RADICAL plans to introduce new laws guaranteeing gender equality in Scotland’s boardrooms will be unveiled by Labour today.
Deputy leader of Scottish Labour Kezia Dugdale says the party will use the powers coming to Holyrood through the post-referendum Smith Agreement to ensure a 50-50 split on the boards of public bodies.
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Nicola Sturgeon, who appointed the UK’s first cabinet with an equal gender split on becoming First Minister, said last week that she backs “quotas” to achieve boardroom gender balance. She has also challenged all public, private and third-sector bodies to commit to achieving a 50-50 split on boards by 2020.
The Labour move would mean that major bodies like NHS boards, Scottish Water and quangos like Scottish Enterprise and Historic Scotland will be obliged to implement equality.
The proposals will be unveiled when Ms Dugdale addresses the Scottish Women’s Convention in Glasgow.
Although equality law in the UK is reserved, the new powers being devolved to Scotland through the Smith Agreement will give the Scottish Parliament the ability to legislate for gender equality on the boards of Scotland’s public bodies.
“The next Scottish Labour government will use the exciting new powers coming to Scotland to deliver equality for women in law,” Ms Dugdale said.
“The institutions that have so much influence over Scottish public life should reflect the country at large. With so few women on the boards of Scotland’s public bodies today, they don’t represent the communities they seek to serve. That needs to change and Scottish Labour will make that happen.”
Scotland has an unenviable record of promoting the role of women in public life. Just nine of Scotland’s 34 judges – 26 per cent – are women.
There are only four female chief executives in 14 NHS boards – 28 per cent of the total. Four of Scotland’s 15 universities have female principals, while of 11 major charities based in Scotland only two are led by women.
Ms Dugdale added: “Scottish Labour has a proud record on women’s rights. From leading the way on all-women shortlists to the Equality Act, we have a history of advancing the cause of Scottish women. But we cannot rest until there is full equality.
“Until every girl or young woman in Scotland can enter any profession without thinking her gender will act as a barrier, we will still have work to do. There is so much gender inequality in Scottish society. Scotland deserves better.”
A Scottish Government report last year said that just 35 per cent of public board members in Scotland are women, despite making up more than 50 per cent of the population. Just 1 per cent of board chairs or conveners are female, while only 11 per cent of board members of public corporations are female.
Jim Murphy adopted a similar approach to Ms Sturgeon by appointing a gender-equal shadow cabinet when he became Scottish Labour leader and has pledged to continue this approach in government.
Ms Sturgeon has made addressing inequality a key focus, with a pledge to increase free childcare if she is in power after the 2016 Holyrood elections.
She has also set out a “50-50 by 2020” pledge challenging all public, private and third-sector bodies to commit to take action on gender equality.
But Ms Sturgeon made it clear in a speech this week that she believes the time is right for targets and quotas to achieve equality more quickly.
“That’s a controversial view,” she in a speech at Glasgow University. “The key argument against quotas and targets is that they work counter to the principle of people being selected on merit. But I take the view that it might actually be essential in order to achieve a true meritocracy. Because that’s not what we have right now.”
A Scottish Government report last year suggested all-women shortlist-style measures could be introduced to ensure boardrooms achieve an equal split of men and women.
Although positive discrimination in the UK is unlawful, the report says international human rights law recognises that “affirmative action” may be necessary to overcome past discrimination and “temporary special measures” could be introduced.
The UK Equality Act incorporates these measures and has already extended the provision for all-women political party short lists until 2030.
“Although the UK government position has been to support voluntary measures to improve gender equality in the boardroom, momentum is building from the European Parliament for legislative measures,” the report says.