EDF Gendering Brexit Blog series: Brexit, Gender Equality and Scotland – Opportunity or Threat?

‘It is noteworthy that whenever further devolution of power has been mooted in Scotland, equality has been high on the agenda.’

This observation by Professor Nicole Busby from the University of Strathclyde is from her guest blog on Brexit and gender equality in Scotland, as part of the EDF Gendering Brexit Blog series.

As Brexit plays out in the corridors of power in Westminster and Brussels, it may be easy to forget that 62% of the Scottish electorate, and every local authority in Scotland, voted to ‘remain’ in the EU. The fact that the narrow ‘leave’ vote would now force Scotland’s withdrawal from the EU was made all the more contentious because continued EU membership had been a decisive factor for many of those voting against Scottish Independence in the 2014 Referendum which resulted in a narrow 55% vote to stay within the UK.

As well as fuelling claims of Scotland’s democratic deficit, the different political choices north and south of the border – up to and including Brexit – can be interpreted as indicative of a distinctive Scottish psyche, more internationalist in its outlook than the ‘little England’ mentality of its near neighbour. With echoes of the 18th Century Scottish Enlightenment in which Scotland distinguished itself within Europe as an ‘intellectual powerhouse’, the idea of Scotland as a champion for social justice on the world stage, or at the very least (according to Alex Salmond) as ‘a beacon for progressive opinion south of the border’, aligns with Burns’s call for international brotherhood in ‘A Man’s A Man for a’ That’.

But what of Scotland’s women? Do their lived experiences resonate with this particular vision of self-identity or is it as alien to modern Scotland as the heather and tartan Brigadoon stereotype?

Advances in gender equality have been spearheaded by Scotland’s vibrant feminist movement

It is undeniable that the re-convened Scottish Parliament of 1999 was designed with gender equality in mind:  its standing orders were drafted in gender-neutral language and incorporate family friendly working hours.  A mandatory Equal Opportunities Committee (now the Equalities and Human Rights Committee) was established long before the appearance of Westminster’s Women and Equalities Committee in 2015. Furthermore, equal opportunities was adopted as one of the Parliament’s four key principles, the others being the sharing of power, accountability and access, and participation. The expanded committee structure and open style of governance facilitates participation by citizens and civil society in law and policy-making which has recently resulted in ground-breaking legislation aimed at tackling domestic abuse.

Such advances in gender equality have been spearheaded by Scotland’s vibrant feminist movement. However, as the work of Scotland’s most prominent feminist organisations shows, such progress is dwarfed by the continuing inequality endured by women in Scottish society and a pay gap of 32.2% when comparing men’s full-time average hourly earnings with women’s part-time average hourly earnings.

Ambition can only be matched by what is practically possible. In the context of gender equality, the Scotland Act 1998 gave little competence to Scotland’s legislature to enact significant change. It is noteworthy that whenever further devolution of power has been mooted in Scotland, equality has been high on the agenda. This was certainly the case in the aftermath of the Independence Referendum which resulted in further devolved powers.

The Brexit referendum has, once again, put equality under the spotlight with the dominant political rhetoric being for Scotland to distinguish itself in the areas of equality and human rights and forge its position as a global leader. Recent innovations include calls for the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) to be incorporated into Scots Law. However, effecting substantive change in this context is not an easy task under the current devolution settlement by which equality, with limited exceptions, remains a reserved area giving Westminster almost exclusive legislative competence. So the question of Scottish distinctiveness in this area remains untested.

The time may have come for Scotland to be tested on its claims to greater social justice through the delivery of a more gender equal Scottish society

In Sylvia Walby’s typology national gender regimes can be placed on a continuum from neoliberal to social democratic depending on the ‘gendered depth of democracy and the degree of gender inequality’ (Walby 2004; 2015). Most countries contain mixed elements of both regimes with the neoliberal route dependent on the marketization of services and their provision by the private sector, and the social democratic route on the effective mobilization of political forces including civil society to access state power in political systems. Walby (2015) has posited that the UK Government’s austerity policies have halted the ‘slow move towards a social democratic public gender regime and [brought about] its replacement by a sudden turn to a neoliberal public gender regime’ – a trend which looks likely to be exacerbated as the UK withdraws from the EU’s legal order, which is heralded by equality experts for its ‘powerful role in protecting equality rights against erosion and in pushing forward expansion’.

It is interesting to speculate whether, with greater legislative powers, Scotland would reverse this trend. This could amount to more than academic musing. The current impasse between the UK and Scottish Governments over Brexit could be resolved in any number of ways, with two very real possibilities being greater devolved powers for Scotland or a further Independence Referendum. The time may have come for Scotland to be tested on its claims to greater social justice through the delivery of a more gender equal Scottish society.

Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has recently set up an Advisory Group on Human Rights Leadership charged with making recommendations by the end of the year on how Scotland can lead by example in human rights as well as an Advisory Council on Women and Girls which will advise the Scottish Government on the action needed to tackle gender inequality. These initiatives are laudable and they may provide some opportunities to secure the protection and advancement of women’s rights though, for example, improved implementation of international provisions such as the UN’s Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and better use of the Scottish policy framework. However, under the current devolution settlement women’s social and economic rights in Scotland are so closely bound up with UK law that there is little that can be done to distinguish Scotland in this respect.

As in the rest of the UK, Brexit poses a very real threat to gender equality in Scotland.


Walby, S. (2004) ‘The European Union and Gender Equality: Emergent Varieties of Gender Regime’, Social Politics, 11, 1, 4–29.

Walby, S. (2015) Crisis. Cambridge: Polity Press.

A longer version of this paper will be published as Brexit, Gender Equality and Scotland: In and out of the Shadowlands in Dustin, M., Ferreira, N., and Milns, S. (eds.) Feminist and Queer Perspectives on Brexit, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan (forthcoming 2018)

The views expressed in this blog series may not necessarily reflect EDF’s official positions.

Nicole Busby is a Professor of Law at Strathclyde. She teaches and researches in the areas of Labour and Employment Law, Discrimination Law and European Social Law and Policy. Her current research explores the relationship between paid work and unpaid care, claimants’ experiences of the UK’s Employment Tribunal system, the impacts of Brexit on labour and equality rights and civil society’s role in governance.

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Gendering Brexit Blog

We've launched a Gendering Brexit blog series, where we invite experts and campaigners to write on the gendered impact of Brexit from a range of perspectives If you would like to contribute to the series, get in touch and email us at info@equallyours.org.uk