Scotland passes gender equality law for public boards

By on 07/03/2018 | Updated on 25/09/2020
Angela Constance, cabinet secretary for communities, social security and equalities (Image courtesy: Scottish Government / CC BY-NC 2.0).

Legislation to require equal representation of women on public sector boards in Scotland has been passed by the Scottish Parliament.

MSPs voted by 88 to 28 in favour of the Gender Representation on Public Boards (Scotland) Bill, which was backed by all parties except the Scottish Conservatives.

The new law sets a statutory objective for women to make up 50% of public sector board members by 2022. It will apply to the Scottish Police Authority, the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service, health boards and enterprise agencies, as well as colleges and universities.

Constance service

The legislation, which aims to “shatter the glass ceiling”, is the first in the UK to set a statutory objective for women’s representation on public sector boards, equalities minister Angela Constance told parliament on 30 January, Holyrood Magazine report.

“Scotland’s public bodies, colleges and universities are responsible for significant expenditure and oversee services spanning all aspects of people’s lives,” 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. 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.”

Tory opposition

But Alison Harris, speaking on behalf of Scottish Conservative colleague Annie Wells, who had lost her voice, said Wells wished to “reiterate her support for achieving equal representation of women in all walks of life” but did not believe “statutory quotas” were the appropriate means with which to achieve it.

“Positive action does not have to mean putting through legislation for legislation’s sake,” she said, as reported by  “We need to promote educational reform and make improvements in childcare and society’s attitude more generally, if we are to make a real difference for girls growing up in Scotland today.”

The Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh (Image courtesy: Andrew Cowan/Scottish Parliament)

Appointment reforms

The legislation was promoted by campaign group Women 50:50, which is backed by the ruling Scottish National Party as well as Scottish Labour and the Scottish Greens. The group is also pushing for similar bills requiring parties to select women for at least 50% of their candidates in elections to the Scottish parliament and local councils.

As well as the 50% “gender representation objective”, the new Act introduces “positive action duties” relating to appointments. Officials charged with appointing members to public boards have a duty to give preference to female candidates – but only in certain circumstances.

If there are two or more candidates who are equally well-qualified, and one of them is a woman, preference must be given to the woman. However, this requirement may be overruled if it can be shown that another candidate has a particular characteristic or situation that justifies the decision.

The appointing authority must also take steps to encourage women to apply for non-executive positions, through measures such as advertising and providing mentoring and social networking opportunities. Where the 50% objective has not been met, further steps must be taken to try to achieve it by 31 December 2022.

About Liz Heron

Liz Heron is a journalist based in London. She worked on daily newspapers for more than 16 years as an education correspondent, section editor and general news reporter. She was Education Editor of the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong and has contributed to a wide range of British media including The Independent, The Guardian and the BBC.

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