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20/08/14 09:40

Call for powers on female boards

Letter calls for “positive action to make meaningful change”.

The Scottish Government has today called for further powers to deliver at least 40 per cent female representation on public boards.

In a letter to the Department of Culture Media and Sports, Scotland’s Cabinet Secretary for Equalities Shona Robison calls for the transfer of competence for Equalities legislation so that Scotland can “take definitive positive action that will lead to meaningful change in boardrooms”.

The Government has proposed action in an independent Scotland, backed by legislation if necessary, to achieve 40 per cent female representation on boards.

And the Government recently consulted on how, if Scotland had the powers to introduce gender quotas, these would be implemented in practice.

Ms Robison’s letter to the UK Minister for Women and Equalities aims to accelerate the transfer of those powers.

Speaking ahead of a Parliamentary debate on women’s opportunities Cabinet Secretary for Training, Youth and Women’s Employment Angela Constance said:

“The Scottish Government is determined that women in Scotland should have every opportunity to contribute fully to the success of our businesses, our public and third sector organisations and to our economy.

“We want to see women better represented at the highest levels of public authorities. That stronger female voice will help challenge persistent inequality.

“We have already said that in an independent Scotland we would take action, backed by legislation if necessary, to ensure at least 40 per cent of places on boards were occupied by women.

“We know there is support for this activity across the political spectrum here in Scotland, and we want to harness that support and expertise around the appointments process to ensure our outcome of gender diverse boards made up of the highest calibre of men and women, is realised.

“With full powers such legislation to address blatant inequalities would be at our hands.

“Where we can take action more quickly we will. That is why we have again written to the UK Government. We do not wish any further delay to our progress towards gender equality and with cooperation on this matter, we can make the earliest progress through a section 30 Order which would transfer the necessary legislative competence to the Scottish Parliament.”

Notes to editors

The text of the letter is as follows:

I am writing to continue the dialogue between our Governments regarding the request for an Order under section 30(2) of the Scotland Act 1998 to transfer competence in the equality field.

In response to my earlier correspondence on this matter, your predecessor Jo Swinson MP, asked for further information and I am now in a position to provide a broad outline of our proposals.

We would wish to pursue the section 30(2) Order route, so we can make the earliest progress towards achieving gender equality in public life. This would enable us to make progress prior to independence in 2016.

Firstly I am clear that the work we are undertaking to address gender imbalance and the lack of diversity on boards is an essential part of strengthening the governance of Scotland’s public institutions. It matters to us that our public authorities are properly reflective of the communities they serve and are exemplars of good practice. In that regard it is our intention that there will be a continued focus on the appointment of the highest standard of candidates.

It is apparent that a number of factors impact on the gender balance of boards including unconscious bias and indirect discrimination. We acknowledge that efforts have been made over a number of years to address these issues. However, despite these efforts the statistics show that inequality stubbornly persists on some of our boards and in the majority of chair appointments today.

We recognise that progress has been made with the average level of female representation on Scotland’s boards currently standing at 38%. However, this figure masks the fact that women’s representation is considerably less in some sectors and in relation to the number of women appointed as the chairs of boards.

The present composition of the majority of our boards does not reflect the proportion of women in Scotland’s population nor the fact that women comprise the majority of graduates. It does not reflect the considerable contribution which women make to the economy and to society but it does demonstrate that our public institutions are not engaging all the talent, skills and abilities available to them. Given this, we feel it is time to take definitive positive action that will lead to meaningful change in our institutions and to finally redressing the imbalance through the introduction of legislative steps to ensure gender diversity on our public boards.

As a step towards this, the Scottish Government consulted between April and July this year on how new competence over equality matters might be utilised to provide additional levers for change in the area of equality and diversity. This was in the context of significant support for movement on this issue across the political parties in Scotland.

We were encouraged by the interest in the consultation with 70 responses received. These showed support for the proposals put forward in the consultation, including having the opportunity to achieve a target on a voluntary basis first; focussing on gender initially; setting the quota at 40% and imposing sanctions for non-compliance.

Following the consultation we are looking to frame any proposed Scottish legislation in gender-neutral terms, that is to say placing a requirement that a public board comprises at least 40% of each sex by a stated time period. The legislation would be designed to target under representation, ensure objectivity and any sanctions would be applied proportionately and effectively. This would be in a similar vein to that pursued by EU Member States that have shaped their legislation to ensure that it would be compatible with EU equality law.

We realise that positive action measures will only give us the outcome we want if they are implemented alongside action to improve the appointment process, support women entering the pipeline and are developed in partnership with stakeholders who understand what is needed in practice. That is why we intend to establish a Short-Term Working Group to shape the implementation plan for the introduction of the legislation.

These steps are important for the future of our public bodies in Scotland and they build on the momentum that is gaining ground across Europe; the European Commission’s proposed EU Directive on improving the gender balance among non-executive directors of companies listed on stock exchanges being an example of this direction of travel.

I trust that our Governments can come to a mutual and common sense decision that the Scottish Parliament should be able to legislate on these matters.