Jenny Gilruth ends 20-year gap between female transport ministers and not before time – Alastair Dalton

Four years ago, I wrote that First Minister Nicola Sturgeon had missed a trick by not appointing a woman to the transport portfolio as part of her reshuffle.

I observed that it would have helped readdress the gender balance in the very male-dominated sector, 16 years after Labour’s Wendy Alexander was Scotland’s transport minister, and before her, party colleague Sarah Boyack, who is still a MSP.

It’s now 20 years on, and I’m delighted that gap has finally been closed with Jenny Gilruth filling the post. But it shouldn’t be that way, such appointments still being atypical, two decades after devolution.

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They should no longer be remarkable – they should have become normalised by now and I should no longer need to be writing columns like these.

As Clare Todd, of PR agency Clark Communications, said of Aine Finlayson’s appointment this week as Scottish Engineering’s first female president in its 157-year history: “I very much look forward to the time when it is no longer news”.

I may be unusual in having worked in gender-balanced teams of journalists and for female editors and managing directors for part of my career, but that will have been very different from some people’s experience, particularly in transport.

On the positive side, things are changing at the top, albeit slowly, and 2022 has started with a promising number of women in top positions across the sector in Scotland.

Gilruth joins female leaders such as Scottish Canals chief executive Catherine Topley, while Caledonian Sleeper managing director Kathryn Darbandi took up her post last year.

Jenny Gilruth is Scotland's first female transport minister since Labour's Wendy Alexander in 2002

British Transport Police (BTP) appointed its second woman as Scotland commander in Chief Superintendent Gill Murray in 2021, months after Lucy D’Orsi became the first female chief constable in the force’s near 200-year-old history.

They will be joined by ScotRail’s new chief operating officer Joanne Maguire in April, 11 years after Mary Grant stepped down as managing director.

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As for the new minister, a former teacher by profession, Gilruth has already been closely involved in several transport issues, such as campaigning for the restoration of the Levenmouth railway as MSP for Mid Fife and Glenrothes, including leading a Holyrood debate on the issue.

Nicola Sturgeon with Jenny Gilruth after her appointment on Monday.

Gilruth also supported the Greens’ proposal for default 20mph speed limits in built-up areas, elements of which are being progressed as part of the SNP-Greens power-sharing deal, and she has spoken about extending the impending free bus travel for under-22s to everyone under 26.

Moving to transport from being minister for culture, Europe and international development, I’m told she’s regarded as helpful and approachable, with a reputation of being smarter and more switched on than many of her party colleagues.

That bodes well for the potential minefield of the transport brief, with some major challenges ahead such as getting people back onto public transport after two years of the Covid pandemic, bringing ScotRail back into public hands in two months’ time, and fleshing out the Scottish government’s bold plans to cut car use, a goal that has eluded Gilruth’s predecessors.

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Jenny Gilruth visiting the Levenmouth railway site as Mid Fife and Glenrothes MSP in December. Picture: Network Rail

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