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Holyrood passes public boards gender equality law

31 January 2018

The bill to achieve equal female representation on public boards in Scotland has completed its Holyrood passage.

MSPs approved the Gender Representation on Public Boards (Scotland) Bill by 88 votes to 28 after its stage 3 debate in the Scottish Parliament. The Conservatives opposed the measure.

The first of its kind in the UK, the bill sets an objective for public boards that 50% of non-executive members are women by the end of 2022. It also requires action to encourage women to apply to become non-executive members of public boards.

Opening the debate, Equalities Secretary Angela Constance insisted that appointments to public bodies would continue to be made on merit, but added: "It is when boards do not reflect the diversity of Scotland’s communities that we should be concerned about merit." She continued: "Let me also make it clear to those who have wrongly portrayed the bill as seeking to impose quotas – which it does not – that it sets out a 50% gender representation objective and requires steps to be taken to meet that objective."

Under amendments to the bill, the Scottish Government has to produce statutory guidance to support its implementation and must report to Parliament on the operation of the Act every two years as a minimum. It has also been clarified that "the bill is not intended in any way to inhibit action to tackle the underrepresentation of other groups of people on public boards", as Ms Constance put it. She expressed confidence "that the positive impact of the legislation will be felt not only by women but by other groups who are underrepresented, including disabled people, minority ethnic people and younger people. We want our boards to reflect the myriad of people’s backgrounds and experiences".

For the Conservatives, Annie Wells accepted that the bill was well intentioned but "cannot be persuaded that it will address the deep-seated societal, economic and cultural barriers that prevent women from applying for such positions in the first place", and remained "unconvinced that there can ever be true clarity over the tiebreaker scenario" – in which it will be legitimate to give a woman preference over a man. She was also unclear about the effectiveness of a bill that set legislative targets that required mandatory reporting yet did not impose sanctions or penalties for non-compliance.

The Cabinet Secretary commented after the vote: "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. It has been achieved through the shared ambition and action of all of those involved and this bill will ensure that progress doesn’t slip back.

"The passing of this bill is an important step as we continue to make progress on our journey towards gender equality and creating a fairer country, with the aim of shattering the glass ceiling once and for all. I believe this bill can be a catalyst for the equal representation of women in all areas of our society."

Click here to view the official report of the debate. 

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