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Why gender equality still needs to be prioritised in our devolved institutions
By Sonali Campion, Intern at the Electoral Reform Society
Scotland and Wales put Westminster to shame when it comes to gender equality in politics. 35% of the Scottish Parliament are women, while Wales boasts 40%, in comparison to a measly 22% in London. However, as we approach the next round of local elections we must consider the more nuanced and worrying story that these impressive statistics conceal.
Women’s representation in the UK’s devolved institutions has declined since 2003 and, unless action is taken, it will continue to do so. The Electoral Reform Society’s report on Women’s Representation in Scotland and Wales offers an in-depth analysis on the challenges facing equal gender representation and why we cannot afford to be complacent.
The report rightly points out that there is a lot to be said for the achievements of Cardiff and Holyrood: women’s representation has not dropped below 30% in either Scotland or Wales since the devolved institutions were established. In 1999 both countries reacted against the exclusive and discriminatory politics of Westminster and sought to build on the principles of power sharing and equal opportunities. The 2003 election highlighted how successful these measures had been in getting more women into parliament, with Scotland achieving 40% and Wales reaching a staggering 50% – equal representation for men and women. The resulting impact on policy has been particularly noticeable in Wales where female Assembly members have played a fundamental role in raising issues such as childcare, domestic violence and equal pay.
The disappointing results of the 2011 elections however demonstrate that gender equality cannot be taken for granted and that complacency brought about by the successes of the early naughties has the potential to endanger the progress that has been made. Part of the problem is that the responsibility to implement gender equality lies with the political parties. The report shows that the rise and fall of women’s representation in the devolved institutions directly correlates to the fortunes of the Labour party, which has been the most active in taking positive action to get women into power. For example, Figure 1 reflects Labour’s more concerted efforts to promote female participation in the Scottish parliament. It also shows that the percentage of female SNP MSPs has been in decline since the first elections of 1999, demonstrating that the rise of the SNP (largely at Labour’s expense) has had a strong negative impact on the number of women in Holyrood.
Sustainability is another major issue. The report shows that while the devolved institutions have achieved greater women’s representation in government, little progress has been made when it comes to changing the political culture. As a result, the number of women aspiring to power remains low. For example, in the 2007 Scottish election, 36% of the candidates were women but by 2011 this figure had dropped to 30%. This increasing reluctance to even stand for election suggests that the political environment remains a deterrent to female candidates. Furthermore, the report indicates that only a very limited number of women who are in government hold top positions. The graphs below show that while there are upward trends in the number of female junior ministers, the number of female cabinet ministers is in decline in both Scotland and Wales.
So what happens next? We have come to a crossroads in the development of a more representative democracy in our devolved institutions. On the one hand, the hostility to positive measures such as zipping or all-women shortlists mean that there is limited active promotion of women to government and the enduring political culture continues to deter many capable women. On the other, localism and community decision-making are increasingly becoming the norm, creating an unmissable opportunity for the devolved institutions to re-establish themselves as trailblazers for a genuinely representative democracy.
The Counting Women IN campaign will be working closely with parties across the UK to ensure what little progress has been made will not be lost. You can help by signing the petition to hold David Cameron to account over his promise that 1/3 of his Minister would be women by 2015.
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