Backwards for gender equality in the new Scottish parliament? Or a new Scottish velvet triangle?

Published: 9 May 2016

On the face of it, the results of the Scottish Parliament elections on May 5th 2016 do not look promising for gender equality. Overall women now form 35% of Holyrood, exaqctly the same as in 2011, still down from the 2003 high of 40% but the shift to minority government offers some hope for progress..

Gender balance

This falls far short of the 50/50 aspirations of the majority of Scottish political parties. It is telling that the wins of the two main parties NOT to support 50/50 are partly to blame for the shortfall: 19% of the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party’s successful candidates were women, and there are no female Liberal Democrat MSPs. Kezia Dugdale spearheaded the parliamentary 50/50 campaign, ensuring her own party fielded over 50% women candidates, but Scottish Labour’s losses mean that although 46% of Labour MSPs are women, this is only 11 MSPs. The Green Party, despite running 50/50 candidates will only be sending 1 woman to Holyrood: this is down to poor strategic placing of women candidates on the regional lists. The failure of the Scottish National Party to win the predicted overall majority means it will also only have 27 women MSPs (43%).

Gender by party

However, in terms of substantive difference to gender equality in Scotland, this might not be as bad news as it looks. The SNP’s failure to win an overall majority, and Nicola Sturgeon’s ruling out of a Coalition government, means that it will have to rely on other parties to pass key legislation. The spirit of the parliament will be closer to that intended by its 1999 architects: one designed to foster a co-operative, consensus-building rather than adversarial approach to policy making.

The Fairer Caring Nations project carried out at the Centre on Constitutional Change was designed to look comparatively at those countries with developed welfare states who had better gender equality outcomes than Scotland. Researchers focused on childcare and longterm care policy to see if there were any key common features about policy development that Scotland could learn from.

We found that the following features were common to most countries with good gender equality:

  1. Key social rights and aspirations to gender equality enshrined in national and/or federal constitutions, or other stated commitment to gender equality.
  2. A ‘velvet triangle’ of policy actors regarding gender equality who worked in partnership to develop and implement key strategies. These included 1.third sector feminist activists and stakeholders 2. Political actors with a gender equality focus and 3. Feminist academics.
  3. A commitment to the development and provision of benefits and services designed to support the delivery of childcare and longterm care.
  4. A tradition of co-operative, non-adversarial legislative development at national, federal and local level (eg coalition governments; incorporation of civil society, business and/or unions in policy development; and key networks of policy actors with good relationships with legislators).

At its inception in 1999, the Scottish Parliament was heralded by feminist commentators and activists as a key opportunity to break the ‘pale, male and stale’ strangehold on politics and offer key opportunities for co-operative feminist policy development. Our research findings indicate that in the first two terms the Parliament took a fairly cautious approach to policy development and did not deviate significantly from Westminster on key gender equal policy areas. However, as it matured as a legislative body, some key positive developments were evident. These including an explicit commitment to gender mainstreaming in the Equalities and Budgetary Advisory Group, and a world-leading approach to violence against women policy. The latter was developed as a result of the ‘velvet triangle’ approach, with significant involvement from key academics and organisations such as Scottish Women’s Aid.

However, our research into the effect of the independence referendum on women’s political involvement indicates that the SNP majority government in 2011 marked a move away from co-operative policy making with this ‘velvet triangle’. Whilst funding to support the third sector continued, and good relationships between networks were developed and supported (for example between the Equalities and Budgetary Advisory Group and the Scottish Women’s Budget Group), the power shifted. Academics and activists no longer felt as though they were key partners in the policy process, but that their role had been downgraded to be more advisory/consultative rather than participatory.

Our work on partnership and participative governance indicates that in order for this approach to work at making non-statutory partners feel ‘heard’ and involved there must be both an acknowledged interdependency between the partners to meet their own goals, and a strong sense of trust between the partners.

So the SNP majority government eroded the partnership and co-operative approach to policy development that had grown up between the different parts of the ‘velvet triangle’. An explanation for this is that a majority government has no need to work in partnership, either with other political parties or civic society, to push through its legislative programme. The interdependence between different parts of the triangle – activists, academics and legislators – is reduced. With that comes an erosion of trust as civic society no longer feel like equitable partners. As one interviewee explained:

We have said over and over that we need to do better on gender budgeting, and it seemed like we were getting somewhere. But with the SNP in majority and focused on the independence referendum, it was clear that this was no longer a priority. We felt like we had put in all that work for nothing.

However, with the 2016 Scottish Parliament returning a minority SNP government, the conditions for a more co-operative approach to policy making appear more favourable. They will need to work effectively with partners, both inside and outside government, to push through legislation rather than relying on their parliamentary majority. Both Scottish Labour and the Greens had more radical commitments to gender equality in their manifestos than the SNP and may be able to push through some of those in return for support for the SNP’s agenda. In particular, key commitments to the development of childcare and equal gender representation on public bodies will need networks of ‘velvet triangle’ actors to be feasible.

So although on paper gender equality looks like it has stalled with only a small rise in the number of women MSPs, the style of policy making does look set to be more inclusive in the 2016 government. This will open up more spaces for activists and academics to be involved in the policy process, strengthening the ‘velvet triangle’ and enabling a more robust approach to gender equality.

And if it does want to push for another independence referendum (and win over some of the 55% who voted no) then the SNP would do well to demonstrate that it can improve gender equality in Scotland. As this would improve economic productivity – it is estimated that women’s underemployment costs the UK treasury around £23 billion pa in lost revenue –it would significantly strengthen the ‘business case’ for Scottish independence if Scotland could demonstrate greater levels of gender equality than the rest of the UK. Our research indicates that grassroots women’s political engagement around the independence referendum – for example through organisations such as Women for Independence – was initially prompted by a shared belief that an independent Scotland would lead to greater gender equality. The continued strength of that movement – with many WFI members standing for election on May 5th, and continuing to be involved in civic society, for example – demonstrates that gender equality continues to be an important issue for Scottish society.

Just over a year ago the Women’s Equality Party opened its first Scottish branch, and stood for election for the first time on May 5th. In Midlothian they secured over 3,000 votes, beating RISE and Soldidarity. Although they did not secure representation in the Scottish Parliament, simply by being in the race they put gender equality on the agenda. Any party hoping to govern Scotland would be well placed to take gender equality seriously. The ‘velvet triangle’ of feminist activists in the third sector, academia and in political parties are unlikely to let gender equality slide off the agenda anytime soon in Scotland.


The results of the Fairer Caring Nations project will be published later in the year by Policy Press. You can order a copy of ‘What Works In Improving Gender Equality’ from Amazon.

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