Women’s Legislative Recruitment: no simple explanation, no single panacea

By Rosie Campbell & Sarah Childs

PR: neither necessary nor sufficient

It is a widely held view that the first-past-the-post electoral system disadvantages women and that electoral reform would improve the representation of women in the UK Parliament. In Westminster elections party candidates are selected constituency by constituency – too often women are selected for the party’s less winnable seats. Only on election-day does it become obvious that the House of Commons is once again over-represented by men. Proportional representation is, however, neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for improving the political representation of women. This is not to say that a more proportional system is not desirable but the surest and most immediate way to guarantee a fairer representation of women in elected bodies is to apply quota rules, irrespective of the electoral system.

Evidence from the UK and around the world clearly demonstrates that operating under a more proportional electoral system is no guarantor of women’s political representation. Whilst at first glance the Scottish Parliament appears to be an example of electoral reform working in women’s favour, when we look more closely at the figures we see that the high numbers of women returned to the Scottish parliament can be largely attributed to the Labour party’s use of twinning in its single member constituencies rather than high numbers of women in the party lists. We don’t wish to argue that electoral reform is of no benefit to women, moments of constitutional change often provide a window where women can disturb the political order and demand space in the new institutional arrangements. But the choice of PR is important. In OSCE countries with a party list system of PR there are on average 4-6% more women in lower house. List systems can make initiatives to improve the representation of women easier to implement, and harder to ignore. Certainly in a closed list system parties can ‘zip’ men and women candidates, alternating them on the party list, and therefore greatly increasing the likelihood of women getting elected and not just selected. Should a party place all of their women candidates at the bottom of the list the distribution of seat winnablity by sex of candidate would be plain for all to see.

Global Trends: the case for quotas

When it comes to the global league table of women’s representation there are some surprising countries in the top ten. In fact if you ask undergraduate students of politics to rank order countries by the percentage of women in the legislature fail they invariably fail to get the right order.

Top 10 Percentage of women in lower or single house in rank order

  1. Rwanda 56.3%
  2. Andorra 50.0%
  3. Cuba 45.2%
  4. Sweden 44.7%
  5. Seychelles 43.8%
  6. Finland 42.5%
  7. South Africa 42.3%
  8. Netherlands 40.7%
  9. Nicaragua 40.2%
  10. Iceland 39.7%


Their expectations – and no doubt others – is that established democracies will do best. In fact this is rarely the case. The UK House of Commons does particularly poorly, with just over 20% women MPs, coming in at an embarrassing 49th place. It is beaten by other European countries, including Spain, Portugal and Belgium even as it is ahead of France and the US. The scale of women’s under-representation in the UK Parliament is often met with surprise; perhaps because women MPs often wearing bright jackets are highly visible against a background of grey suits, and perhaps too because they are used strategically by party leaders – ‘doughnutting’ the Prime Minister on the Parliamentary benches, or on the campaign trail, or at press conferences.

Around the world the single most important factor related to higher levels of women’s representation is the use of quotas. About half of the top 20 OSCE countries registering sharpest growth in women’s representation have used legal quotas; of the bottom twenty none had such constitutional requirements. Sure, there has been overall improvement in women’s representation over time, but there is no simple linear trend, with stagnation in some countries and regions, for example, Scandinavia, and fall back in others, such as those countries that make up the post-soviet space, and in Scotland and Wales.  In other cases there has been substantial and steady growth (Switzerland, Spain, Austria) and in yet others sudden rises (Belgium and the  Netherlands). In all this, there is no clear unambiguous relationship between electoral system and the proportion of women in the lower house.

The way forward for the UK: time for quotas too

A change in the electoral system in the UK might well have pushed Britain up in the international ranking by a few places. But if we want to see sizeable changes then sex quotas are a better – and arguably post the AV referendum, the easier – choice. Recall that in 1997 there was a big jump in the number of women MPs:  the figure doubled overnight from 60 to 120. This had nothing to do with the electoral system per se. Instead, it was the Labour party’s use of a quota system, in the form of all-women-shortlists, that accounts for the rise, and explains too their continuing higher levels of women’s representation. In the 2011 parliament they still have more women MPs than all the other parties added together Quotas are, for sure, by no means a simple panacea, they need to be well designed and robustly implemented or some parties will find ways to circumvent them, but they provide nonetheless the most effective means to improve the political representation of women. As one of the recommendations of the 2008-10 Speaker’s Conference made clear, it is time for Parliament to consider legislative quotas for women.

More of the Same? Women and the Scottish Local Government Elections 2012

By Dr. Meryl Kenny (UNSW) and Dr. Fiona Mackay (Edinburgh)

Thirteen years after devolution heralded a ‘new dawn’ in women’s representation – with Nordic levels of women MSPs elected to the first Scottish Parliament – the story remains very different at local government level. Less than 1 in 4 candidates for next month’s local government elections are women, leaving the face of local politics looking decidedly ‘male, pale, and stale’ [1]. 1 in 7 council wards is contested by men only. Whilst all-women shortlists have attracted controversy both North and South of the border, the continuation of these all-male shortlists and contests largely goes unnoticed. With local government in crisis around perceived problems of legitimacy, representativeness and quality, this raises questions as to the lessons learned, future prospects, and actions needed if there is to any real progress on women’s representation in Scotland. We argue that the time has come for tough action on women’s representation, or nothing is going to change anytime soon.

What are the lessons learned from the Scottish Parliament’s success? First, change doesn’t happen on its own. The high numbers of women elected to the Scottish Parliament were not the result of luck or ‘trickle up’ or natural evolution, but were achieved through sustained campaigning and bold party action. In short, gender quotas work. But the puzzle remains: why haven’t quotas ‘caught on’ elsewhere in the political system? Currently, the Scottish Parliament has 45 women MSPs (34.8%), compared with only 22% of Scottish MPs, 17% Scottish MEPs, and 21.6% of Scottish local councillors. Of particular note are trends at the local level, where the percentage of women councillors has flat-lined over the past four elections, hovering around 22% overall.

Change can happen when there’s a shake up of the system. Reformers had high hopes that the introduction of a PR-STV electoral system in local government in the run-up to the 2007 elections would rejuvenate local politics and provide new opportunities for women to be selected and elected. However, progress did not materialize, instead depressingly, it was more of the same. In fact, there was a marked drop in the number of women candidates selected and a small decrease in the number of women councillors elected.

What are the prospects, then, for the local government elections in 2012? Supporters of STV, such as the Electoral Reform Society (ERS), had hoped that the unrealized progressive promise of STV would materialize in the second elections, once the new system had bedded down. The candidate lists have now been released, and our initial analysis of the raw figures shows that the numbers are virtually unchanged from 2007. None of the parties, with the exception of the Scottish Greens, have implemented effective equality measures. This suggests that the number of women likely to take up seats in local councils across Scotland will either stall or fall in 2012. Ethnic minority candidate breakdowns are not yet available, but the evidence suggests these numbers also will be low.

Some headline figures:

  • Women are 591 of 2497 total candidates (23.6%, compared to 22.5% in 2007 and 27.7% in 2003).
  • Women are 95 out of 362 Conservative candidates (26.2%).
  • Women are 138 out of 497 Labour candidates (27.7%).
  • Women are 69 out of 247 Liberal Democrat candidates (27.9%).
  • Women are 149 out of 614 SNP candidates (24.3%).
  • Women are 35 out of 86 Green candidates (40.7%).
  • Women are 105 out of 691 Independent/Other candidates (15.2%).
  • 56 out of 353 wards (15.9%) have no women candidates standing for election.
  • 9 out of 32 local authority areas (28%) have 20% or fewer female candidates standing.
  • The best local authorities in terms of women candidates are Clackmannanshire (36.7%) and Angus (34%), although the current proportion of women councillors in each authority is substantially lower (22.2% and 27.6% respectively).
  • Inverclyde, currently an all-male council, has only one woman standing (Vaughan Jones, Labour) out of 38 total candidates (2.6%).
  • In Glasgow City, where the SNP hope to sweep the board after Labour’s internal strife, 2 out of 3 SNP slates are male only. This suggests that they aren’t prepared to ‘risk’ women in target wards.

What actions are needed? Well, STV isn’t the answer – at least, not on its own. STV was sold as ‘good for women’ and a step forward from first-past-the-post (FPTP), in terms of opening up voter choice. In 2007, the ERS heralded the introduction of STV as a ‘small step’ that would ‘lead to a giant leap in democracy for local government.’ [2] The ERS has consistently argued that STV opens up more opportunities for small parties and Independents, which may benefit women, and that multi-member wards encourage parties to run gender-balanced and more ethnically diverse tickets.

There is little international evidence to support this optimistic view. While some commentators see STV as largely gender-neutral, others suggest that STV can be disadvantageous, especially when operating with smaller size wards, as is the case in Scotland. Indeed, none of the relatively few countries that use STV can be said to be ‘trailblazers’ on women’s representation. For example, a smaller proportion of women are returned under STV to the Irish Dáil (15%) than under FPTP to the Westminster House of Commons (22%).

We are sceptical that a system that facilitates the rise of Independent candidates provides an opportunity for women, as the ERS suggests. STV advantages individual candidates with access to time, money and political networks, most of whom tend to be men. Our figures bear out our concerns, as around 85% of all Independent and small party local government candidates in 2012 are men. International research also suggests that parties are less likely to run gender-balanced tickets in small-size wards (3-5 seats), than they are in larger wards (5-7+ seats) where they are more likely to pick up multiple seats [3].

Experience to date suggests parties – rather than electoral systems – are the key factors in promoting women’s political representation. The barriers to women’s access to political office are well-documented, and there are a range of measures that parties can take to counteract these obstacles. If Scotland is to make further headway, parties need to demonstrate that they are serious about changing the face of Scottish politics and also take determined action by introducing and implementing effective equality measures at local level. Lessons can be learned from the Scottish Greens, who are running 40.5% female candidates, who are fairly placed in winnable seats. The party has gender balance mechanisms that are triggered if the percentage of female or male candidates drops below 40%, or where the distribution of winnable seats looks unequal. The prospect of central intervention means that local selectors keep these equality criterion to the front of their minds when selecting candidates, according to the Green Party. This mechanism did not need to be triggered in 2012, suggesting that a general culture of gender equality has become institutionalized in the Greens [4].

What could parties do?

  • Field equal numbers of male and female candidates overall.
  • Ensure that nominations for target wards specifically and target local authority areas more generally are equally distributed between male and female candidates.
  • Where parties are standing more than one candidate in a council ward, these should be gender-balanced tickets.
  • If parties distributing literature suggesting how voters should rank candidates (as the SNP is doing in some local authority areas), parties could suggest that voters rank female candidates first on their ballots.

However, the reluctance of the major parties to make equality guarantees and wider trends of slippage in women’s representation over time raises the question as to whether women’s representation is too important to be left up to political parties. Has the time come to consider statutory quotas, by which we mean legislation which requires parties to take positive action on women’s representation, following the example of countries like Spain, Belgium, France, and even the Republic of Ireland, which is currently drawing up electoral quota legislation?

Why does women’s representation matter? It is widely accepted that men and women should play an equal role in political decision-making to ensure legitimacy, representativeness and quality. We need local councils that look like their communities and that also draw upon ‘all talents.’ How can we afford for it to be otherwise? Indeed, recent media coverage has begun to talk about the ‘merit’ of women’s representation, for example, highlighting the paucity of talented Labour men at Holyrood [5].

Whilst the link between women’s political presence and the promotion of women-friendly policies is far from straightforward, nonetheless, there is considerable evidence to suggest that women politicians ‘make a difference’, or, more accurately, that more gender-balanced parliaments and councils do. What is at stake? In times of austerity and welfare state retrenchment, it is crucial that women’s voices and perspectives (in all their diversity) are included in the process. This is especially the case at the local level, where difficult decisions are made and cuts will hit hardest. Evidence suggests it is harder for progressive policies, such as action to tackle domestic violence, to rise up the political agenda in male-dominated local government than, for example, in the more gender-equal Scottish Parliament. Whilst the Scottish Parliament’s innovative domestic violence strategy has been widely lauded, it stands or falls at local level where it is implemented on a daily basis. Worryingly, recent data from Scottish Women’s Aid reports that, in real terms, 61% of refuge groups have experienced a reduction in the level of funding received from their local authority [6] (2009-2010).

The May 3 elections will almost certainly bring ‘more of the same’ to Scottish local government. But, it should serve as a wake-up call to politicians, activists and voters alike that something has to change, and soon.

[1] We borrow this expression from Professor James Mitchell’s (University of Strathclyde) observation of the membership of the SNP.

[2] ERS Website: http://www.electoral-reform.org.uk/local-government-in-england/ (accessed 16 April 2012).

[3] http://archive.scottish.parliament.uk/business/committees/equal/papers-04/eop04-03.pdf

[4] Correspondence with Scottish Green Party Elections and Campaigns Committee.

[5] Kevin McKenna ‘If only Holyrood appreciated women’, The Observer, 8 April 2012: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/apr/08/alex-salmond-holyrood-johann-lamont

[6] Scottish Women’s Aid (2010): http://www.scottishwomensaid.org.uk/assets/files/Funding%20of%20Women’s%20Aid%20services%20report.pdf

Table 1: Male and Female Candidates by Local Authority

# Local Authority Women Candidates Male Candidates Total Candidates Percentage Women
1 Aberdeen City 29 83 112 25.9%
2 Aberdeenshire 39 90 129 30.2%
3 Angus 17 33 50 34.0%
4 Argyll and Bute 17 61 78 21.8%
5 Clackmannanshire 11 19 30 36.7%
6 Dumfries and Galloway 16 66 82 19.5%
7 Dundee City 13 49 62 20.9%
8 East Ayrshire 12 39 51 23.5%
9 East Dunbartonshire 12 33 45 26.7%
10 East Lothian 8 36 44 18.2%
11 East Renfrewshire 8 32 40 20.0%
12 City of Edinburgh 30 98 128 23.4%
13 Falkirk 11 42 53 20.8%
14 Fife 46 116 162 28.4%
15 Glasgow 53 172 225 23.5%
16 Highland 41 129 170 24.1%
17 Inverclyde 1 37 38 2.6%
18 Midlothian 9 32 41 21.9%
19 Moray 14 33 47 29.7%
20 Na h-Eileanan Siar 6 57 63 9.5%
21 North Ayrshire 17 52 69 24.6%
22 North Lanarkshire 22 104 126 17.5%
23 Orkney 8 38 46 17.4%
24 Perth and Kinross 21 57 78 26.9%
25 Renfrewshire 18 62 80 22.5%
26 Scottish Borders 16 56 72 22.2%
27 Shetland 6 37 43 13.9%
28 South Ayrshire 15 29 44 34.1%
29 South Lanarkshire 37 101 138 26.8%
30 Stirling 9 36 45 20%
31 West Dunbartonshire 12 33 45 26.7%
32 West Lothian 17 45 62 27.4%
TOTAL 591 1906 2497 23.6%

Table 2: Male and Female Candidates by Party

Party Female Candidates Male Candidates Total Candidates Percentage Women (Percentage Women 2007)
Labour 138 359 497 27.7% (19.3%)
SNP 149 465 614 24.3% (21.5%)
Liberal Democrats 69 178 247 27.9% (30.9%)
Conservatives 95 267 362 26.2% (24.6%)
Green 35 51 86 40.7% (N/A)*
Independent/Other 105 586 691 15.2% (20.8%)
Total 591 1906 2497 23.6% (22.5%)

*2007 candidate selection figures are taken from the Electoral Reform Society (linked here), which include the Greens in the Independent/Other category.

Table 3: List of Council Wards Contested Only by Male Candidates

# Ward Local Authority
1 Banff and District Aberdeenshire
2 Troup Aberdeenshire
3 Peterhead South and Cruden Aberdeenshire
4 Mid-Formartine Aberdeenshire
5 Arbroath West and Letham Angus
6 Cowal Argyll and Bute
7 Dunoon Argyll and Bute
8 Castle Douglas and Glenkens Dumfries and Galloway
9 Abbey Dumfries and Galloway
10 Nith Dumfries and Galloway
11 Strathmartine Dundee City
12 Kilmarnock East and Hurlford East Ayrshire
13 Bishopbriggs South East Dunbartonshire
14 North Berwick Coastal East Lothian
15 Haddington and Lammermuir East Lothian
16 Giffnock and Thornliebank Ward East Renfrewshire
17 Busby, Clarkston and Eaglesham Ward East Renfrewshire
18 Corstorphine/Murrayfield City of Edinburgh
19 Fountainbridge/Craiglockhart City of Edinburgh
20 Carse, Kinnaird & Tryst Falkirk
21 Lower Braes Falkirk
22 Howe of Fife and Tay Coast Fife
23 Leven, Kennoway and Largo Fife
24 Maryhill/Kelvin Glasgow
25 Thurso Highland
26 Landward Caithness Highland
27 Fort William and Ardnamurchan Highland
28 Inverclyde East Inverclyde
29 Inverclyde East Central Inverclyde
30 Inverclyde North Inverclyde
31 Inverclyde West Inverclyde
32 Inverclyde South West Inverclyde
33 Elgin City South Moray
34 Barraigh, Bhatarsaigh, Eirisgeigh agus Uibhist a Deas Na h-Eileanan Siar
35 Beinn na Foghla agus Uibhist a Tuath Na h-Eileanan Siar
36 Sgire an Rubha Na h-Eileanan Siar
37 Steornabhagh a Tuath Na h-Eileanan Siar
38 North Coast and Cumbraes North Ayrshire
39 Cumbernauld North North Lanarkshire
40 Coatbridge West North Lanarkshire
41 Coatbridge South North Lanarkshire
42 Fortissat North Lanarkshire
43 Thorniewood North Lanarkshire
44 Renfrew North Renfrewshire
45 Erskine and Inchinnan Renfrewshire
46 Jedburgh and District Scottish Borders
47 Hawick and Hermitage Scottish Borders
48 North Isles Shetland
49 Kyle South Ayrshire
50 Girvan and South Carrick South Ayrshire
51 Clydesdale South South Lanarkshire
52 Dunblane and Bridge of Allan Stirling
53 Stirling East Stirling
54 Clydebank Central West Dunbartonshire
55 Livingston South West Lothian
56 Bathgate West Lothian

Originally posted on the blog of the Gender and Politics Research Group, School of Social and Political Science, University of Edinburgh.