Politics and public life

Evidence from around the world shows that increased representation for women in politics and public life has a positive impact on both gender equality issues and social policy more broadly.

Gender balance in parliament, local government and around decision-making tables influences both the focus and outcomes of discussions. Representative political and public bodies also challenge normative gender roles, stereotypes and perceptions around public authority.

Where women are seen to succeed, more women engage and participate in public life. However, gender parity across Scotland’s political institutions and public bodies is far from becoming a reality, and there is an extreme lack of diversity amongst women in positions of public leadership and influence.


By 2030 political parties always field equal numbers of women and men as candidates for all elections in Scotland.

Scottish Government, Scottish Parliament and political parties should:

Legislate for equality

Parliaments and local authorities provide critical oversight of the processes that challenge gender inequality and discrimination, such as the development of laws, institutions, policies and programmes. The inclusion of a range of women’s perspectives within this is vital. Yet in the 2016 Holyrood elections, only 35 percent of members elected to the Scottish Parliament were women, every one of whom is white and non-disabled. This represents regression for Scotland, from a high of 4th place in the global rankings in 2003, to 27th place at present. At local authority level, the 2017 local council elections in Scotland returned 71 percent men.

Parliamentary quotas are increasingly employed worldwide to redress women’s historical exclusion from politics with a high degree of success. They are designed to help overcome the swathe of economic, cultural and political realities that prevent women from taking part in politics on an equal basis to men. Not least amongst these are attitudes within political parties, where male- dominated cultures prevail and informal systems of privilege sustain men’s over-representation across all levels of politics. Women are not underqualified for the demands of political office, but political parties serve as gatekeepers to elected representation. Legislated candidate quotas legally require political parties to field proportional numbers of women and men as candidates for election to parliament or local government. To be effective in practice, these must be matched by mechanisms to ensure that women not only stand as candidates, but have a strong or guaranteed chance of being elected.

At present, the power to introduce gender quotas is reserved to Westminster under electoral and equalities law. Both of these legislative domains could be devolved to Scotland, allowing the Scottish Government to take steps to further equality, as it has been able to do with regards to gender quotas for public boards. Once devolved, candidate gender quotas should be set at 50 percent for all elections and coupled with robust sanctions for non-compliance. Over time, the Scottish Parliament should explore the use of legislated gender quotas within parliamentary committees and other structures. All political parties should consider the use of gender-balancing mechanisms for key internal roles including special advisers and conveners of branches and committees.


By 2030 diverse groups of women are equally represented in all positions on public boards and gender competence is embedded in recruitment for public appointments.

Scottish Government and public bodies should:

Ensure equality on boards

Remove barriers

The same logic and imperatives around women’s political representation apply across the spectrum of public life. Women’s experiences and contributions are vital to the equitable delivery of our public services. Governance bodies set policy and deliver services across a host of areas that affect women’s daily experiences and are crucial for gender equality including social care, education, training, transport, enterprise, police, legal aid and pensions. Representative boards improve organisational performance, challenge perceptions around public authority and are symbolically important for women and men within their respective fields.

However, women have unequal access to power, decision-making and participation across all domains of public life in Scotland, where men dominate in positions of influence. In 2014, men accounted for 64 percent of ministerially-appointed public board members and 79 percent of board chairs, and 74 percent of public bodies are presently headed by men. Meanwhile, 64 percent of workers across the Scottish public sector are women, indicating significant vertical occupational segregation in public sector professions that are staffed predominantly by women but managed by men. For instance, men are 81 percent of NHS board chairs, but 71 percent of the total NHS workforce is comprised of women. All of this highlights the need for targeted action to tackle barriers to women’s leadership in public life, in line with broader strategies to address gendered occupational segregation and the gender pay gap.


By 2030 participation in politics and elected representation in Scotland reflects the diversity of the population.

Scottish Government, Scottish Parliament and political parties should:

Support equality in parties

Gather diversity data

It is extremely important that the full diversity of women in Scotland be represented in public office. Strategies to enable women from minority ethnic, minority faith and refugee communities, women from different class backgrounds, younger and older women, disabled women and lesbian, bisexual and trans women to take up positions in politics and public life would bring significant benefits to society and to their respective communities.

At present, there are no minority ethnic, disabled or trans women represented in the Scottish Parliament, which does not even collect and publish data on under-represented groups. Experience in local government often serves as a springboard for selection as a national candidate. However, women are comprehensively under-represented across local government and in party activity at the grassroots in Scotland, where ‘macho’ political cultures and gendered barriers to participation prevail. These include a lack of enabling structures, such as flexible working options in local government workplaces, childcare options at party offices and branch meetings to enable women’s participation in campaigning activities, structured support for women’s and equalities officers and informal support for potential women candidates.

This discrimination is heightened for women facing multiple inequalities, for whom such core issues as accessibility at branch meetings and racist practices and behaviours are still commonplace. Systemic barriers to diverse participation within respective parties must be identified and eroded, or else the scope for gender balance to deliver a diversity of perspectives will be limited. Without a strong intersectional approach, which directly involves different groups of women, it is likely that quotas will mainly lead to opportunities for women who already exercise a degree of power and privilege.

Scottish Government should develop an intersectional strategy to address barriers to political participation, including tools that support parallel efforts by political parties.

Further reading

See also

Share this page on …


Gender Matters Roadmap - towards women's equality in ScotlandGender Matters Roadmap - towards women's equality in Scotland

Key terms


Devolution refers to the transfer of powers and competencies to a lower level of government, for example transferring powers from Westminster to Holyrood. Powers which lie at Westminster are referred to as ‘reserved’.


Flexible working refers to a way of working that suits an employee's needs, e.g. having flexible start and finish times, or working from home.


Gender-balancing mechanisms refer to techniques such as quotas or all- women shortlists which attempt to redress one group’s over- representation in an institution.


Gender competence refers to the ability to identify where gender differences have an impact, and act in ways that produce more equitable outcomes for men and women.


Gender parity refers to the equal contribution of women and men to public and private life.


Intersectionality refers to overlapping or intersecting social identities and related systems of oppression, domination, or discrimination. For a policy or programme to be intersectional, it must recognise that different women experience inequality in different ways and in varying degrees of intensity.


Normative gender roles refer to the roles, behaviours and attitudes which society expects of women/girls and men/boys. Also sometimes referred to as ‘gender norms’.


Public bodies are organisations which deliver public services and operate at arms-length from government.


Quotas refer to a fixed percentage of people from a certain group (for example 50 percent women) and can be applied in a variety of ways.


Vertical occupation segregation refers to the clustering of men at the top of occupational hierarchies, for example managers, and of women at the bottom, for example admin workers.

More information


Contact us Loading