Equality between women and men is one of the EU’s founding values. Seeking to eliminate inequalities, and promoting equality between men and women in all its activities is at the very core of its objectives.
Across the EU today, five countries have mandatory quotas on female board membership (Belgium, France, Germany, Italy and Norway) and 10 have either an optional quota or a comply-or-explain best practice recommendation concerning board gender diversity (Gender Diversity on European Boards Realizing Europe’s Potential: Progress and Challenges). Denmark, Greece, Austria, Slovenia and Finland have gender diversity requirements in legislation for what might be seen as equivalent to public boards in Scotland, namely boards of state-owned companies.
At the time of the last census, in 2011, the Scottish population was recorded to be 51.5% women. In spite of this, women continue to be underrepresented in public, private, and political decision-making bodies across the country.
Although we have seen some progress being made through voluntary schemes and other initiatives, there remains a disparity – public boards in Scotland do not represent our society.
The Scottish Government has recently introduced the Gender Representation on Public Boards (Scotland) Bill, which is currently being considered by the Scottish Parliament.
The Bill sets a target for all public boards to have 50% of non-executive members who are women. Where this balance has not been achieved, an appointment process is set out, which effectively introduces a ‘tie-break’ mechanism giving preference to a female candidate where there is more than one equally best qualified applicants, at least one of whom is a woman.
In addition, there are provisions intended to encourage women to apply for non-executive board positions, and to ensure that affected boards are taking steps to achieve the target and reporting on their progress.
There is an encouraging evidence base for taking a legislative approach to change and as such we welcome this Bill and its intention to improve board diversity in Scotland. However, the Bill does lack clarity in some areas and there is a notable absence of any form of sanction for non-compliance. We believe that the voluntary nature of the quotas is the key weakness of the underpinning policy of this Bill and we are consistent in our view that voluntary targets are unlikely to be an effective method of achieving gender balance on public boards in Scotland.
50% of Scottish solicitors are female, representing a body of highly skilled and qualified women many of whom may be suited to board membership.
Other than at the upper most level of experience, women currently outnumber men at every stage of the profession. We recognise that there are still inequalities in our profession, and we continue to take a proactive approach to addressing issues including progression and the pay gap, including publishing practical guides on equality and diversity for the profession.
We offer a broad range of support for our members which includes events run specifically for women, focusing on career planning for progression and achieving career milestones (including board membership), and getting board room ready.
We will continue to show our commitment to the issues around equality and diversity by contributing to the debate, influencing policy and law, investing in education and supporting and encouraging our members to rise to the opportunities made available by increasingly equal representation in our profession, on boards and in decision making bodies across Scottish society.