The past three decades have been a period of exceptional change for women . The face of the professions and much of middle management in Scotland is increasingly female.  The gender profile of politics has changed significantly.  But the face of poverty is also most likely to be a woman’s face while the top jobs are still predominantly male.  These changes have been accompanied by demographic developments with significant implications for Scottish society.

It is a tempting story to present the positive developments in women’s role as the product of feminist activism.  That activism has played a part but we need to look to the structural changes in the economy for the primary causal factors.  Economic change presented new opportunities in the labour market.  Women grasped them and employers used them.  But these opportunities also presented a new set of dilemmas for men and women that are unlikely to be resolved positively without substantial intervention in the labour market.  The challenge for Scotland is to continue the progress in women’s educational and occupational achievements while creating the conditions for population renewal and also tackling the two extremes of under-representation in the top jobs and over-representation in some of the most poorly paid.  The big question is whether these objectives can all be combined.

Two years before the publication of the first ‘Red Paper’, Daniel Bell, the American sociologist, had published ‘The Coming of  Post-Industrial Society’ (1).  There are many respects in which you can fault the analysis but the core theme is very much with us today; for advanced industrial societies employment in manufacturing, agriculture and the extractive industries would continue to decline sharply and employment in the service sector would rise substantially.  This trend had already taken off in the United States and he predicted that it would accelerate in other technologically developed societies.  The reasons for this were varied.  Improvement in technology in manufacture could produce much more with less labour.  As people achieved higher living standards, they would prefer to spend more on education, health, on recreation and the hospitality industries, on culture, on personal services.  Greater prosperity would increase the demand for financial services and retail outlets.  And more complex societies would increase the demand for more planners, researchers and administrators in both the private and public sectors.  Although it can be argued that much of the reduction in manufacturing employment has simply been the result of a changing global division of labour and that Bell was much too optimistic about the proportion of new service sector employment that would be high-skilled, the decline in manufacturing and the growth in the service sector is still one of the most important factors in recent Scottish economic experience.  Service sector employment by 2001 was over 70% of the Scottish total and manufacturing was only around 16% (2).

Even if employment patterns had remained as they were, it is likely that women would still have increased their participation in the labour market.  Educational developments and improved fertility control would have influenced this.  But the exceptional pace of change would have been unlikely had these structural changes not occurred.  Of course women could do the manufacturing jobs that were male preserves.  They had proved this in two world wars.  But there was and still is enormous cultural baggage in certain types of work.   With the rapid growth of service sector employment, it was women who had many of the skill and cultural advantages.  Women had acquired an exclusive niche in secretarial and much routine administrative, retail and hospitality industry employment.  They were also well-established in the lower to middle ranks of the health, education and social welfare services.  In the increased demand for aesthetic labour and emotional labour (3), women were more culturally suited.  They had other great attractions for employers since average female earnings were lower and many wanted or were prepared to work part-time, thus opening up the opportunities for flexible labour strategies.

But the expansion of the female role in the workplace has now gone well beyond those traditional enclaves of secretary, shop assistant, nurse and primary teacher. Continued concerns about lower average earnings and gendered divisions of labour should not lead to an underestimation of the great strides that have been made in a short period.  We now have a situation where the majority of higher education students in Scotland are female (4).  The majority of medical, law, veterinary, business studies students are women as well as in the traditional areas of humanities, social sciences and education.  Women are now well represented in many science areas like pharmacy and even in subjects like engineering where there is least participation, it is still around 20%.  This would have been considered inconceivable several decades ago.  The figure for women solicitors in the U.K. in 1946 was 1% (5).   We can be confident that women are well on the way to occupying much of the lower to middle ranges of the professions and of business and administrative employment.  What is not yet clear is whether the small proportion of women in senior jobs will continue unless special initiatives are introduced or whether in the next two decades, the present generation of young, well-educated women will have formed a critical mass and will have worked their way through the system to emerge in similar ratio to men in the top jobs.  Over 20% of senior managers in Scotland are female, higher than in England.  This is still low but moving upwards. (6)   Over 40% of the younger medical consultants are now women.  80% of primary school heads. (7)  Things are moving but how far and how fast?  There are grounds for expecting that while there will be an increase in women at the top in many areas of employment, it may require more than letting things take their course to produce close to gender balance in the most senior positions.  But the senior positions are small in number; getting a high level of female employment in society’s middle-ranking jobs may be socially more important.

The fact that women’s job prospects were improving in numbers and range has to be a factor in explaining the significantly lower levels of expectations and aspirations of young males.    At the same time as many girls saw old barriers weakening and new opportunities developing, the male view was very different.  The past thirty years has seen opportunities for men contracting, with a depressing impact on young male aspirations.  Much of traditional male employment in manufacturing and trades disappeared and with this the apprenticeship route into skilled jobs and front-line management.  Of the new jobs on offer, many were in what were regarded as ‘feminine’ types of work.  Those from more middle-class backgrounds who had expectations of professional and managerial work now had to contend with female competition that had not been there in the past.  So what emerged was a marked gender difference.  In a study in four Scottish towns, 65% of teenage girls said they expected to go on to college or university but only 46% of boys (8).  What matters for confidence and morale is not just how things are but what is the perception of the direction of change.  For girls who saw their mothers and grandmothers either not in paid employment or nurses not doctors, semi-skilled not skilled, secretaries to professionals not professionals, things were changing for the better.  For boys who saw their fathers and grandfathers in long-term, ‘respected’ male employment, the prospect for many was unemployment or employment in ‘women’s work’.  Things had changed for the worse and low expectations and pessimism about the future were understandable in that context.

These are the more positive aspects of labour market developments for women.  There are more negative aspects.    Three decades after equal pay legislation, average earnings are still 19% less for women and this is for women in full-time work (9).  This inequality is marginally increasing rather than declining as it did in the early years of the legislation.  One of the main reasons for this is that women are affected by the general increase in inequality in the U.K.   Women are, as we have seen, in much lower proportions in senior jobs and these are the jobs in which earnings have risen much faster than in lower-paid work.  Also much employment is still gendered and historically many jobs that have a mainly female workforce have been lower-paid.  The introduction of Compulsory Competitive Tendering in the public sector also hit earnings and conditions for women.

Before examining the wider social implications of these changes and of other economic factors, there is one recent development in women’s position in Scottish society that represents a significant historical change – the almost 40% female membership of the Scottish Parliament.  Unlike the employment changes, this was more clearly an example of a partially successful feminist campaign but on closer examination, these gains can also be best understood in the context of wider structural change.  The campaign originated from two directions  -  an initiative by women in the Green Party together with a number of other individual women on the feminist left who launched The Women’s Claim of Right Group in 1989 (10) and the other was the Women’s Committee of the Scottish Trade Union Congress who started the 50/50 campaign (11).  Both groups recognised that the prospect of a new legislature with no majority male incumbency offered a unique opportunity to produce gender balance in representation in the Parliament.  There was a long and, at times, tortuous route up to the first elections in 1999.  There were some differences in preferred strategy among the women seeking positive action but relations were amicable and there was co-operation in the Women’s Co-ordination Group.  There was strong opposition by some men and some women (particularly among the Liberal Democrats) and little media support, especially in the earlier period.  The aim of a constitutional requirement for gender balance was not ultimately achieved but winning internal gender-balanced selection procedures in the Labour Party and focusing awareness of gender issues in the SNP, produced a successful outcome.

The campaign illustrated an important point; that a determined, visionary objective, pursued with co-operation could be successful despite being regarded initially by most people as an unrealistic ‘non-starter’.  But it needs also to be noted that the trade unions played a crucial role in achieving this – union votes and lobbying in the Labour Party were of central importance.  The unions in turn were influenced by wider structural factors.  There were men in the trade unions who were genuinely enthusiastic about 50/50 and there were men who were unsympathetic but there were also those appreciated its strategic importance for the union movement.  The labour force had changed and there was now close to gender balance in that labour force (although 45% of women were part-time).  Union membership was declining and they needed to be women-friendly, particularly to encourage women activists and through them, more women members.  So the period in which the battle for women’s representation in the Parliament was being fought was also a period in which women in the trade union context wielded more influence than at any time in the past.

A major question, of course, has to be whether the higher proportion of women in the Parliament has made a difference.  There are two aspects to this.  The first is the wider cultural issue – has the higher visibility of women in the political arena contributed to a shift in assumptions about women in public life.  In effect, is it now taken for granted as normal?  This cannot readily be ‘proved’ but what we can see is that even if the public increasingly accept women in positions of political power as normal, this will not automatically translate into more women in elected positions where vested interests and power struggles are involved.  This is a point that may also be significant in the context of business and the professions.  Women maintained (and marginally improved) their numbers as Scottish Parliament members in the 2003 elections from the advantaged position of being the sitting members and from an increase in the smaller parties.  But in the local elections that took place at the same time, the 22% of women elected as councillors was slightly lower than 1999.  Sitting members had the advantage and there was competition for safe seats.  There are no grounds to expect that the gender balance in local government will change much without intervention.  The Scottish Parliament experience suggests that if it was substantially changed once, the change might be self-perpetuating.  It may also be that if change in the gender pattern of senior positions in other organisations can be introduced, it may develop a critical mass that sustains the change.

It would certainly be difficult now for anyone to argue (as some did in the initial months of the Parliament) that the competence of women on average at ministerial, committee convenor and backbench level is worse than that of men.  There may be some women with modest talents but no more than men and there are a considerable number of able women, some of them more competent than men who have been in ministerial positions. Currently 35% of ministers are female and over 40% of Parliamentary committee conveners.  Ironically the Scottish cabinet has not achieved the gender balance of its Welsh equivalent despite the fact that the proportion of women in the Welsh Assembly would probably have been much lower had it not been for the prior adoption of the constituency ‘twinning’ system by Labour in Scotland and the pressure on Wales to do the same which was only accepted very narrowly.

 Has the greater gender balance made a difference?  It may be that the same legislative and policy programme would have happened  irrespective of the make-up of the Parliament but the Parliament/Executive has been responsive to a range of issues perceived to be important to women – domestic violence, child welfare, pre-school education.  Also any measures improving conditions for the elderly  - free bus travel, home heating initiatives, free personal care – have some gender bias in that there are more elderly women than men.  The Equalities Committee is one of the standing committees of the Parliament and there is an Executive Equalities Unit.  It could reasonably be claimed that the high proportion of women  MSPs  has heightened consciousness and sensitivity on a range of issues.

While the subjects that are devolved are of central importance in the context of women’s continuing role as principal carers, many key powers are reserved.  The Equal Opportunities Committee itself is a Westminster responsibility as will be the new Equalities Commission that will replace it.  The whole area of work is controlled by UK/EU legislation although there is power in Scotland to influence working conditions in much of the public sector and other publicly- funded employment.  We will return to the opportunities this offers.  The crucial policy areas of social security, pensions and taxation are also reserved powers.  Given greater female vulnerability to poverty, the fact that these powers are reserved inhibits what can be done in Scotland.

While the earnings potential for many women has increased, the income as we have seen even for those in full-time work is still on average almost twenty percent lower than for men.  In addition around 45% of women in the labour force are part-time and most women have to take some career break.  All of this is important not just for current income but for pensions.  The lone parent, overwhelmingly female, is especially prone to poverty because of difficulties in sustaining full-time work and having only a single income source.  More women are among the retired and are less likely to have any occupational pension.  The gendered pattern of much employment means that even in the early stages of working life, young women are earning less than young men. The two facets of women’s contemporary economic status co-exist: a substantial increase in economic opportunity and on average lower economic rewards than those of men in employment.  Prosperity and greater financial independence than ever before for many women is in contrast to greater relative poverty for many others. This represents a substantial social class divide between women but also there is a shared vulnerability to economic disadvantage for women across social class because of caring responsibilities and continued gendered biases in earnings and promotion.

These economic changes in women’s position in Scotland since the 1970s have been accompanied by social changes that we can reasonably assume to be correlated with the changes in work and education.  Two of the most important changes have been in childbirth and marriage patterns.  These aspects of our lives may appear to be the most personal and emotional, yet in many respects they can best be understood in the context of economic change among women.  Declining birth rates are certainly not unique to Scotland.  On the contrary, they are the norm in most highly -developed economies and where this is not the case or is less marked (as in the U.S.) it is often the birth-rates of recent immigrants that have sustained birth levels.  Scotland has experienced a sharper fall than England and the differing relative proportions of some ethnic groups in the two countries is a factor in this.  The outcome for Scotland is a fertility rate below replacement level (12) and not the static population  which would be a responsible ecological target in a country with a low average population density.

This is socially significant not just at the macro level but also at the micro social level.  Why has this trend developed of later child-bearing, smaller families and more childlessness?  It is a reasonable assumption that many of these choices will be driven by women rather than men.  They have developed in a period in which the socioeconomic position of women has changed.  The expansion of women’s role in the labour market has given women greater choice on what they do with their lives.  The big increase in female participation in higher education has created a range of opportunities denied to women in the past.  On present trends women will be in the majority in the professions and much middle management.  But the opportunities come with a cost.  By the time women complete a degree and professional training, and gain some work experience, they will be in their late twenties.  Today they will normally have accumulated considerable debts to be repaid.  Career and financial pressures make the postponement of motherhood more likely.  However lower fertility in older women and shorter remaining childbearing years are likely to reduce the size of families.  Only around half of those who have not had a child by the age of 30 but who still intend to start a family, manage to do so within 6 years and as women get older, they intend to have fewer children (13).

These are not the only pressures, nor are they confined to women who have gone through higher education.  There have been other changes that have increased the economic pressures on young men and women.  The sharp shift from rented to mortgaged housing tenure in Scotland has pushed young people into taking on high financial commitments that require two salaries to service.  Consumerist pressures have made an expensive level of household acquisitions and recreational expenditure appear necessary to sustain social status.  Financial institutions have trapped many into a credit spiral.  Childcare costs for return to work are very high.  There are also those low-paid workers for whom very basic living standards are difficult to maintain without two full-time incomes.  Ironically, as our standards of living have increased, children have seemed to be less ‘affordable’.  There are some for whom the choice not to have children or to have only one child is a positive choice.  But for others, having no children or having one rather than two or three is not a positive choice but arises from employment and economic pressures.

There are other aspects of change that have accompanied women’s greater role in the formal economy.  The economic changes experienced by women have altered the domestic balance of power in many households.  Most women now have some personal income, they have a role outside the home, they make a necessary contribution to household finances as well as to the quality of life. Most divorces are initiated by women.  There is no longer the degree of economic dependency that kept people in unhappy relationships in the past.  Being single is an option.  The greater economic independence has been related to greater social independence.  It is socially acceptable for women to co-habit or have sexual relations, to have children without marriage, to control their fertility, even to go to pubs on their own.  But there are greater social pressures in certain respects.  Commercial pressures have projected standards of physical appearance and domestic attainment that are difficult or impossible for most women to achieve.  Lifestyle changes have brought previously male health problems of smoking and alcohol abuse.  Higher divorce rates have brought problems as well as solutions.  If there are children, lone parents are among the poorest groups in society.  Also as people without children or with small families get older, the personal support structures that have traditionally helped sustain people become weaker or non-existent.

So change for women has brought significant personal gains and some losses.  It has also brought social gains from the release of the talent and energy of half the population into the work-force.  But this has been accompanied by potential social problems, notably those related to low birth rates.  This is not entirely negative; it brings environmental gains in the form of low congestion, low pollution, low resource use.  However, aiming for a stable population rather than decline or increase would have most advantages. Can there be social strategies that facilitate population renewal?  Obviously migration can achieve this if those from poorer countries are allowed to come.  Apart from the fact that non-EU immigration is not in the control of the Scottish Parliament, there must be some concerns about selective immigration from developing countries, creaming off the most skilled. If we are to make gains from non-EU migration, it should be a cross-section not just the highly educated and it should include an appropriate share of refugees.  This can be part of the solution but it should not be the whole solution.  There are personal and social reasons for encouraging modest increases in births in Scotland.

Over the past 25 years the French radical, Andre Gorz, has promoted a new socialist model – a society that embraces modern technology to achieve a very short working week for all and active state support to encourage people to engage in work of personal choice outwith the commercial market like caring responsibilities, creative recreation, self-provisioning (14).  While his full model requires a radical socialist departure from  capitalism, he also identifies steps towards this objective more readily accommodated within current European economies (15).  The American writer, Jeremy Rifkin, has also promoted the 30 hour week (16).  And ,of course, the French Government introduced the 35 hour week and recent attempts to modify this are being met with very strong resistance (17).   A new working time pattern would also address the ageing population issue – a much shorter working week and a later retirement age would create a more desirable work-life balance.  This will not happen on a voluntary basis; we have seen the way in which the UK’s opt-out of any legal enforcement of the European Time Directive enables employers to do what they want.  Ideally this should be enforced across the board to encourage an even playing field but a start in the public sector and in contracts that are publicly-financed would be within the power of the Scottish Executive.  Trade unions and political parties in Scotland and the UK have been negligent in promoting the reduction of working hours and they should be making a programme of phased reductions a priority.  If you combine this with extensive local provision of cultural and sporting recreational centres, craft workshops, etc., you begin the process of stepping back from the commercial commodification of all aspects of our lives.  It would leave men and women with more time for children, for voluntary work, for recreation while enabling men and women also to develop their skills in formal work.  This is the kind of visionary, quality of life agenda that the left should be pursuing and it offers women the best chance of playing the central role in the workplace that they clearly have shown the ability and desire to fulfil while enabling them together with their partners to have children, if they wish, without the high-stress time poverty that discourages many from parenthood.


1. D.Bell     The Coming of Post-Industrial Society   1973   Heinemann

2.  Scottish Household Survey

3.  A.Sturdy et al   2001    Customer Service:Empowerment and Entrapment   Palgrave

4. Higher Education Statistics Agency   2000/2001

5.  J.Elliot   1997   What Do Women Want?   Sociology Review  6/4

6.  The Herald   2/3/04  p.5

7.  H.Kay   2000    Women and Men in the Professions in Scotland    Scottish Executive

8.  A.Furlong and F.Cartmel  1994   Aspirations and Opportunity Structure

9.  Income Data Services    January  2003

10.  A Woman’s Claim of Right in Scotland    1991    Polygon

11.  E.Breitenbach and F.Mackay   2001   Women and Contemporary Scottish Politics  

12.  General Register Office for Scotland

13.  Population Trends   Autumn 2004    Office for National Statistics

14.  A.Gorz  1982   Farewell to the Working Class    Pluto

15.  A.Gorz  1999   Reclaiming Work    Polity

16.  J.Rifkin   1995    The End Of Work   Penguin

17.  H. McCubbin   A Policy of Time     Scottish Left Review  Nov. 2001