Gender quotas alone won’t end inequality

The Scottish Government ran a consultation on whether mandatory quotas should be imposed. Picture: Kenny Smith

The Scottish Government ran a consultation on whether mandatory quotas should be imposed. Picture: Kenny Smith

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As more detail emerges on exactly which measures will form the devo-max proposals, it remains to be seen whether the quest to increase female board representation in Scotland will be in the package.

Despite having no legislative authority to implement such proposals, earlier this year the Scottish Government ran a consultation on whether mandatory quotas should be imposed on public boards to increase female representation to 40 per cent. The intention was to influence the Westminster government to introduce binding UK-wide legislation.

While I support the principle of quotas, provided they are not seen as the only solution to increasing female participation, the rationale for their introduction is normally low participation. Women already account for 36 per cent of Scottish public boards, suggesting that to make this measure worthwhile, a more appropriate stretch target should be 50 per cent.

There are also wider issues which affect women within the workplace in relation to a persistent gender pay gap and balancing childcare and quality part-time work. Putting a greater focus on these challenges could prove beneficial to a broader demographic of females.

Whether it proves to be a devolved or retained power, any government considering quotas for women on public boards will also need to navigate around European Union laws which prevent all-women shortlisting since it excludes men.

While the Scottish Government’s initial consultation is focused on female representation on public boards, the stated intention is to also consult on company boards, a much more controversial move. At present women account for just over 20 per cent of board positions on FTSE 100 companies, up from 12.5 per cent in 2011. The direction of travel until recently has certainly been encouraging. The most recent figures show progress has stalled, suggesting that targets have to be accompanied by pipeline planning and focused schemes to increase participation.

The bigger question likely to emerge in the debate about quotas is whether this is the most effective solution to narrow the gap in gender inequality.

• Valerie Dougan is a professional support lawyer at law firm CMS

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