Holyrood’s gender balance problem

By May 10, 2016Public Affairs

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Last Thursday, Scotland elected its first female First Minister. Nicola Sturgeon might have been doing the job for the past eighteen months, but she was clear throughout the campaign that this election was her seeking her own mandate to govern. With 63 MSPs and 46.5 per cent of the consistency vote, it’s safe to say she got one.

It’s a striking fact that women hold the top jobs in Scottish politics. On the opposition benches, Ruth Davidson and Kezia Dugdale, like their predecessors Annabel Goldie and Johann Lamont, are tenacious party leaders who are capable of challenging the First Minister. In the last Parliament, Tricia Marwick was a respected and skilled Presiding Officer as well as being the first woman to hold the office, whilst the Cabinet led by Nicola Sturgeon was fully gender balanced.

However, just a little below the surface is the stark reality that this election has brought no change in the gender balance of our parliament. Before and after last week’s vote, female MSPs accounted for just 35 per cent of the total. At its peak, between 2003 and 2007, female representation in the Scottish Parliament was just under 40 per cent. Some parties perform better under the spotlight than others: the Liberal Democrats now have no female voice in their number. Despite an increase in seats, the Greens still have just one woman in their team. In comparison, 46 per cent of Labour’s seats are held by women, as are 43 per cent of the SNP’s.

Does it matter? With women like Sturgeon, Davidson and Dugdale at the apex of our politics, female voters or prospective future candidates have strong role models to follow into politics. Scotland’s political gender balance comprehensively beats Westminster’s, where just 29 per cent of all MPs are women (a record high!)

I’ve never held the view that men can’t be successful advocates for female interests.  Besides, most women I know are just as interested in the economy, infrastructure and international relations as they are in more traditionally “female” zones such as childcare and equalities.

And yet it does matter.

Organisations which speak on behalf of others are at their best when they look like the groups they seek to represent. The Scottish Parliament, a body whose purpose is to represent the political interests of the whole country, should be no exception. In an ideal world, the public should be able to look at their representatives and see their life experiences reflected back at them.

Perception is important. Whatever the issue, whether health, housing, national security or childcare, any member of the public should be able to feel confident that somebody in the room full of parliamentarians making the decisions, sees the world through the same lens that they do, are informed by the same experiences that they have lived and have faced the same obstacles that they have encountered. And while male MSPs can be powerful advocates, the strongest voices in a debate are always those empowered to use their own.

All this is equally true for people in Scotland who are disabled, from ethnic minorities, are LGBTI or from disadvantaged backgrounds. Granted, just 129 elected MSPs will never perfectly capture the diversity of background that their tens of thousands constituents embody. However, it is particularly jarring that for all the women at the top of the political game, our parliament’s gender balance hasn’t changed since 2011.

One significant aspect of these results is that the number of women standing for election was 20 per cent higher than in 2011, something which didn’t translate into seats. Does this suggest that for all the value of role models inspiring women to get involved, there are still barriers to women seeking to become the next Nicola Sturgeon?

If we are to knock down some of these barriers so that in 2021 women and other underrepresented groups of society are more favourably represented, it has to be addressed as a cross-party issue which takes into account the range of factors which prevent good candidates getting involved and getting elected, both within their parties and in the wider Scottish society. The good news is that we’ve just elected 45 female MSPs who just might have their own ideas on tackling these and other issues.


Eilidh Dickson is an Account Executive at Indigo.