Equality study reveals lack of diversity among Scottish councillors

Published: 08 Mar 2019

Our study into the experiences of Scottish local elections candidates has revealed a clear lack of diversity among councillors.

The study, which is the first of its kind, examined the barriers to participation in standing for election to local government in Scotland.

Released on International Women’s Day (Friday 8 March), the research found that women were underrepresented. Only 29% of all councillors are women, compared to 51% of Scotland’s population.

The evidence showed underrepresentation amongst other protected characteristics, such as race and age.

A significant proportion of research participants had experienced unwanted behaviour that they had found to be humiliating, offensive or intimidating.

In our survey for candidates, 48% of women said they had experienced this behaviour, compared to 12% of male candidates.

Lesley Sawers, our Scotland Commissioner, said:

‘While we have seen some progress in diversity among elected politicians, with representation among women, disabled people, ethnic minorities and young people, diversity is still poor compared to the general population. 

'It’s really worrying that almost half of all women surveyed say they have experienced harassment and a smaller number of ethnic minority candidates have experienced racial harassment.

‘The diversity of elected local politicians is clearly important, with key decisions undertaken at local government level.

'Local politicians also form a crucial part of the pool of potential candidates for selection at other levels of government, including Holyrood and Westminster.

'Without improving diversity among elected officials at the local level, it may be more difficult to make progress across elected politics.’

The study found that data is not always routinely collected by political parties about levels of representation in membership, approved lists of candidates, candidates for selection, and candidates for election.

This makes it impossible to know whether other protected characteristic groups, such as disability, are underrepresented. 

This lack of data is a barrier to ensuring parties understand and take action to tackle their diversity problems.

We are calling on the UK government to bring into force section 106 of the Equality Act 2010, which requires political parties to collect and publish information relating to the protected characteristics of candidates for ethe UK Parliamentary, European, National Assembly for Wales and Scottish Parliament elections.

The study found that while some political parties are taking action to improve the diversity of their elected candidates, including quotas, all-women shortlists and reserved places, others have little policy or procedures in relation to diversity.

Most activity is around promoting the representation of women, with less focus on other groups, such as disabled people or ethnic minorities

There were other issues around diversity identified our study. These include:

Informal processes are not always inclusive

Some of those interviewed believed that formal party selection rules did not promote diversity and that informal parts of the process (such as attending meetings, building networks and support) closed off selection to those outside of internal party cliques, and longer-standing party members.

Personal finances

A major barrier was personal finances, with lack of financial resources making it more difficult for many people to stand for election, particularly those with additional costs, like childcare, and some disabled people.

It's more difficult for people with caring responsibilities 

Time was a crucial barrier for many, again with implications for those with children and other caring responsibilities.

Ensuring party activity and events are held in accessible ways and at convenient times is crucial to diversify those standing for elected office.

Racism is still reported 

Racism was reported by a number of participants, backed up by other studies in Scotland and recent examples of racism that have reached national media attention.

Pressure within ethnic minorities

Barriers from within ethnic minorities were also reported. Some people feel pressure to vote as a block or hold similar views to others, with concerns about negative consequences for those who do not.

Hidden protected characteristics 

Those with hidden protected characteristics, for example mental ill-health, sexual orientation and gender identity, faced specific barriers.

The reactions of party members and voters were sometimes less positive than the reaction to more visible characteristics.

Research participants felt that parties needed to do more in response to reports of discrimination, harassment or inappropriate behaviour.

Lack of awareness and process  

The research also suggested that some parties are failing to recognise that they may have a diversity problem at all. 

Even if they do recognise it, they don't necessarily know the details, such as which protected characteristic groups are concerned. 

Participants reported confusion as to lines of responsibility and points of accountability when it came to equality and diversity.

The full report is available on our website.

Press contact details

For more press information contact the Commission's media office on:

0161 829 8102