Now is the right time to introduce tough gender quotas for the Scottish Parliament

The Scottish Parliament has a better record than Westminster in seeing women elected. Despite this, progress of late has stalled, with women’s representation now slipping backwards. Meryl Kenny and Fiona Mackay argue that the current ‘constitutional moment’ in the wake of the Scottish independence referendum provides an opportunity to get serious about the problem, and introduce tough gender quotas to improve the gender ration between men and women.

The modest levels of female representation at Westminster stand in sharp contrast to the Nordic levels of representation achieved in the Scottish Parliament and the prominence of female Scottish political leaders like future First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. Yet, despite the ‘female face’ of Scottish politics, there is still a long way to go – women continue to be under-represented at all political levels in Scotland, prompting calls from academics and campaigners for tougher action on the issue, including the prospect of legal gender quotas.

Why haven’t gender quotas or gender-balanced representation ‘caught on’ across parties or different political levels in Scotland? And what should happen next to take the issue of women’s representation forward? Our research, published in Parliamentary Affairs this month, seeks to answer these questions, examining trends in women’s political recruitment and representation in Scotland at multiple political levels over time, including elections to the House of Commons, the Scottish parliament, the European parliament and Scottish local government. Research on women and politics suggests political parties adopt gender quotas as part of a process of electoral competition – as such, the use of gender quotas by one party may set in motion a process of ‘contagion’, whereby rival parties will follow suit in order to compete. The decision to promote women’s candidacies is, therefore, partly a strategic one, undertaken by parties in order to remain electorally competitive and gain political advantage.

However, based upon analysis of elections from 1992-2011, we report mixed evidence of a ‘contagion effect’ in Scotland – in short, ‘contagion’ has not been ‘catching’. Our research finds that:

1) Quotas have not caught on across parties.

In the first elections to the Scottish Parliament, we see some evidence of contagion whereby an innovating party of the left (Scottish Labour) instituted gender quotas and provoked a response from a rival party (the SNP), which adopted informal measures to promote women’s representation, including favourable placement for women candidates on the regional lists. Ultimately of the 129 MSPs elected to the parliament for the first time in 1999, 48 were women (37.2%). Notably, women made up 50% of Scottish Labour MSPs and 42.9% of SNP MSPs.

Since this point, however, the SNP has not implemented any measures to promote women’s representation in Scottish parliament elections (either formal or informal). The Scottish Liberal Democrats have a ‘softer’ gender-balanced shortlisting policy in place, which is inconsistently applied. And the Scottish Conservatives have never used equality measures. Only Labour has consistently implemented strong gender quota measures in all Scottish Parliament elections, but post-1999, these have been primarily ‘low-cost’ measures aimed at the regional lists (where until 2011, the party has not won many seats).

2) Quotas have not caught on across different political levels.

Trends over time in the percentage of women elected at different political levels suggest that gains made at the level of the Scottish Parliament have not ‘caught on’ in any straightforward sense of leading to improved performance on women’s representation across the board at other levels of the political system. The UK level has been a consistent laggard on women’s representation – while the proportion of Scottish women MPs increased significantly in 1997, and again in 2010, this is largely due to the introduction of all-women shortlists (AWS) by the Labour Party in 1997, and the reintroduction of the same policy for Scottish constituencies in 2010.

At local government level, the representation of women has been traditionally higher than at Westminster. Yet, despite the introduction of a more proportional electoral system in the form of the Single Transferable Vote in 2007, the proportion of Scottish women councillors has stagnated over time, flatlining around 22% until 2012, when the numbers rose slightly to 24.3%. At European level, again, there does not appear to be a noticeable impact after the introduction of PR for the 1999 European elections – two Scottish women MEPs were elected in the 1999 and 2004 European elections, but only one woman was returned in 2009 and 2014.

3) Quotas have not caught on within parties.

While Scottish Labour has been a ‘class apart’ on women’s representation in Scottish Parliament elections, it has been increasingly reluctant to adopt strong quota measures such as twinning or AWS in constituency contests or to make electoral capital of its record. Labour still leads on women’s representation at the Scottish parliament level, but this is largely due to candidate incumbency rather than its active promotion.

Meanwhile, at local level, until 2012, the percentage of Labour women has followed a pattern of decline, falling from 21.6% in 1999, to 20% in 2003, and finally to 17.5% in 2007. At Westminster level, Scotland was exempted from the British-wide Labour policy of AWS until 2010, after the Scottish party successfully argued that it could not implement quotas at the same time that, as a result of boundary changes, the overall number of Scottish Westminster constituencies was being reduced. Thus, until 2010, increases in the number of women MPs elected have been smaller in Scotland than in the rest of the UK.

Why haven’t quotas ‘caught on’ in Scotland?

Our research argues that the stalling of progress on women’s representation in Scotland can be explained by a number of factors. The ‘historical moment’ of devolution in 1999 – in the sense of opening up opportunities for women’s political participation – can be seen to have passed, resulting in a loss of momentum for activists and their allies. The Scottish Parliament’s record levels of women MSPs – as well as the high visibility of female politicians within most of the Scottish parties – have arguably engendered a sense of complacency among parties and political elites, making it difficult for campaigners to press for further reforms.

Subsequent institutional reforms have also left parties in Scotland with an overall ‘squeeze’ in seats – including electoral reforms, constituency boundary changes, and the reduction of seats at Westminster. This has increased competition among candidates and sitting politicians alike, with a detrimental impact on numbers of women candidates selected and elected at different levels of the political system.

Efforts to promote women’s political representation have also been limited by an overall trend of party decentralisation and by the general lack of will on the part of party elites to effectively implement and enforce quota reforms. What matters is not only how many female candidates are selected, but also the seats/position in which they are placed. Those quota measures that are in place in Scottish parties are often stymied by a lack of effective central oversight of local selection processes or the application of sanctions for non-compliance with quota measures and candidate selection equal opportunities measures.

It is clear, therefore, that one-off quota measures are not enough. Strong equality measures – in the form of Labour’s twinning scheme and informal action taken by its electoral rivals – had a significant impact in 1999 and continue to hold up headline figures. But since the first elections, quotas have not ‘caught on’ to the same extent, and the underlying trends for women in candidate selection are downward. The current constitutional moment – in the aftermath of the independence referendum – therefore provides a crucial opportunity for revisiting debates over women’s representation and gender quotas in Scottish politics, and to push for further reforms. In line with recent calls for legislative quotas at both Scottish and UK level, our research argues that the time has come for tough action on women’s representation in Scottish politics – including the introduction of statutory gender quotas – in order to ensure real change.

This post draws on the findings of Meryl Kenny and Fiona Mackay (2014) ‘When is Contagion Not Very Contagious? Dynamics of Women’s Political Representation in Scotland’, Parliamentary Affairs, 67 (4), 866-886. An earlier version of this blog appeared on the University of Edinburgh’s Gender Politics Blog. It represents the views of the authors and not those of Democratic Audit or the LSE. Please read our comments policy before posting. 

Meryl Kenny  is Lecturer in Government and Politics at the University of Leicester and Co-Convenor of the PSA Women and Politics Specialist Group. She has published widely on women and Scottish politics, including her monograph Gender and Political Recruitment: Theorizing Institutional Change (2013). She and Fiona Mackay are co-founders of the genderpol blog, hosted by the University of Edinburgh (@genderpol on Twitter). She also tweets from @merylkenny.



FionaMFiona Mackay is Professor of Politics and Dean and Head of the School of Social and Political Science at the University of Edinburgh. She has published widely on women and politics and gender and constitutional change in Scotland and the UK, including Love and Politics (2001); Women and Contemporary Scottish Politics (co-edited 2001); and Women, Politics and Constitutional Change (2007). She convenes the Gender Politics Research Group at Edinburgh, which hosts the twitter feed @genderpol and the blog genderpolitics@edinburgh.


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