Nil, Nada, Zilch: The Change in Women’s Representation in 2016

At the start of the Scottish Parliament election campaign, it seemed that the tide had finally turned for women’s representation. In the end, however, only 45 women MSPs (35%) have been elected to the fifth Scottish Parliament, the same number as in 2011. Meryl Kenny, Fiona Mackay and Cera Murtagh put these disappointing results in context, evaluating candidate and electoral trends, and argue that tough action is needed in the form of legislative gender quotas in order to ensure real change. 

Some months ago, we asked whether the tide had turned for women’s political representation in Scotland. The past two years had ushered in a step-change not only from the top down – evidenced in the ‘female face’ of political leadership in Scotland – but also from the bottom up, through the civic awakening that had accompanied the referendum and the surge in women’s grassroots activism through groups like Women for Independence. For the first time since 1999, the main parties were competing on the issue of women’s representation, with the SNP, Labour and the Greens implementing strong gender quota measures in the run-up to the 2016 elections, and First Minister Nicola Sturgeon publicly pledging support for the cross-party Women 5050 campaign for legal quotas in Scotland.

In the end, however, the results of the 2016 Scottish Parliament elections are disappointing. Although the SNP substantially improved their performance on women’s representation, only 45 women MSPs (34.9%) have been elected to the fifth Scottish Parliament, the exact same proportion as in 2011. Thus, despite some optimistic predictions prior to the poll, 2016 was an election that changed nothing in terms of overall numbers. The 2003 Scottish Parliament elections remain the “high tide” mark for women’s representation in Scotland across all political levels (when women reached 39.5% at Holyrood).

Table 1. Scottish Parliament 2016 by party and gender

Party Female Male Total % Female
SNP 27 36 63 42.9%
Con 6 25 31 19.4%
Lab 11 13 24 45.8%
Green 1 5 6 16.7%
Lib Dem 0 5 5 0%
Total 45 84 129 34.9%


Looking at representation more broadly in terms of diversity, there was an improvement in the number of LGBTI MSPs and visible role models – notably, three of the five party leaders in the Scottish Parliament identify as LGB – Kezia Dugdale (Labour), Patrick Harvie (Greens) and Ruth Davidson (Conservatives).

However, the Scottish Parliament still has only two black and minority ethnic (BME) MSPs –SNP Minister Humza Yousaf, who defeated Johann Lamont in Glasgow Pollok, and former Labour MP Anas Sarwar, who was elected to the Scottish Parliament for the first time for the Glasgow region. Labour list MSP Hanzala Malik (elected in 2011) was placed 11th on the party’s regional list in 2016 and was not re-elected. It remains a key problem that there has never been a BME female MSP in the Scottish Parliament.

Despite all of the main political parties signing up to the One in Five Campaign (seeking to increase political participation among people with disabilities), at time of writing there appears to be only one openly disabled MSP, Jeremy Balfour (Conservative, Lothian) elected for the first time in 2016, while sitting MSPs Siobhan McMahon (Labour) and Dennis Robertson (SNP) lost their seats (and Conservative MSP Cameron Buchanan stood down in 2016). All-in-all, then, this election this does not add up to a step-change in diverse representation either.

What explains these lacklustre results for women? In the run-up to the 2016 Scottish Parliament elections, candidate selection trends promised significant progress. All of the parties (except the Conservatives) saw improvements in their share of women candidates from 2011. In the case of the SNP, over 40% of their constituency and list candidates were women, an increase that reflects the party’s implementation (for the first time), of gender quotas in the form of all-women shortlists (AWS) in constituencies with retiring SNP MSPs.

Table 2. Candidates for Scottish Parliament 2016 by party, gender and type of seat

Party Constituency Total Candidates


(% women)

List Total Seats List

(% women)

  M F   M F  
SNP 43 30 73


51 42 93


Labour 34 39 73


43 43 86


Con 59 14 73


58 13 71


Lib Dem 45 28 73


36 27 63


Green 2 1 3


33 33 66


Total 183 112 295


221 158 379



In previous elections to the Scottish Parliament, our research found clear gendered patterns of candidate placement, with women candidates, for example, generally placed in lower positions on party lists. This time around, however, parties paid better attention to the detail of quota implementation. In the case of the SNP, not only was AWS used in seats where the party expected to win, but women were also placed in favourable list positions – topping half of the party’s regional lists. Eight of the nine SNP women selected under AWS were elected – and 13 of the 17 new SNP MSPs elected to Holyrood for the first time in 2016 are women (including three members of Women for Independence’s National Committee).

Turning to Scottish Labour, which has long been a leader in promoting equal representation, post-election, 46% of the party’s MSPs are women (the same proportion as in 2011). While over 50% of the party’s constituency candidates were women (in part due to the use of AWS), Labour’s poor electoral performance meant that they only held on to three constituencies – including Jackie Baillie’s Dumbarton seat. However, the party’s use of gender quotas on the list – in the form of ‘zipping’, or alternating, male and female candidates – meant that the party delivered near parity for MSPs elected via regional lists (48% women). Changes to candidate selection rules in the run-up to 2016 (championed by Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale) meant that sitting Labour MSPs were no longer guaranteed top places on the lists – though, in the end, most of the top spaces were still dominated by familiar faces. Nevertheless, the continuing collapse in Labour’s electoral fortunes has resulted in the departure of yet more of the original cohort of women MSPs elected in 1999, such as the former deputy Presiding Officer Patricia Ferguson, as well as some notable feminist champions including Sarah Boyack and Elaine Murray.

While the SNP’s and Labour’s use of quotas has made a difference, the overall result has been muted and figures have stagnated due in large part to an unexpectedly strong Tory performance across Scotland. Only around 19% of Scottish Conservative candidates were women– and one of their regional lists, Highlands and Islands, was men-only. Top list places were also predominantly taken by men – with the party’s North East Scotland list returning four male MSPs, while West Scotland included more candidates named ‘Maurice’ (two, both elected), than it did women (one, in tenth position). The same number of Conservative women were elected as in 2011 – six – but this is set in the context of the party (more than) doubling its seats, which means that only 19% of Conservative MSPs are women.

The Liberal Democrats, as predicted, returned no women – having effectively de-selected their one sitting female MSP Alison McInnes in favour of controversial former list MSP Mike Rumbles. The parliamentary party is now men-only at both Holyrood and Westminster, and has a solitary female AM at Cardiff, Kirsty Williams, its only female parliamentary presence in all of the UK (who has now resigned as leader of the Welsh party). The Lib Dems have committed to adopting gender quotas at their recent Scottish party conference – but the question is whether this is too little too late from a party with a continually dismal record on women’s representation across all Holyrood elections.

The Greens meanwhile ‘zipped’ their regional list candidates, alternating men and women candidates. However, in the case of smaller parties like the Greens, who are expected to win at most 1 or 2 seats in a particular region, the impact of zipping measures can be limited – and top list places are key. The party did pair its lists and ensure that 50% of them were topped by women, but in spite of these efforts some unexpected wins and losses for the party meant that in the end, only 1 of 6 Green MSPs are women (17%). These results also point to the need for all parties to think further about mechanics, strategy and winnability – which may, for example, involve placing more women at the top in order to guarantee equality outcomes. In Germany, for example, the Greens also zip candidate lists, but women are guaranteed the odd-numbered positions on the ballot and are also allowed to compete for the even-numbered ones.

Lists for new parties RISE and the Women’s Equality Party (WEP) also featured high proportions of women (47.5% and 90% respectively), as well favourable placement, with women topping four out of eight lists for RISE and both lists in the two regions where WEP stood candidates. In the end however, neither party managed to garner enough votes to gain seats in this election.

SP women's rep graph (cropped)

This is the fifth Scottish Parliament election where we have seen the same patterns – some parties taking women’s representation seriously, while others continue to be laggards. Without active intervention across the board, gains will remain slow and incremental at best, and are unlikely to cross even the 40% threshold almost achieved over a decade ago. Increasingly the call in Scotland, backed by a large body of international evidence, is for tough action in the form of legislative quotas that require all parties to take action on women’s representation. This would follow the example of a growing number of countries around the world that have adopted statutory quotas to demonstrable effect (including, most recently, the Republic of Ireland). As the influential cross-party campaign group Women 5050 tweeted in the election aftermath, the change in women’s representation in 2016 has been ‘nil, nada, zilch… We need legislated change now.’

If gender equality is something we take seriously as a society then the issue of political representation can no longer be left to the discretion of political parties. For real and lasting progress, warm words must be backed up with statutory measures to embed equality in our political institutions. When? The time is now.

An earlier version of this analysis appears in Holyrood Magazine’s Election Special Issue.

About genderpol

The blog of the Gender Politics Research Group, School of Social and Political Science, University of Edinburgh - and friends
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4 Responses to Nil, Nada, Zilch: The Change in Women’s Representation in 2016

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