An Independent Scotland Can Deliver Equal Representation for Women

Since 1928, men and women in the UK have had an equal entitlement to vote, and since 1975, unfair treatment of women has been outlawed by the Sex Discrimination Act. Despite this, women are under-represented at the top levels in most professions, and continue to be paid less for doing the same work as men. This is almost certainly related to the massive under-representation of women in political life. In the new Scotland, we can fix this with a constitution enshrining a new voting system (Dual List Single Transferable Voting), which guarantees equal representation for women without the need for positive discrimination.

In the majority of human cultures, since time immemorial, women have been accorded a secondary place to men. This has been supported by no more substantial a notion than the brutal application of “might is right”. Throughout the 19th Century in the UK, there were commonly held misconceptions that it was legal for a man to beat his wife if he used a stick “no wider than his thumb”, or that a man could legally sell his wife at market on market day, if she was brought there with her neck in a halter.

We have come a long way since then, with women achieving increasing equality in all walks of life, obtaining equal votes in 1928, and legal protection from discrimination in 1975. Yet issues remain. Women dominate in lower-paid professions such as personal care, cleaning and secretarial work, and are paid less on average for doing the same work as men. With the exception of a handful of traditionally female professions, such as nursing, midwifery and primary education, women remain under-represented at the highest levels in all walks of the public and private sectors. Nowhere is this discrepancy more revealing or troubling, than in the under-representation of women in politics.

Women represent only 22.6% of UK MPs, 34.9% of MSPs and 24.3% of Scottish councillors. This problem is not unique to Scotland, although internationally there is great variation in its extent. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the egalitarian Nordic countries have done consistently best, with an overall female representation of 42%. At the other end of the spectrum there are sadly still two countries, Saudi Arabia and the Vatican State, where women still do not even have the right to vote.

There can be no doubt that the reason for the imbalance is a legacy of simple unfairness and cultural expectations, based on millennia of tradition where some men have assumed the right to beat people who disagree with them into submission, and women have come off worse in such exchanges. Anyone doubting that need only look at the incontrovertible body of educational and psychological studies which show the equal intellectual capacity of men and women. There do exist subtle average sex differences, for example in spatial visualisation, empathic ability and multitasking, but even in these cases it is not clear to what extent the differences are innate or a product of cultural conditioning. What is irrefutable, is that given equal educational opportunity, girls and women do at least as well as boys and men. In fact, there is striking evidence from the OECD that females actually outperform males educationally across a range of disciplines, up to first degree level.

That political dominance by men is also not culturally inevitable is shown by the small number of cultures who buck the trend on women’s involvement in decision making. The Uros Islanders of Lake Titicaca in Peru, for example, have a set of cultural stereotypes that women are better at talking, taking an interest in the motivations of others, and resolving conflicts without resorting to violence. As a result they select over 90% of their councillors from the female population.

So, if under-representation of women is irrational, and male cultural dominance is not inevitable, what is being done to address the problem?

The UN has made some progress internationally, through its Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), which was formed in 1982. This has documented a number of approaches which have had some success. 35 countries have succeeded in reaching a target of a “critical mass” of 30% women representatives in their national assemblies. Of those, 29 have achieved this by using systems of candidate quotas or reserved seats. The most dramatic example is in Rwanda, where a quota guaranteeing 30% women in the Chamber of Deputies, resulted in 64% of the body being women, overtaking Sweden as the country with highest representation, and becoming the first national elected assembly to be comprised of a majority of women.

In the UK, the quota approach has been deployed since 1997 by the Labour Party with some success, in their initiative of having 50% of winnable seats with all-women shortlists. This has contributed to an improvement in women’s representation in the House of Commons from 9.2% in 1992 to 22.6% in 2010.

Labour’s quota policy has not been without its critics though. In 1996, two male prospective parliamentary candidates successfully took the party to an employment tribunal under the Sex Discrimination Act 1975, for being barred entry to a profession on grounds of their sex. The women already selected stood, but the policy could not be repeated in 2001, leading to a drop in women MPs from 18.2% to 17.9%. The Labour government responded with the Sex Discrimination (Election Candidates) Act 2002, which exempted candidate selection from the Act. This is currently in place until 2030. Other issues raised against shortlist quotas and reserved seats are that talented male candidates may be unfairly overlooked in individual localities, the choice available to voters is restricted, and if less able or experienced women candidates are pushed forward, the systems are open to accusations of tokenism.

If these solutions have brought progress, but are less than ideal, how can the debate be taken beyond quotas and reserved seats?

The state of Montana in the US is currently considering holding a referendum on a constitutional amendment to guarantee equal representation of men and women in its legislature. In typical US-constitution-speak, this amendment sets out the desired outcome of, rather than the mechanism for achieving, equality. Nevertheless, it is the first example I am aware of, of a political entity considering ensuring not just equal votes, but equal representation as a right for women within its constitution. Scotland should embrace this idea in her new constitution, and take the debate a stage further.

The problem with all of the solutions for male bias proposed to date is that they rely on some form of positive discrimination, or fail to prescribe a fair mechanism by which men and women can be elected in equal numbers without accusations of tokenism, unfairness against individual male candidates, or restriction of the choice of voters. This occurs because women candidates are competing directly against men, and any rebalancing of numbers inevitably occurs at the expense of ambitious and experienced male candidates.

I believe the solution to this problem is to create a voting system with separate lists of male and female candidates, with 50% of seats reserved for each gender. Voters would then cast separate votes for male and female candidates, and be represented by their preferred men AND women. To achieve this, I would propose a new electoral system of Dual List Single Transferable Voting (DLSTV). I would propose that this system be used at all levels of elected government in Scotland.

Single Transferable Voting (STV) will be familiar to Scottish voters as the system by which we elect our local councils. It involves electoral districts which return multiple members. Voting takes place by ranking of the candidates in order of preference. STV has long been the preferred system of electoral reformers, having been promoted by the UK Electoral Reform Society since 1884. In 1917, a proposal to implement STV was defeated by only a single vote in the House of Commons. It is also the preferred system of parties who campaign for fairer votes. This is the reason the Liberal Democrats insisted it was implemented for council elections in Scotland, as a condition of coalition with the Labour Party after the 2003 Scottish general election.

There are various mechanisms by which votes can be counted under STV. The principle behind them all is to try and make each elector’s vote count once. If your vote is not needed to elect your first choice candidate, or “wasted” on a candidate with no chance of success, it is transferred to your second, then third (&c.) choice candidate. The idea is to minimise wasted votes, give a balanced refection of voter’s preferences, and ensure proportional representation, while allowing voters to choose candidates directly, rather than being a hostage to party lists.

There is already some evidence that simple STV can help in promoting equal representation, if electoral districts are large enough. In 2010, an Irish parliamentary committee found that “a larger district magnitude is shown to have positive effects in relation to the representation of women and minorities”. Simple STV would also give parties the power to promote more female candidates with less risk of accusation of positive discrimination, for example by having equal numbers of candidates from each sex in every district.

DLSTV would benefit from all the in-built advantages of STV, but would have the added advantage of building equal gender representation in as a right and requirement, without using positive discrimination to achieve it. It would do this simply by having separate lists for men and women candidates, and each voter ranking both lists separately. Each district would then return equal numbers of male and female members. Women would simply be afforded expression of their equal right to a seat at the table alongside men, rather than instead of them.

I can foresee two potential major criticisms of my proposal.

Firstly, the system could be criticised on the grounds that it eliminates direct competition between men and women for votes. It rests on the assumption that the sexes are equal, but different, and that our politics should reflect this by selecting the best of both to represent us. I understand that not everyone will agree with this interpretation, but I think it can only be argued against in principle, if you believe either that the sexes are not equally capable, or are exactly the same, neither of which I believe to be true.

Secondly, it could be argued that the introduction of DLSTV would cause an large influx of inexperienced representatives into politics at the same time. Since women are equally capable, and lacking only in experience, this is not a valid argument, as one cannot gain experience without having access to experience. Lack of opportunity to gain experience could also be used as an argument to support equalising representation. This concern was raised when Labour’s all-women shortlist policy was announced, and proved to be unfounded.

If separate candidate lists for men and women are a bridge too far for some, a significant advance could still be achieved by adopting STV with a requirement on parties to field equal numbers of male and female candidates, both within electoral districts, and balanced across the country. Or perhaps DLSTV could be used until the idea of equal gender representation is so normalised that it is no longer needed, at which point we could revert to simple STV.

Equal voting rights and quota systems have advanced the cause of women’s representation, but have fallen short of providing a permanent solution. Scottish Independence offers a unique opportunity in this regard. The transfer of additional powers to the Scottish Parliament in areas of macroeconomic policy, defence, welfare, foreign affairs, constitutional law, &c., mean that the size of the Scottish Parliament is going to need to increase significantly as it expands to take over powers from Westminster. This affords a unique opportunity to bring a new generation of talented Scottish women into our politics without necessarily reducing the numbers of incumbent male MSPs.

The complete equalisation of political representation in Scotland would mean we would become the first nation state in history to guarantee this right to its women. This would be an advance of which the whole country could be rightfully proud. I hope that this, and many other proposals for an Independent Scotland, will help to convince voters of the historic opportunity that a YES vote in September represents to the women of our country.

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