Holyrood needs power to enforce gender balance where political parties have failed
MAKING Holyrood a gender-balanced parliament won’t be easy but it is essential that the effort is made. This week at Westminster, the SNP and Labour will make a rare display of unity when they both attempt to amend the Scotland Bill to give Holyrood the power to legislate for a 50:50 gender mix in parliament and across Scotland’s councils.
We firmly believe that whatever can be done to increase the number of female politicians in Scotland should be done. Unfortunately, it is not necessarily clear how best to proceed.
Political parties have played their part, in some cases introducing women-only shortlists and pairing constituencies so that there are equal numbers of male and female candidates.
But perhaps the legislation proposed by both Labour and SNP politicians is required in order that the Scottish Parliament can become more fairly split along gender lines.
Opponents of positive discrimination complain that all women shortlists are unfair; that they prevent an even playing field on which all candidates win or lose on merit. This is an argument of the past. Political parties have got away with talking about equality without delivering it for far too long.
When Nicola Sturgeon became First Minister last year, she delivered a very good speech in which she said she hoped her election would serve as an assurance to Scottish girls that they could achieve whatever they wanted.
But Sturgeon’s success doesn’t indicate a major shift in the male-dominated work of politics. It is still difficult for women – especially those with families – to build political careers.
It seems strange that we should still be struggling as a society to achieve gender equality. Yes, progress has been made, but a glance over our recent history shows us the pace has been slow. Women still earn less than men and hold fewer senior positions in the private sector.
The Scottish Government may struggle to impose gender balance on the private sector, but it could lead by example. A Scottish Parliament comprising men and women in equal number would be a considerable achievement.
There is, of course, no guarantee that a 50:50 mix of candidates will produce a 50:50 mix of MSPs, but it would appear to be the best way of increasing the likelihood of such an outcome.
The Scottish Parliament was designed to be a more family friendly parliament than Westminster. This may have encouraged more women to stand for Holyrood. But not enough of them have been successful. Of Scotland’s 129 MSPs, only a third are women.
We are pleased the Women 50:50 campaign has brought members of opposing parties together. No party has an especially proud record on achieving equality among its representatives and recognition by both Labour and the SNP that steps are required is to be welcomed.
Yesterday, the Women 50:50 campaign said there were women across Scotland with “merit and ambition” being held back by barriers which there was a duty to remove. We agree that legislated candidate quotas are a temporary measure needed to rebalance Holyrood.
The leaders of Scotland’s three largest political parties are women, yet the success of Sturgeon, Kezia Dugdale, and Ruth Davidson paints a distorted picture.
Despite support from Labour and the SNP, campaigners for a 50:50 gender split among candidates can expect some fierce opposition. But those who oppose this measure will find themselves on the wrong side of history.
The Women 50:50 campaign argues that for too long, decisions about the whole of Scotland have been made by a parliament that fails to look like the society it is meant to represent.
We agree. It’s time Holyrood had the power to legislate on this issue.