates are selected, but also the seats/positions in which they are placed. Those equality measures that are in place in Scottish political parties are inconsistently applied and unevenly enforced. This is often compounded by a lack of effective central oversight of local selection processes or the application of sanctions (either formal or informal) for non-compliance with quota measures and candidate selection equal opportunities procedures.

It is clear, however, that one-off quota measures are not enough. Strong equality measures – in the form of Labour’s twinning scheme and informal action taken by its electoral rivals – had a strong impact in 1999 and continue to hold up headline figures. Since the first elections, however, quotas have not ‘caught on’ to the same extent, and the underlying trends for women in candidate selection are downward. To deliver increases in women’s representation, gender quotas have to be well-designed and well-implemented, ensuring that women are selected for winnable positions and accompanied by strong sanctions for parties that do not comply.[2] They also should ‘fit’ within existing institutional frameworks and wider norms of equality and representation, including constitutions. Constitutions capture aspirations for the future, setting out broader principles of fair treatment and representation and offering possibilities for inclusion and equality or, conversely, exclusion and inequality. The current historical moment, in the run-up to the 2014 referendum, therefore provides a key opportunity for revisiting debates over women’s representation in Scottish politics. We will be discussing these issues at this week’s Women and Constitutional Futures Seminar: Gender Equality Matters in a New Scotland. For more details & to register, click HERE (there are still a few remaining places).

For further reading and resources on women and Scottish politics, click HERE.

All Tables and Figures, © Meryl Kenny and Fiona Mackay, unless otherwise indicated.

[1] See special issue on ‘Feminising Politics’ in The Political Quarterly, Vol 83 (Issue 4) ; and Meryl Kenny and Fiona Mackay (2012) ‘Less Male, Pale and Stale? Women and the 2012 Local Government Elections’, Scottish Affairs, 80 (Summer).

[2] Sarah Childs and Elizabeth Evans (2012) ‘Out of the Hands of Parties: Women’s Legislative Recruitment at Westminster’, The Political Quarterly, 83 (4), 742-748.

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6 Responses to Why hasn’t women’s representation ‘caught on’ in Scotland?

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