On June 15, MSPs gathered to debate the Scottish Parliament Gender Sensitive Audit. They were considering the findings of the recent audit looking at barriers to women’s representation and participation in Holyrood, and the subsequent report by the audit’s cross-party board, A Parliament for All, which published its recommendations for change in March 2023. The resulting discussion was hailed as an example of what “consensual” and respectful politics could look like and held up as an example of “Parliament at its best”. This reflected the aspirations of what a gender sensitive parliament (GSP) could – and should – be in terms of engagement in the Chamber and beyond.

Rightly, there was celebration of the progress of women in the Parliament as it approaches its 25th anniversary in 2024, with representation currently at its highest, 45%, compared to 37% back in 1999, as well as positive shifts in terms of diversity of membership. But the debate also focused on the gendered and intersectional inequalities and barriers that still persist. As the audit highlights, there have been fluctuations over time in women’s participation and representation, showing this equality is not always guaranteed. Members reflected on data that showed that men are more likely to have their interventions accepted (both by other men and by women), focusing on the often intimidating and sexist comments and behaviour from male MSPs in the Chamber and Committees. Other discussion questioned whether the Parliament was “family friendly” – or indeed “life friendly”; the need for further progress on gender parity in committees; and sexist behaviour, ranging from day-to-day microaggressions to outright harassment and abuse. Members documented not just general examples but drew on their own experiences, outlining the impact of these behaviours on women’s health, wellbeing and confidence.

There has already been extensive research on gender-sensitive parliaments: indeed, the concept of a GSP is not a new one. For more than two decades, efforts in this vein have been supported and led by international and regional organisations, including the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU), the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, the European Institute for Gender Equality, and UN Women. According to the IPU, a GSP is a political institution that responds to the ‘needs and interests’ of both women and men in terms of its ‘structures, operations, methods and work’ and has removed the ‘barriers to women’s full participation’ and offers ‘a positive example or model to society at large’.

The gender sensitive audit of the Scottish Parliament was initiated a year ago by the Presiding Officer (PO), the Rt Hon Alison Johnstone MSP, to follow other gender sensitising audits in countries such as Turkey, Uganda, Bangladesh, Argentina and the United Kingdom. The Board, chaired by the PO, comprised of representatives from the political parties, parliamentary officials and external experts. Eilidh Dickson, then of Engender, wrote for the John Smith Centre to outline the responsibility and opportunities that could result from undertaking such an audit in the Scottish context.

When I undertook the audit, the research focused on four main themes: women’s representation in Parliament, their participation in Parliament and Parliamentary business, the overall culture and the policies of the Parliament; and how gender is, and could be, mainstreamed into scrutiny and other Parliamentary work. This involved the analysis of various data including standing orders, reports and procedural guidance, documents, and collated information from the Scottish Parliament Information Centre (SPICe). This was coupled with 13 semi-structured interviews with current and former members exploring their experiences, attitudes and opinions of the Scottish Parliament, as well as informal discussions with other Parliamentary staff.

The data and analysis of this report acted as the basis from which the Board made its proposals for change, presented in the final report. This outlined 34 wide-reaching recommendations that target the aforementioned themes of participation, representation, parliamentary culture, and gender equality mainstreaming. Writing in their blog for the Centre on Constitutional Change, Board-members Professor Sarah Childs, Dr Meryl Kenny and Professor Fiona Mackay, of the University of Edinburgh, press that reform efforts need to work across all of the inter-dependent dimensions explored in the audit. And indeed, members acknowledged in the debate the ongoing and continued work that is required in this session, the next one, and beyond.

In the debate, MSPs also alluded to inequalities of wider scope, including in pipeline professions, such as local council; male dominance and sexism in the media; and the disproportionate and often sexualised forms of abuse women Members experience on social media. This points to not just the ongoing work of the Parliament within its own institutional realm, but also how it engages with parties, organisation and the wider public to promote gender equality and inclusivity for the next 25 years and beyond.

Fiona McKay is Lecturer of Journalism, Media and Communication at the University of Strathclyde.