Women, gender equality and constitutional change: lessons from Catalonia and Scotland


Meryl Kenny (UNSW) and Tània Verge (Universitat Pompeu Fabra)

This blog draws on discussions held at the Women and Constitutional Futures Seminar: Gender Equality Matters in a New Scotland held on 14/15 February 2013 at the Royal Society of Edinburgh and the STUC Women’s Conversations event held on 18 February 2013. 

A version of this blog is also available in Catalan HERE.


On 11 September 2012, almost 2 million people – a quarter of Catalonia’s population – rallied in the streets of Barcelona in support of independence. Early elections were immediately called to give the new Catalan parliament a clear mandate to negotiate with the central Spanish state over the right to self-determination and the governing Catalan parties set a time limit for calling a referendum in 2014, the same year that Scots will be asked if they want independence. In this blog, we explore the parallels between the Catalan and Scottish experiences of constitutional change and evaluate the implications of these processes for women and for gender equality, focusing particularly on women’s political representation.

Setting the context

Why is Catalonia pushing for independence? This is largely to do with Catalan dissatisfaction with the territorial accommodation within the Spanish state, which does not recognise national differences, is reluctant to concede additional powers to the autonomous communities, and which has begun to recentralize its political authority. There are also concerns over the erosion of protections for the Catalan language.  Finally, economic arguments for independence have contended that Catalonia is financially discriminated against by the Spanish state and argued for the need for full fiscal capacity, particularly in light of the economic recession.

The Spanish government’s initial reaction was dismissive, accusing nationalist parties in Catalonia of attempting to divert attention from their own economic policies. But consistent support for independence – with public opinion polls indicating that 57% of the Catalan population supports secession – has subsequently prompted more aggressive public rhetoric and legal action by the Spanish government, including lodging an unconstitutionality appeal against the Catalan parliament’s declaration of sovereignty. While referendums can be called by the central government, there is no scope for secession, as the Spanish constitution establishes a single, indivisible sovereign unit, the Spanish people.

In Scotland, processes of constitutional change have also been dominated by debates over legality, with initial questions raised as to whether Scotland had the power to enact a referendum bill, given that the Union is a matter reserved to the UK Parliament. These issues were resolved by an executive pact between the Scottish and UK governments, in the form of the Edinburgh Agreement, which allows the Scottish Parliament to stage a vote on independence in 2014. The price paid for this agreement has been the decision to hold a single-question yes/no referendum on independence, rather than include an additional option in the form of ‘devo-max’ – a potentially more popular option which would have transferred additional powers from Westminster to the Scottish Parliament.

How women are (not) mobilizing

Where are women in these debates? Constitutional change offers ‘windows of opportunity’ for equality agendas, offering traditionally marginalized actors and groups a chance to stake their claims at the beginning of the process. Yet, in Catalonia and Scotland, women’s voices and debates over gender equality have been largely missing from wider discussions over independence and constitutional change. As Christine Bell and Fiona Mackay argue, this can be explained in part by the focus thus far on issues of legality and process, an emphasis which has the potential to exclude women and women’s issues from the debate.

Additionally, in both cases, divisions on the left, prevailing adversarial politics and strong party discipline have made cross-party or cross-sectional alliances difficult to form, making it hard to put women’s policy concerns on the agenda. In Catalonia, feminist activists are divided on independence, reflecting the division among left-wing political parties. While one party is clearly supportive of independence (ERC, Republican Left of Catalonia, the equivalent to the SNP with less parliamentary support), two-thirds of green voters (ICV, Initiative for Catalonia Greens) support independence and the Catalan social-democrats (the PSC, Party of the Catalan Socialists) are highly fragmented – one-third of their voters support independence, one-third oppose it, and one-third are undecided. As a result, the PSC party leadership, without allowing for debates among the party membership, has decided to advocate a third option – the federalization of Spain (a rough equivalent to ‘devo-max’) – but this option is not supported by most unionist supporters and is completely rejected by secessionists. The overall focus on process has also not provided much room for substantive debates thus far, including gender equality issues.

In Scotland, the relative absence of women and debates around gender equality in the run-up to the 2014 referendum – with the exception of some women’s groups and grassroots networks like Women for Independence –  stands in contrast to how involved women were with processes of constitutional change in the 1990s. As Professor James Mitchell noted in last week’s Women and Constitutional Futures Seminar, the debate in Scotland has been both ‘arid and adversarial.’ While in Catalonia, there is a cross-sectional party coalition behind independence – incorporating not only the left-wing ERC, but also the centre-right CiU – in Scotland, the debate has been more polarized. And, while a majority of both men and women in Catalonia support independence, in Scotland, support is lower, with recent polls indicating that 34% of likely voters back independence, making it more difficult to form broader coalitions & alliances. Notably, there has been a persistent gender gap in support for independence, with 41% of men planning to vote Yes in 2014, but only 28% of women (with 11% of both sexes undecided). While some mainstream commentators have attributed this gap to women being ‘less political’ and ‘more hesitant’, others point out that this is arguably a rational response to the lack of information from both camps about what the everyday implications of the different constitutional options might be and what they might mean in terms of women’s lives and gender equality more broadly.

What does constitutional change mean for women and for gender equality?

What issues might bring women into the debate? In the run-up to Scottish devolution in the 1990s, the key issue that served to rally women activists from all walks of life was the call for 50:50 representation. There was a broad political consensus over the need for equal representation in the new Scottish Parliament, and, following a sustained and strategic campaign both within and outwith the main Scottish political parties, substantial proportions of women MSPs were elected in the first elections to the Scottish Parliament in 1999. The current constitutional ‘moments’ in Catalonia and Scotland provide a key opportunity to revisit these wider debates. 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. Constitutional change in both cases, then, provides a crucial opportunity to introduce and enshrine gender parity as a public good.

Both countries have performed relatively well on women’s representation. In Catalonia, the current parliament has 40% women deputies, which would place it tenth in world league tables on women’s representation – above countries like Iceland, Norway and Denmark. In Scotland, just under 35% of MSPs elected in 2011 were women, which would put the Scottish Parliament at position 22 in the world league tables (compared to the UK House of Commons, which ranks 57th). In both cases, gains were achieved through the use of gender quotas. In Catalonia, the state-wide Spanish statutory quota passed in 2007 establishes that party lists must include a minimum of 40 per cent and a maximum of 60 per cent of either sex. However, this quota simply consolidated an ‘incremental track’ initiated by party quotas decades earlier. Thanks to parties’ voluntary measures, when the statutory quota was passed in 2007, women’s representation already reached 36%. Women’s agency was crucial in persuading left-wing parties to adopt quotas in the 1980s and to enlarge these initial provisions to parity levels in the following decades, as well as in ensuring that these quotas were effectively enforced by party bodies. In Scotland, the high numbers of women MSPs are largely due to the use of strong gender quotas by the Labour Party in 1999 – in the form of a mechanisms called twinning for constituency seats, as well as zipping on the regional lists – and informal measures adopted by its main electoral rival the SNP in 1999, including favourable placement for women candidates on regional lists. As a result of these measures, 50% of Labour MSPs elected in 1999 were women, as well as 42.9% of SNP MSPs, numbers which continue to have an impact on headline figures post-1999.

However, even if levels of women’s political participation are (relatively) high in both Catalonia and Scotland, it is important to avoid complacency. Indeed, in both cases, issues in the short-term political agenda point to the need for vigilance to ensure that women and their perspectives are represented in debates over constitutional change. In Catalonia, for example, the government’s recent establishment of a Council for the National Transition raises potential issues with regards to women’s representation. While commissioners have not yet been appointed, feminists have reasons to worry about its gender composition: this very same government only included three women ministers in the so-called ‘government of the best’ selected to manage the economic crisis. The Council will be a consultative body that will act as an international ambassador of the Catalan cause, therefore, its gender composition will have strong symbolic and substantive effects for women’s representation. Meanwhile in Scotland, despite the high levels of female politicians and the prominent role of Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon in the Yes campaign, the face of Scottish politics remains relatively ‘male, pale and stale’. While some women’s voices have been heard, the majority of platforms and panels launched by the SNP or the Yes campaign, as well as the resulting media commentary, have been largely male-dominated. Indeed, as others have noted, the Scottish Government’s Expert Working Group on Welfare, unveiled by Nicola Sturgeon in early 2013 to evaluate the potential structure of the welfare system in an independent Scotland, was initially men-only.

Questions in both cases have also been raised as to the sustainability of current levels of women’s representation. In both contexts, gender quotas are not yet taken for granted, and vigilance is required to ensure that quota measures are effectively implemented and enforced, and that women are selected for winnable positions. In Catalonia, new electoral legislation is due to be passed in the next few months which could diminish the effectiveness of the state-wide Equality Law. A long-standing debate on political disaffection among citizens and current corruption scandals by political parties has prompted calls to shift towards a candidate-oriented system with smaller districts and open lists. The parliament will resume the discussions that were started several years ago when an expert commission issued a report on the reform of the electoral system – a commission which included 7 experts, all men, and whose 150 page report included only one page devoted to gender equality in representation. While these experts were happy to keep the current statutory quota, they also suggested changing district magnitudes, the electoral formula and the type of lists – changes that would render the application of the Equality Law completely ineffective.

In Scotland, there are clear signs that gender parity is slipping down the political agenda. There is little evidence that gender quotas have ‘caught on’ since 1999, either across political parties or different political levels. Any progress since the first elections has been brought about more by accident than design, and gender quotas and gender balance remain poorly institutionalized within Scottish parties, with a detrimental impact on the recruitment and election of female candidates over time. It seems unlikely at this point that the other Scottish parties (with the exception of the Greens) will follow Labour’s lead and adopt strong gender quotas. This raises the question as to whether the time has come to consider statutory quotas in Scotland, following the examples of Spain, Belgium, France, and also the Republic of Ireland, where 30% candidate gender quotas are now law. Regardless, lessons from Catalonia and Scotland point to the need to keep gender parity on the agenda, and to ensure that quota measures are well-designed and well-implemented, with effective supervision mechanisms and sanctions for non-compliance.

As we discussed in last week’s Women and Constitutional Futures Seminar, women’s issues are constitutional issues. Thus, regardless of the results of the respective national transitions, it is vital that women’s voices and perspectives be included in wider debates over institutional and constitutional restructuring. In both Catalonia and Scotland, women must seek to engender both sides of the debate and hold them to account. Women’s political inclusion – in both the short and the long-term – can be one key issue around which women can gather and build broad consensus around different groups.

About genderpol

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5 Responses to Women, gender equality and constitutional change: lessons from Catalonia and Scotland

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