Politically, Scotland looks promising with regards to gender equality. One of Nicola Sturgeon’s first acts as First Minister was to announce a 50/50 gender equal cabinet, and to stay characteristically calm and dismissive in the face of criticism. This sent an important symbolic message about her style of politics, which added to the fact that the leaders of the three main parties are women, the co-convener of the Scottish Greens is a woman, and four of the party leaders are also openly gay or bisexual. The importance of this symbolically cannot be underestimated.
But behind the headlines the figures on substantive representation, both currently and potentially in the future, doesn’t look quite so rosy. Currently the Scottish parliament has 35.2% women MSPs, and in the 2011 election 28.8% of the candidates were women – indicating that women are more likely than men to win their seats. It looks like good news then, because 38.9% of candidates running in 2016 are women – a rise of 10.1%, which could in theory see a rise in the Scottish parliament to 45% female MSPs, the closest to 50/50 it has come in its history, and topping the previous high of 40% in 2003.
However, analysts at the LSE are predicting that we will only see a rise of 4.3% (ie 39.5%)
of women taking up seats after May the 5th in Holyrood. Why the shortfall? Historically, we know that we do not see substantial rises in number of women standing for, and winning, parliamentary elections without some kind of positive action on the part of the political parties: male privilege is systematically and historically entrenched in politics (for example in favouring the reselection of incumbents, the hours of work, the adversarial nature of politics, the use of informal networks to select candidates, using criteria such as education levels in selection, the physical scrutiny of female candidates, the distribution of income and caring responsibilities all favour male candidates). All Women Shortlists in key winnable seats was used successfully by the Labour party to help secure both its victory (women being more likely to win seats than men) and in raising numbers of women in parliament in 1997. So parties using positive means of encouraging women candidates are a) more likely to win seats and b) more likely to return equitable gender representation than those that don’t.
Here is where the shortfall is explained. The Labour Party and the smaller parties running in the Holyrood elections (the Greens, RISE, and the Women’s Equality Party) have 50% or more women standing. Whilst the mix of First Past the Post (for constituency seats) and Additional Member Voting (for regional seats) is designed to ensure that smaller parties have a realistic chance of winning seats, the inexorable rise of the popularity of the Scottish National Party in 2011 and post-referendum indicates that it is unlikely that either long-term supporters, or those who switched allegiance (eg from Labour) post referendum will switch again to one of the smaller parties in substantial enough numbers to give these women a chance to win their seats. This election Labour has more women running than men for the first time (topped only by the WEP’s 90% women candidates), but no-one is predicting a decisive win for them. The SNP, the clear favourites, are fielding just over 40%, and their almost-certain victory is behind the LSE’s prediction of a rise of 4.3%.
Of the five largest parties, only the Greens, Labour and the SNP openly support the 50/50 campaign, and only the Greens have actually attempted to achieve its implementation in fielding 50% women candidates. The Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party and the Scottish Liberal Democrats have no manifesto pledges to mainstream equality or support 50/50 political representation, although the LibDems do support balanced list and gender balance on public boards (but give no details as to how this is to be achieved. Only Labour and the Greens support the incorporation of the UN Charter to End Discrimination Against Women into Scots Law. All five main parties do support key policy pledges such as increased childcare and raising carers allowances, but only Labour and the Greens favour gender budget analysis in economic policy and setting up a Commission to monitor employment and labour market segregation, with the SNP taking a more neo-liberal approach of establishing an advisory council on women and girls.
Policy promises from the smaller parties on gender equality are more robust: for example, WEP calls for action to increase women’s political representation, equal pay, shared parenting and caring, education outcomes, media representation and ending violence against women and girls; RISE supports the aim of 50% gender representation in public life and protecting funding for Violence Against Women Services. However it is unlikely that these parties will either be in the ‘queenmaker’ position of forming a winning coalition government or win enough seats to push for particular policy developments.
So it is likely that we will see more women in the next Scottish parliament, and some policies that will start to tackle some of the discrimination faced by women in Scottish society: but we are unlikely to see the kind of radical change in representation and policies that would make a substantial difference to equality.
Edited (3 May '16) to read 'The Labour Party and the smaller parties running in the Holyrood elections (the Greens, RISE, and the Women’s Equality Party) have 50% or more women standing.' 'The Labour Party' had initially been omitted owing to an editing error, although this pojnt was made clear later in the same paragraph.