Shattering the Highest Glass Ceiling in Scotland?

Meryl Kenny and Fiona Mackay

scot gov

It has been a week of firsts: the election of Nicola Sturgeon as the first female First Minister of Scotland followed by the announcement that her first Cabinet – a ‘team of all talents’ – will be 50:50 women and men. These are historic breakthrough moments for women in politics, not only in Scotland but also globally.

Who’s in and who’s out? There are two major departures after the reshuffle: Kenny MacAskill at Justice and Mike Russell at Education. John Swinney was named Deputy First Minister and has retained his Finance brief. Shona Robison and Angela Constance – who were promoted to Cabinet in April 2014 – have now been given more powerful portfolios, with Robison sent to Health while Constance has been given charge of Education. There are three secretaries who are new to Cabinet: Roseanna Cunningham at Fair Work, Skills and Training; Michael Matheson at Justice; and Keith Brown at Infrastructure, Investment and Cities. Alex Neil, meanwhile, moves to Social Justice, while Richard Lochhead and Fiona Hyslop retain their positions at Rural Affairs and Culture respectively.

Scottish Cabinet as of November 2014
Nicola Sturgeon First Minister
John Swinney Deputy First Minister;Finance, Constitution and Economy
Keith Brown Infrastructure, Investment and Cities
Roseanna Cunningham Fair Work, Skills and Training
Angela Constance Education and Lifelong Learning
Shona Robison Health, Wellbeing and Sport
Alex Neil Social Justice, Communities and Pensions
Michael Matheson Justice
Richard Lochhead Rural Affairs, Food and Environment
Fiona Hyslop Culture, Europe and External Affairs

Is it window dressing? No – Nicola Sturgeon is a genuine champion of gender equality and she had plenty of talented women (and men) to choose from. She will also have recognised the powerful symbolism of selecting a 50:50 cabinet – shattering one of the toughest glass ceilings in public life. Scotland is not classed as a national government in comparative terms so doesn’t figure in world or european politics rankings. But if it did,  it would currently tie with Sweden in Europe in terms of percentages of women in Cabinet – just behind Finland (where three successive cabinets have been female-majority) – and way out ahead of the UK Cabinet where less than one in four of the Cabinet is female (even after the recent reshuffle).

But before we get carried away: other governments (particularly in the Nordic countries) have achieved 50:50 Cabinets before, and it is getting more common in the rest of the EU (with Italy and France also recently achieving parity until falling back slightly in subsequent reshuffles).   We also need to remember, in the UK context, that the first three Welsh Cabinets after devolution were either gender equal or majority women.

Is it significant beyond the symbolic?

Well, it won’t necessarily make your government popular. Despite appointing equal numbers of women and men to his first Cabinet, Francoise Hollande has been one of the most unpopular French presidents. So part of the issue will always be what individual ministers and collective governments do when they are in office.

What also matters is where women end up in Cabinets. Comparative and international research on women and politics suggests that women in cabinet may be more likely to receive ‘soft’ or lower-status cabinet portfolios – in other words, as with other areas of politics, where there is power, there are no women. This is not the case in the new Scottish Cabinet, however, where women are in charge of portfolios like Health and Education that have significant spending power. It also marks a significant change from the previous Salmond Cabinet, where despite making up 40% of Cabinet secretaries, women oversaw less than 12% of the Scottish budget. What we also know from the international evidence, however, is that women in cabinets around the world are just as effective as their male counterparts. Indeed, comparative research shows that even when women are given less powerful portfolios, they aren’t merely treated as tokens – overall, they are just as likely to succeed, evidenced in measures such as length of tenure and number of bills presented.

There needs also to be pause for thought about the wider picture of women in Scottish politics and the distance still to be travelled – including for women within the SNP. Women continue to be under-represented at all political levels in Scotland: they are only 24% of local councillors, 16.7% of Scottish MEPs, 35% of MSPs, and 22% of Scottish MPs. And there are significant differences by party. For example, women make up around 27 % of the SNP MSPs compared with 46% Labour MSPs . This is largely as a result of the different stances taken on gender quotas, and the reluctance within the SNP to adopt strong equality measures to promote women’s representation in the parliamentary party. As we have argued previously the time has come for strong quota laws in Scotland and the UK. That’s why we support campaigns for gender quotas across all levels of British politics, including the new Scottish cross-party non-party Women 50:50 campaign.

*updated 30 November 2014 to reflect elections and Cabinet reshuffles in 2014. There is no comprensive comparative database on women in cabinets worldwide.

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8 Responses to Shattering the Highest Glass Ceiling in Scotland?

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