In the lead up to the first Scottish Parliament elections of 1999, the Labour party adopted a quota measure known as ‘twinning’. The mechanism, whereby constituencies are paired – allowing an all- male shortlist to be drawn up for one, and an all- female shortlist for the other – helped to return 48 women MSPs. In 2003, that number rose further to 51 (or 39.5%). Significantly, the presence of these women also brought change in policy terms. Gender equality campaigners found they had the ear of sympathetic parliamentarians who were more accessible than ever before. As a result of lobbying by these activists the Scottish Government introduced a world leading domestic violence strategy recognising Violence Against Women (VAW) as: “a function of gender inequality, and an abuse of male power and privilege”. This definition won support from women’s organisations across the world and stands in contrast to England’s ‘Gender Neutral’ approach.
Since 2003, however, the trend towards a gender equal parliament has stalled. The 2007 Scottish Parliament elections returned just 43 women MSPs (33.3%). And while the 2011 elections saw this number rise modestly to 45 – these results were set within an overall pattern of decline in the number of female candidates selected.
There is no question that formal measures to increase women’s representation in politics work. There is also a very clear correlation between increased numbers of women in parliament and the placement of women’s rights issues on the social policy agenda.
So why are quotas still controversial? Last weekend a proposal to give the National Executive Committee of the SNP power to enforce Women only shortlists was passed but also attracted vocal opposition. The NEC motion proposed submitting shortlists of women only candidates in constituencies where the incumbent MSP will stand down, as a one-off mechanism for the 2016 Holyrood election.
One SNP branch put forward an amendment to “delete” the all-women shortlist proposal “in its entirety”.
Speaking to the press last week the branch Secretary reasoned:
“If there is a selection process for anything then it should be the best person regardless of gender, really if that creates an imbalance, it is a fair imbalance because it is the best people for the job.
“For years and years – and for whatever reason – they [women] have not put themselves forward for these positions.” (my italics)
To say that this analysis of gender inequality in Scottish society seems naïve is to be kind. Any social scientist worth her (or his) salt could rhyme off a substantial list of ‘whatever reasons’ women find it difficult to manoeuvre themselves into positions of power in public life. The sexist culture endemic in British politics (as evidenced by the Rennard scandal & other allegations of sexual harassment in Westminster), the unequal distribution of unpaid work in the home, or online misogynist abuse – to name a few possible reasons.
A more thought-provoking contribution came from Yes Activist turned SNP member Lauren Reid. Writing for Wings she contended that all women shortlists do not address the real reasons why more women don’t stand.
Of course the introduction of quotas does not address all of the other kinds of social pressures on women not to run. But they do confront one important barrier – that of actually getting nominated. Professor Yvonne Galligan of Queen’s University looked at a four-stage journey from citizen to representative and the obstacles that face women (an audio of her talk on the subject can be found here). Many women she spoke to aspired to become candidates but failed to get past the point of nomination. Her suggestion that nomination is the biggest sticking point in the process is supported by a 2011 investigation by the Guardian that found less than 30% of the major parties’ candidates for the Holyrood election would be women. This in itself is a powerful statistic and suggests that when women are helped past the nomination hurdle they are more effective than men at getting elected!
As Professor Galligan points out, it is the responsibility of political parties who they present to the electorate, and if becoming a candidate is a stumbling block specific to women; then parties have a duty to address that – which is exactly what the SNP are trying to do.
Of course, encouraging more women into politics does also benefit those beyond the individuals coming to power. This applies in policy terms – Scotland’s domestic violence strategy being one example – but it is also true that where women are seen to succeed, more women participate. Professor Galligan points to the ‘role model effect’; in short, women in constituencies where female candidates stand are more likely to turn out and vote.
Lauren also expresses concern that women shortlisted through quotas will be stigmatised as token women rather than being elected by virtue of their own ability.
Again, research disputes this. A study examining the quality of ‘quota women’ elected to Westminster after the 1997 general election compared to their non-quota colleagues found no significant difference in terms of qualifications or ability. Quota women were not discriminated against in front bench promotions, nor was a bias against them detected amongst the electorate.
Similar findings apply to women in the workplace. A 2014 study entitled ‘Socially gainful gender quotas’ found that: “In absence of quotas women consider their chances of getting top positions to be lower than men’s. Gender quotas discourage men who are less efficient…and encourage women who are more efficient.”
Perhaps the most salient point raised by Lauren is her concern that quotas will fail to address the class imbalance.
Of course there are intersections such as class, race and sexual orientation in the broader struggle for gender equality, and it is vital that they are recognised and mainstreamed in the wider debate. Will the measures voted through by conference throw up specific problems for working class women? I don’t know, and this is something we should consider. If we need quotas to help give women equal access then we should be considering them for working class, Black and Minority Ethnic and LGBT candidates too.
Ultimately, the most frustrating and well-worn argument advanced against quotas is that they will discriminate against capable men.
However, an empirical analysis of candidates in Swedish municipalities over the course of 7 elections found that not only do quotas raise the quality of male and female candidates, but mediocre men are being replaced by more highly qualified women as a result.
In fact, the researchers concluded:
“The survival concerns of a mediocre male party leadership can create incentives for gender imbalance and more incompetent men in office.”
To quote Curt Rice – Professor at the University of Tromsø and leader of Norway’s committee on gender balance:
“Quotas do not get introduced in situations that already are fair. They are a tool to pursue fairness — to correct unfairness”.
If we were to wait, on the current trajectory, it is estimated that it would take 100 years for us to reach an equal parliament at Westminster.
At Holyrood, the rate of 36% is undeniably more encouraging, but we are moving backwards (the Scottish Parliament has dropped from a high of 4th to 13th place, internationally)
Those who get het up about the ‘Inequality’ of formal measures to increase women’s representation in our parliament ignore one stark fact of life, and that is the existence of male privilege. Men have been handed an advantage by virtue of their sex in the political arena for centuries.
Notable by their absence are opponents of the measure with any solutions of their own to offer. Lauren Reid clearly believes passionately that women are equal to men in ability, why then is this not reflected in their representation in public life? It’s a question I would like to hear an answer to from opponents of the NEC’s proposal.