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.

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Analysis of the women selected and elected by quota in Ireland dispel the myth that they were under-qualified

A great analysis of candidates in the recent Irish elections from Fiona Buckley and Claire McGing in this recent Democratic Audit blog


The introduction of legal gender quotas for the 2016 general election in Ireland resulted in a marked improvement in the number of women candidates selected and TDs (parliamentarian) elected.  Howe…

Source: Analysis of the women selected and elected by quota in Ireland dispel the myth that they were under-qualified

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Madam Secretary-General?

With pressure mounting for the next UN Secretary General to be a woman, is it too much to ask that she also be a feminist? Blog by Anne Marie Goetz for OpenDemocracy

Source: Madam Secretary-General?

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On teaching political theory to undergraduates

Great blog from Manjeet Ramgotra (SOAS) on her efforts to open up and include more female and non-white thinkers into introductory political theory courses.

PSA Women and Politics Specialist Group

By Manjeet Ramgotra

The recent Department for Education proposal on the theory component of the Politics A-Levels raises the question as to what counts as knowledge. The proposal more or less excises women and non-white men from the curriculum and limits understandings of what politics is, who produces knowledge and the type of knowledge that is produced. These questions are not limited to secondary education curricula. They are relevant to undergraduate introductory courses to politics.

How we form young minds matters. What we teach students to consider as knowledge structures and justifies social and political institutions. If we want to create greater gender and racial equality, we ought to reflect on this and what we are doing when we teach political theory. Most first year introduction to political theory courses do consider this. Some courses are structured conceptually and include the study of liberalism, socialism, feminism, multiculturalism and/or post-colonialism. Others…

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You Can’t Study Politics Without Women

PSA Women and Politics Specialist Group

The PSA Women and Politics Specialist Group Response to the Department for Education’s A-Level Politics Consultation

PSAWomenPollogoWhile the PSA Women and Politics Group welcomes the inclusion of ‘Political Ideas’ as a compulsory topic within the DfE’s draft AS and A-Level Politics subject content, we are deeply troubled by the exclusion of feminism as a political ideology and the inclusion of only one woman political thinker across the entire curriculum.

The proposed new curriculum omits both the greatly important social changes that have resulted from women’s movement activism in the past century, and a hugely significant body of literature dealing with gender, politics and political change. Indeed, there is only one mention of women or gender in the entire draft content – with the suffragettes awkwardly shoehorned in under the banner of ‘pressure groups’. With Mary Wollstonecraft the only female ‘key thinker’ named, the document also overlooks a number of extremely influential women thinkers…

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The Women’s Equality Party will struggle to win seats, but it can push women’s issues up the political agenda

Interesting analysis from Kimberly Cowell-Meyers on the potential impact of the Women’s Equality Party.

PSA Women and Politics Specialist Group

The Women’s Equality Party was founded earlier this year with the aim of promoting gender equality for the benefit of all. But what are its long term political prospects, and what hopes does it have of influencing those parties more likely to hold office? Kimberly Cowell-Meyers argues that while it may struggle to make an impact in an electoral sense, it may be able to use its significant media savvy – as evidenced by the presence of people like Catherine Mayer and Sandi Toksvig in its upper echelons – to push women’s issues up the political agenda.

This blog was originally posted on Democratic Audit UK.

The TV host and WEP leading light Sandi Toksvig (Credit: CC BY 2.0)

When the UK’s new Women’s Equality Party released its party manifesto last week, at least one article about the party appeared in almost every mainstream newspaper in the UK with The Independent running six separate pieces and The Guardian four.  Even The Mirror and 

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Devolving abortion law: a positive step or cause for concern?

With powers over abortion legislation set to be devolved to Holyrood, Jennifer Thomson asks whether this presents an opportunity or a potential setback for women’s rights in Scotland.

mage © Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body – 2012. Licensed under the Open Scottish Parliament Licence v1.0

mage © Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body – 2012. Licensed under the Open Scottish Parliament Licence v1.0

Powers over abortion are set to be devolved from Westminster to Edinburgh. The news, breaking last week, was surprising, given that there had been little intimation from national government that this was to happen, and little encouragement to devolve this issue from any of the Scottish parties. Scotland is not the first of the devolved regions to be allowed to decide on this issue separately from central government. The 1967 Abortion Act, which continues to allow for legal terminations in England, Scotland and Wales, has never been extended to Northern Ireland, and the procedure there continues to be strictly prohibited.

Yet the unexpected decision to move this issue from central government to the Scottish Parliament raises several key political questions. What does this decision by Westminster tell us about the gendered nature of devolution in the contemporary UK? Should feminists and women’s civil society in Scotland be worried that this move might rally calls for more conservative legislation north of the border? Or does this allow what is already a very feminised political sphere in Scotland a chance to further reiterate its commitment to women’s rights and introduce more liberal laws?

Devolution of abortion laws: a potential positive movement for women’s rights?

Feminists have long pointed out fundamental problems with the 1967 Abortion Act. Unlike in some other jurisdictions (most of the Nordic countries and South Africa for example), abortion is not available in the UK at the woman’s request. Doctors remain gatekeepers to the procedure. Although evidence of medical professionals refusing to refer women for terminations is rare, legally women still require the permission of not one, but two doctors, before they may have an abortion. Whilst nurses and midwives are now allowed to play a key role in providing services, overall control of the procedure still remains with doctors. Women having terminations via medical rather than surgical procedure (the so-called ‘abortion pill’) have to do so in medical facilities, rather than their own home, despite the relative safety of such medication, and the inconvenience caused.

Devolving abortion to Scotland potentially allows the country to address some of these issues. In the increasingly feminised environment of Scottish politics (with three major parties lead by women, a consciously feminist First Minister, and a gender equal Cabinet) it is difficult to imagine Edinburgh taking a conservative line on such a hot-button women’s issue. Instead, it might be possible that Scotland move towards a more liberal position such as that of Canada, where abortion is removed from the criminal code entirely, or for restrictions around the ‘abortion pill’ and the role of nurses and midwives to be loosened. Indeed, one SNP MP has declared that “I want this power not just because I want all powers to come to Scotland but I want to improve and protect a woman’s right to choose and to access quality healthcare.” A motion affirming women’s rights to reproductive healthcare has already been tabled in the Scottish Parliament by the co-convenor of the Scottish Greens, and the British Pregnancy Advisory Service have urged Scottish parliamentarians to use this as an opportunity for positive change.

Even if more liberal laws are not created as a result of this move, at one level, this suggests a normalisation of political attitudes around abortion. As Secretary of State for Scotland, David Mundell said “there is no reason why the Scottish parliament should not be able to decide an issue of this significance because it has demonstrated its ability to do so on numerous other significant issues.” From this line of reasoning, abortion is part of wider reproductive healthcare – why shouldn’t it be devolved like anything else which concerns the NHS? From the perspective of women’s rights, this can be read as a positive decision, treating abortion as a normal policy issue and as part of the broader spectrum of healthcare.

The Northern Irish case: cause for concern in Scotland?

However, turning to the one part of the United Kingdom where abortion laws were previously devolved, the result has not been positive. Northern Ireland has never been covered by the 1967 Abortion Act. As such, terminations are incredibly restricted, legal only where there is serious, long-term threat to the life or health of the women involved. Even in cases of fatal foetal abnormality, where the pregnancy will likely not go full term, or the baby will die shortly after birth, terminations are still not allowed.

Political movements to encourage liberalisation of these strict abortion laws have been all but non-existent, with the issue instead encouraging unusual links across Northern Ireland’s divided politics. Furthermore, devolution in this case has opened up a regional space which allows for religious and pro-life forces to mobilise against liberalising change. Pro-life organisations in Northern Ireland are incredibly well organised, with key links to influential politicians and sizeable funding. Precious Life, the main pro-life lobbying organisation in the province, organise daily protests outside both the Family Planning Association and the Marie Stopes clinics in central Belfast. In addition to this, they have also recently opened a competing ‘pro-life’ healthcare facility, conveniently located between the two clinics.

The particular blend of religion and politics that is enjoyed in Northern Ireland remains largely unique to the province in comparison to the rest of the UK. It seems unlikely that similar scenes will occur in Scotland. Yet by devolving this legislation, a new space for potential change is opened up, and the pro-life movement may find room for manoeuvre. Alex Salmond, former First Minister and current MP, is on record as supporting a lower time limit for abortions. A Motion in the Scottish Parliament has already been proposed to discuss in part “the fundamental rights of babies to be protected both before and after birth”. Conservative forces are as able to use this legislative movement as more liberal voices.

What is abortion an issue of?

Regardless of what direction (if any) abortion policy in Scotland is now taken, a more fundamental question needs to be asked: why remove control around abortion from central government in the first place?

In the case of Northern Ireland, the perceived different sensibilities around this issue have long been used to justify difference around this issue. Equally, politicians continually refer to the issue as one of the few points of unity in the region’s divided politics, and the cross-party nature of several attempts to greater restrict abortion in the province reflects this. Repeatedly Westminster politicians (both Northern Irish and from the rest of the UK) have argued that the people of Northern Ireland feel differently about abortion, and that the democratic will of the Northern Irish people in this regard should be respected. Such political statements remain very much out of line with contemporary survey data from the province, which suggests strong support for liberalisation.

Not only does this difference of opinion argument appear to be lacking in the Scottish case, but why is it considered valid in the first place? Why should opinion, rather than evidence, play such a role here? Why is abortion not considered a fundamental aspect of sexual and reproductive healthcare, and part of the individual’s basic right to bodily autonomy?

Attempts to establish abortion within a rights discourse have continually suffered difficulties, in many different locales. The UK is a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and is examined every four years by its Committee. The CEDAW Committee have repeatedly raised the issue of the discrepancy in abortion law with regards to Northern Ireland, but this has excited little interest from Westminster. As part of the 2013 examination, where the Committee urged the UK once again to expedite the decriminalisation of abortion in Northern Ireland, central government response was brief: “There are no plans to change the law on abortion in Northern Ireland.” Using a human rights based argument to force movement on the issue of abortion has gained little ground.

Without the backing of central government, or a strong rights based argument underlying the discourse around the issue, abortion laws do appear vulnerable to change. At present, it is difficult to tell which direction (if any) Scotland might move in. A new arena for conservative challenges to women’s rights has been made available, however, and opposing views on the matter are already making themselves known. Women’s rights activists and politicians must be vigilant.

Jennifer Thomson is a PhD candidate in Politics and International Relations at Queen Mary, University of London.

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