Scottish Parliament election reaction

A record-breaking election, but what next?

Published: 14 May 2021

In anticipation of a longer blog, Emilia Belknap and Meryl Kenny reflect on what the Scottish Parliament 2021 Election delivered for women's representation, in a quick reaction post.

What did the 2021 Scottish Parliament election deliver for women’s representation? Here are three quick takeaways from our research on gender, intersectionality and candidate selection:

1. Celebrating representative ‘firsts’

45% of the new parliament are women, a record-breaking number (though still short of gender parity). Amongst these headline figures, Kaukab Stewart (SNP, Glasgow Kelvin) and Pam Gosal (Conservative, West of Scotland) became the first women of colour elected to Holyrood. Stewart is also the first Muslim woman MSP. Meanwhile, Labour’s Pam Duncan-Glancy (Glasgow) becomes the first permanent wheelchair user elected to Holyrood; while the parliament’s youngest MSP Emma Roddick (SNP, Highlands and Islands) has borderline personality disorder and PTSD. These ‘firsts’ should be welcomed, and will bring a wealth of diverse experience to the sixth Scottish Parliament.

2. Quotas work, but they still have not fully caught on.

One of the biggest takeaways from these numbers is that strong equality measures like gender quotas work. These record numbers have not been achieved by accident – they highlight the impact of quotas measures (particularly the use of all-women shortlists by the SNP in key constituency seats where sitting MSPs were retiring). While most of the main parties used equality measures this time around, and the SNP, Greens and Labour achieved close to gender parity or better in their parliamentary representation – the Scottish Conservatives remain an outlier, lagging well behind the other main parties on the adoption of equality measures and women’s representation, with only 26% women MSPs elected and only one woman candidate topping a regional list.

3. Now is not the time for complacency

The history of the Scottish Parliament has shown that gains in representation cannot be taken for granted, and that progress has often been uneven. Now is the time to institutionalise commitments to gender equal representation. Scottish parties need to routinely and publicly publish diversity data on candidates (in the absence of UK Government action on Section 106 of the Equality Act). The Scottish Government should follow the evidence and consider introducing legal gender quotas – which would apply to all parties, and which would require equalities law to be devolved to Holyrood.

Now comes the hard work. In the aftermath of an election that was largely framed in terms of independence and the union, now is the time for wider debates and discussions over what recovery from the pandemic might look like, for women of colour, for unpaid carers, for lone parents, for disabled women; and to ensure a modern and inclusive parliamentary culture (including, for example, considering retaining virtual parliamentary proceedings and remote voting). In all of these discussions, it is vitally important that women’s diverse voices are at the decision-making table.


Dr Meryl Kenny is Senior Lecturer in Gender and Politics at the University of Edinburgh's School of Social and Political Science, and Co-Director at genderED

Emilia Belknap is a PhD candidate in Politics at the University of Edinburgh's School of Social and Political Science

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