Leaders: Gender equality can’t wait

Sturgeon was a case of a talented woman achieving success in spite of the system. Picture: Neil Hanna
Sturgeon was a case of a talented woman achieving success in spite of the system. Picture: Neil Hanna
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Amendment should gain wide support, however hard it is to achieve a 50-50 Holyrood split

FOR a long time – for too long – the argument against 50-50 gender splits in politics and other areas of public life has been that the enforcement of quotas stands contrary to the idea that true equality means all should be given the same opportunities, regardless of whether they are male or female.

That counterposition fails, however, because time and again women do not progress in the same numbers as men. This, clearly, is not a consequence of the calibre of female candidates. Mustn’t it, then, be the result of a system that’s inherently prejudiced against women, that assumes “the best man for the job” is usually a man?

When the pre-eminent Scottish politician of modern times is a woman, haven’t we got proof enough – if it were needed – that a system that appears to favour men is no longer good enough?

So we welcome Labour MP Ian Murray’s decision to table an amendment to the Scotland Bill which calls for a 50-50 gender split at the Scottish Parliament.

Holyrood’s working practices were tailored to make it easier for women to access public life. Its “family friendly” hours – in contrast to Westminster, where debates can drag on into the night – were supposed to help ensure a better gender balance. And, in fairness, the Scottish Parliament has attracted many female politicians who might never otherwise have sought election.

But there is still more to do.

The leaders of the SNP and the Scottish Tories are both women, and if – as looks likely – Kezia Dugdale wins the Labour leadership contest, we will have the unusual, but most welcome, situation of there being women at the top of the country’s three largest political parties.

But Nicola Sturgeon, Ruth Davidson, and Kezia Dugdale had to fight doubly hard to get on because they were, at every turn, outnumbered by men.

It is to the credit of these three politicians that they have achieved a great deal, but it is wrong that they should have started at something of a disadvantage simply because they happen to be female.

When Sturgeon became First Minister last year, she gave a fine speech in which she said she hoped her achievement would send a message to young girls across Scotland that they could reach the top of their chosen professions.

These were encouraging words but they didn’t tell the whole story. Sturgeon’s success, a shining example of a woman making it in a “man’s world”, did not signal the birth of a new era of gender equality in politics. Rather, it was a case of a talented woman achieving great success in spite of a system that makes it easier for men to get ahead.

We would very much like to see a Scottish parliament with both men and women equally represented. If we believe that the institution should fully represent society then it is hard to argue that it should be anything but gender ­balanced.

So let us hope that Ian Murray receives the widest support for his amendment to the Scotland Bill. And then let us hope that a system can be found by which gender balance can be made a reality.

Ultimately, of course, the electorate decides, and if it chooses 70 per cent of men to 30 per cent of women then the principle of equality is only that.

One way of ensuring a fairer split would be to insist that, in half of all constituencies, only women should be allowed to stand, but this strikes us as too prescriptive. Perhaps another solution would be for parties who stand more men in constituencies to be obliged to stand women at the top of their regional lists.

There is much to be discussed before gender equality at Holyrood becomes a reality but its achievement is a goal worth pursuing.

First, let’s see politicians from across the spectrum commit to supporting Murray and then let’s find a way of making this work.

For too long, too many talented women have been lost to politics. It’s time that changed once and for all.