The Women to Watch

After a campaign flattened by the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, the Scottish Parliament elections served up a Holyrood that feels refreshed if not radically changed. With 45% women, the first permanent wheelchair-using MSP, the first two female MSPs of colour, and 19 newbies, the swearing-in ceremony featured a breadth of languages that promised a tilt towards a legislative body more representative of the people of Scotland.

Now that former Green, Alison Johnston, has been installed as Scotland’s second female presiding officer, post-election attention is shifting to the formation of the Cabinet. With new ministers due to be elected on Thursday, speculation is rife about which names will be attached to plum decision-making roles.

Nicola Sturgeon famously announced Scotland’s first gender-balanced cabinet in 2014. As she has publicly described, she received plenty of letters afterward asking if she was sure the five women she had selected were up to the job, but no inquiries about the wisdom of choosing five men. Having women in cabinet changes the conversation and brings different perspectives into the room. It isn’t a guarantee of feminist leadership and decision-making, but it’s more than symbolically meaningful to have women steering the business of government.

It’s very likely, as has been the case since 2014, that we will see another cabinet with a membership that balances men and women. Amid speculation that we will see the number round the table at Bute House shrink from 12, we must pay attention to the budgets and decision-making areas that the future female cabinet secretaries will control. 

Scotland doesn’t have fixed portfolios for its cabinet, and so it’s up to the First Minister to shape the roles of cabinet secretaries and ministers, and give an indication of priorities and challenges for the years ahead. There are upsides and downsides to having dedicated cabinet posts focused on women’s equality and rights. A Cabinet Secretary for Women provides leadership and focus, and clearly sends a message about the importance of women’s equality. But it also squashes the impetus for other cab secs to pay attention to women’s needs in their work, providing an easy excuse, and somewhere to lay blame. In the last parliament, Shirley-Anne Somerville led on equality and human rights within the Cabinet, and Christina McKelvie had a ministerial role that included chivvying other ministers to take action for women.

The SNP manifesto included plenty of big commitments on closing gaps between women and men, including in women’s health, violence against women and justice, incorporating the UN’s Bill of Women’s Rights, expanding childcare to include wraparound care, creating a national care service and increasing the pay of care workers, and tackling the motherhood penalty.

As the First Minister thinks about who can lead on delivery of all this work, she will be considering how best to use the talents of women with cabinet experience (Kate Forbes, Fiona Hyslop, Shirley-Anne Somerville, Angela Constance), women who have worked on gender justice issues as ministers (including Christina McKelvie, Maree Todd, Jenny Gilruth, Annabelle Ewing, Ash Denham), and backbenchers who have convened committees (including Ruth Maguire, Gillian Martin, Clare Adamson, Christine Grahame). It is not unheard of for women who have significant experience outwith the Parliament to move straight into a ministerial role, like former social security and health secretary, Jeane Freeman. Among others in the new intake, former councillor Elena Whitham and ex-schoolteacher Kaukab Stewart may be ones to watch. 

At the hustings Engender and other women’s organisations hosted, Nicola Sturgeon promised that this would be a transformational parliament for women’s equality and rights.  A cabinet that prioritises equality – whether through structure, gender balance, or appointing feminists – can be a first step towards that.

Correction: The text of this blog was submitted before Annabelle Ewing was elected as Deputy Presiding Officer. Her name has been removed from the list of prospective ministers as it is not possible to double up those roles.


Emma Ritch is Executive Director of Engender, which is Scotland’s feminist policy advocacy organisation working to advance women’s equality and rights.


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