Having only two women leading regional college boards in Scotland, out of 12, is a matter of concern not just for women in further education but for anyone who considers that those in positions of power in the public sector should reflect the population they serve.
Occupying these positions means wielding significant power and influence. The responsibility for distributing money to colleges in an area, and for taking strategic decisions, rests with the regional boards. It is dispiriting that such a disproportionate number of board conveners should be male.
This is particularly vexing given the high number of women in the college sector as a whole. It employs many women and performs well in terms of gender balance in top jobs within colleges. Out of 28 colleges in Scotland, 16 have women principals. That compares to just four out of 19 Scottish universities that have women as principals.
Loading article content
This disparity, between the widespread promotion of women to senior posts within colleges on the one hand and the lack of female representation heading the powerful regional college boards on the other, suggests that the problem lies with the system for public appointments.
That comes as no surprise. The failure to achieve diversity in appointments to public bodies in Scotland is well documented.
It may be 2014, but the average person serving on a public board in Scotland is white, able-bodied and male. In 2008, the then Commissioner for Public Appointments reported that this lack of diversity reflected a paucity of applications to posts on public bodies from women, people with disabilities and ethnic minorities. Action was taken to encourage Scots from a wider range of backgrounds to apply but, after an initial encouraging boost in applications from under-represented groups, progress has gone into reverse.
The Scottish Government admitted last week that, while applications from women, the disabled and ethnic minorities went up between 2008/9 and 2010/11, these have slipped back substantially since, and that ministers have missed their improvement targets.
Defending the small number of women heading regional college boards, the Scottish Government points out that only 25% of applications came from women.
That is, indeed, a problem but ministers must inquire into why so few applied and whether enough was done to encourage women to consider putting themselves forward. It cannot be in the best interests of college students and staff that the 10 men and two women appointed to these important senior posts so inaccurately reflect the staff and student body.
Under-representation of women at the most senior levels is replicated across Scottish society, in both the public and private sectors. At some point, diversity in public appointments should become self-sustaining as evidence suggests that, the more women there are in the top jobs, the more will be recruited. Until that happens, a more sustained campaign to bring them on board is much needed.