Members of the Scottish Parliament have voted to pass legislation aimed at balancing gender representation on public sector boards. The Gender Representation on Public Boards (Scotland) bill passed the final consideration stage by vote on Tuesday 30 January, and sets an objective for at least 50% of non-executive members on all boards to be women by 2022.
Current figures show women make up just over half of Scotland’s total population, but have only 45% of seats on public boards. This legislation will make Scotland the only part of the UK to have a statutory target for equality of gender representation on public boards.
The Bill passed Stage 3 with 88 votes in favour and 28 against. The Scottish Conservatives voted against the bill, arguing that “quotas are not the way forward”, but lost to Labour, Liberal Democrat, Scottish Nationalist and Green MSPs who voted in favour. The new law will apply to the boards of colleges and universities, as well as public bodies including the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service, the Scottish Police Authority, health boards and enterprise agencies.
The new law will require that any minister, choosing between two or more equally qualified candidates for a public board position, must give preference to female candidates in a “tie-breaker” situation. Ministers and public bodies must also take action to encourage women to apply for non-executive public board positions. Public authorities will have to publish reports on their progress toward achieving the gender balance stipulated by the new legislation.
Communities, Social Security and Equalities Secretary Angela Constance MSP, who introduced the bill in June of last year, called its passage into law “an important step” toward gender equality in Scotland. Commenting on the need for equality legislation, she said: “It’s really important we continue to encourage women to apply for these positions – and we are seeing good progress. Over the last decade the numbers of women on public boards has risen from 35% to 45%, and last year saw more women than men appointed. But this progress doesn’t just happen by accident”.
The passage of the Bill was welcomed by Scottish Gender campaigners, including the group Women 50:50, who backed the legislation. Chairwoman Talat Yaqoob said that it is “only right that women should make up a fair share of the decision makers” on public boards, especially due to the disproportionately high number of women who make use of public services.
Emma Ritch, executive director of the Scottish feminist organisation Engender, stressed that it remained “crucial that our public boards in Scotland include women from different socioeconomic backgrounds, black and minority ethnic women, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender women.”