Is Scotland on the way to gender-equal politics?

In 1999, the devolution of powers from Westminster allowed the creation of the Scottish Parliament. In its first elections, women gained representation levels at the level of Nordic countries, around 37%; well above those in the British parliament. In 2003, that percentage rose to 40%. Since then, the numbers have stagnated and in some cases have dropped. However, the 2014 independence referendum has completely changed the Scottish political landscape in terms of participation of women in politics. In this interactive, data-driven report, Asier Arrate finds out how.

Asier Arrate

The elections on the 5th of May 2016 could have been a key turning point in the move towards equal gender representation in the Scottish Parliament. Amongst other things, it is worth noting that all three major parties, SNP, Labour and Conservative, have women at the head of their party list: Nicola Sturgeon, Kezia Dugdale and Ruth Davidson respectively. The Green Party, meanwhile, shares leadership between Maggie Chapman and Patrick Harvey. However, Dr. Meryl Kenny of the University of Edinburgh warns that to only consider the party leaders can “obscure the reality” in terms of representation in the party as a whole.

Candidate Percentages by Gender in Scottish Parliament Elections

The objective of 50/50 gender representation, as championed (1) by Labour leader Kezia Dugdale, is still far away. This is especially clear if you analyse the numbers party-by-party, with respect to the position of women in the different electoral lists and their chances of getting a seat in Holyrood. Speaking to Cosmopolita Scotland before the election, Dr Kenny said that this could have been an election where we returned to “levels in the Nordic countries” with a representation of about 40%.

Regional Candidates for 2016 Scottish Parliament Election

Scottish elections consist of two different votes: one is for constituencies, where votes are for a particular candidate; and the other is for regions, where votes are made proportionately for ranked party lists. In both cases, the data shows that parties which have applied gender quotas have a greater number of female candidates. Highlights include the SNP with 41% in the constituencies and 45% in regional, and Labour with 55% and 50% respectively. Other leftist parties such as the Greens (42%) and RISE (50%) show better gender balance in the regional vote. Conservatives, on the other hand, do not set a gender quota. Despite the fact that Ruth Davidson’s leadership may suggest a gender balance, they don’t pass 15% representation in either of the two lists.

However, a high percentage does not always correspond to more women getting a seat. As Dr Kenny points out, other key factors are that women are: given higher rankings in the regional lists and placed in constituencies where there is a better chance of winning – “You have to place women in positions where they can win, otherwise it is no good to have 50% of women on the lists.” The Liberal Democrats seem to have good numbers – 38% in the constituencies and 46% in the regional lists. However, Dr Kenny notes that the constituencies where women of this party are placed, and their ranking on the regional lists, make it very difficult for any of them to be selected. This is the case for both the LibDems and Tories, where women are in seventh, eighth or ninth positions in the regional lists, or in constituencies where they have no possibility to win against SNP candidates.

When we analyse which parties have women first or high in the lists, and therefore with better possibilities of being elected, once again we find that the most left aligned parties are the most balanced. This highlights both the quantity and quality of female representation in these parties. Of the 8 regional lists, the SNP, Labour, the Greens and RISE each place four women at the top of their lists. Dr Kenny also notes that the SNP, which the pre-election polls predicted would have a landslide victory, which in the end didn’t happen, decided to fill vacant positions with women in every constituency where the party had a better chance of winning. “That will make a difference in representation in these elections.” said Dr Kenny at the time.

Competition affects representation

Despite these positive trends, Dr. Kenny was of the opinion that Scotland was unlikely to reach 50/50 representation, as the results of the election proved, as measures are only being implemented by parties which cover a specific ideological range. “What wins the SNP gain will come at the expense of the Labour Party, which is the other major party taking steps towards equality and balanced lists”. She believes that it also depends on the results of smaller parties, like the Greens or RISE. “It is clear that until all parties take steps to ensure equal representation, Scotland won’t get past the 40% barrier.” This is barrier that not even the Nordic countries have been able to overcome, except Iceland which has exceeded 50% female representation.

Between 1999 and 2003, the Scottish Parliament had one of the highest female representations of all Europe – 37% and 40% respectively. Amongst other reasons, this was due to competition between the SNP and the Labour Party. “In 1999, SNP applied a kind of unofficial quota but from there they stopped, just at the same time as they started to win. Similarly, the Labour Party began to implement more measures to get more women elected but began to lose seats to the SNP”, said Dr Kenny. She also emphasizes that small parties that applied measures to increase the presence of women, such as the Greens, have lost momentum in recent years. They passed from seven MSPs to two in the 2011 elections. “Small parties are important in the sense that they pressure other major parties on these kinds of issues. That may be the case with RISE in these elections”.

Although more difficult to measure, Dr Kenny thinks that there was also a general feeling that Scotland had done “quite well” with equality mandates during the 1999 and 2003 elections. Because of this, equal representation was relegated to the background in the political debate. “The parties did not see the need to talk about it, there was no competition”, points out Dr Kenny. The elections on May 5, however, returned the pressure on parties to reach 50/50. According to Dr. Kenny, this is what academics call “contagion” and affects mostly leftist parties. As she explains, new or small parties must have an impact before the changes can begin to come to light. Therefore, it is necessary that the major parties lead the change. “Because, in these elections, the SNP has entered into this issue, that is why we will see a change. It is partly thanks to Nicola Sturgeon and other women who have entered the game. The old guard, which was against quotas, has been outnumbered”.

Constituency Candidates and winners for 2011 Scottish Parliament Elections

The importance of the IndyRef

This change could be the most important event of recent years in Scottish politics. It can be tracked back (2) almost two years ago, to the independence referendum. The referendum itself, and the previous campaigns, created a social movement never before seen in Scotland. New groups, grass-roots and social movements were created and political parties saw a greater number of people affiliating with them or simply taking part in campaigns. Political issues were discussed in the street as they had never been before, between people who had never done it before. In turn, this seems to have encouraged women claim their rightful position (3) in the political landscape.

Victoria Heaney is member of Woman for Independence. She agrees on the importance of the referendum in igniting the interests of society in general, and in particular women: “Many women now have the confidence to ask and to test the power structures. The referendum helped many women to wonder about what happens and why”. As Heaney explained, Women for Independence has now become Independence for Women, to encourage women to get into the public sphere in both institutional politics and social movements.

Dr. Kenny saw many of the same women who participated in Women for Independence during the referendum in the lists as candidates for the SNP and the Greens. “Women are moving from lower case “p” politics to capital “P” Politics. We saw it in the elections to Westminster last year, proving that the referendum mobilized women and encouraged them to stand up. ”

Heaney is even clearer on the impact of the referendum: “Without a referendum I do not think we would have so many women involved in politics.” As she explains, it is clear that they still cannot say that enough has been done, but Heaney saws a “change in the mindset” of the Scottish society. Heaney thinks the debate on independence has brought the issue of gender equality to the discussion, and that these issues matter more these days: “The referendum has brought a sense of community on the social changes that still have to be done. Because we didn’t manage to achieve independence doesn’t mean we cannot still make big changes in how things are done in Scotland”.

Both women agree on a point that both agree is very important in this fight – that women do not follow the same path as men have done in the institutions, and that the Scottish Parliament does not turn into a place for the Scottish, white middle class. “Having more women is very important but it is also important that these women come from all backgrounds: class, sexuality, origin… equal representation of women is the starting point rather than the end”, states Dr Kenny.


 Use of English for Spanish speakers

(1) championed 

  • Definition: To defend and fight for a cause.
  • Example: “The objective of 50/50 gender representation, as championed by Labour leader Kezia Dugdale, is still far away.”
  • Translation: defender, luchar por

(2) tracked back

  • Definition: To look back in history to find the root of the situation.
  • Example: “This change could be the most important event of recent years in Scottish politics. It can be tracked back almost two years ago, to the independence referendum.”
  • Translation: ser seguido hacia atrás hasta
  • Comment: “Track back” is one of those phrasal verbs that doesn’t have a direct translation in Spanish, and to translate it directly sounds a bit inelegant.

(3) rightful position 

  • Definition: Having a valid claim to a position. A position that belongs to the subject (in this case women).
  • Example: “women claim their rightful position in the political landscape.”
  • Translation: posición legítimo

Have worked in this article:

Author: Asier Arrate

Translation: Asier Arrate

Editing: Alex Owen-Hill

Use of English for Spanish Speakers: Alex Owen-Hill

Data sourced from Dr Meryl Kenny, The Guardian, Holyrood and The London School of Economics and Political Science. 2016 Regional lists from Holyrood and the parties themselves.

Autor: Alex Owen-Hill

Alex is an Edinburgh freelance writer and blogger. As an ex-robotics researcher he's passionate about science and fascinating research in any field. He's also a dedicated food geek, filmmaker and occasional jazz musician. You can find him at or on Twitter at @AlexOwenHill.

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