WEDNESDAY is International Women’s Day, a day for celebration, but also, reflection on the fact that, statistically speaking, progress for women, here in Scotland, is moving slowly. In terms of gender balance, we are only inching toward equality in the workplace. We may have a female First Minister, and women leaders of all the main parties, but the gender gap still yawns across our culture and society. Women are still missing from key positions of power – with only 27% of such key roles occupied by women. We have even regressed, from a high of female political representation in Holyrood in 2003. None of the CEOs of Scotland’s “top businesses”, nor any of our newspaper editors, are women. Women account for only 7% of our senior police officers and 16% of our council leaders. Given all this, the question that arises, is how do we speed this up? Are 50-50 quotas the answer? And do they bring any negative side effects?

That quotas can speed up women’s representation is clear. The UK sits, on the most recent gender gap rankings at 20th, behind not only Iceland, Germany and Ireland, but also Rwanda, Namibia and Philippines. One of the areas in which we rank badly is in terms of political representation. On this, a great many other countries in the world beat us – among them, Bolivia and Rwanda, which both have over 50% women in their parliaments. What distinguishes many of these more gender-balanced countries is that they have some kind of legislated quota system.

In Scotland, currently there is no legislation around quotas. Though we are seeing shifts – for instance the Scottish government last month published its draft bill for gender representation on public boards – and a vibrant campaign for change in Women 50/50, at the moment political parties, corporate boards and public sector institutions are all free to create their own gender balance strategies. Many don’t. In politics, for instance, while Labour has long trail-blazed quotas, and the SNP introduced all-women shortlists for the most recent Holyrood elections, the Scottish Conservatives reject such strategies. Dr Meryl Kenny, lecturer in gender and politics at the University of Edinburgh, observes that just leaving it to individual political parties to create their own gender balance strategies is not working. “If only some parties are using quotas and others aren’t, particularly the Conservatives, then we’re never going to get significant gains in women’s representation. The gains are going to be slow and incremental at best and we’re going to see setbacks at worst, as we have seen over time.” All the evidence suggests, she says, that “if you want significant increases in women’s representation quotas are the answer - without drastic action we’re not going to get to 50/50 any time soon.”

Kenny believes that there is, currently, “a degree of complacency” driven by the fact that “if you have prominent women at the top, as we do in Scotland, there’s less attention to the numbers underneath, which are still, across many of the parties, very poor”.

While few dispute the idea that an increase in women’s representation in power and public life is desirable, many argue against quotas as a method for achieving this. The Scottish Conservatives have always remained staunchly opposed. The party's equalities spokesperson Annie Wells says: “We don’t believe gender quotas are the correct course of action. Businesses don’t want them, and actually women looking to get ahead in the workplace don’t want them either. It completely undermines and compromises the commitment and passion they have for their job and career.”

She argues that the route to a better gender balance in the Scottish Parliament can be more suitably made by “encouraging women of all ages, regardless of their family life and background, to get involved”. “There are strong examples in every party of women who’ve become MSPs and risen through their party without the help of discriminative gender quotas. These are the examples we should be looking towards.”

One of the big arguments against quotas revolves around the issue of merit. It’s often said that positive discrimination will result in lower quality candidates getting the job. “Why,” asks Meryl Kenny, “is it we only ask about women’s merit and we don’t ask about men’s merit? It’s always the assumption that women have to prove that they belong in politics and that we don’t need to ask those questions about male politicians.”

Kenny recently worked on a research project looking at MEPs which found, she says, that in EU countries with legal quotas "women were actually more qualified than women from countries without those quotas. Quota measures tended to increase the overall level of experience of both men and women elected to the parliament.” Her research echoes the conclusions of a great many of the studies into countries where mandatory quotas have been introduced. In Sweden, for instance, where, when they put in gender quotas on party lists, instead of getting rid of competent men, parties replaced mediocre men with highly qualified women, and the calibre went up overall.

The idea that quotas may be appropriate in both politics and public boards, is something that is increasingly gaining traction in Scotland. The Scottish government’s draft bill on gender representation on public boards, while not proposing mandatory quotas, flirts with such legislation, offering the 50% figure is an “objective". In principle, the legislation revolves around positive action, rather than positive discrimination, which would, arguably, be unlawful in this country.

However, the proposal that causes the most heat and controversy is the, sometimes mooted, idea of quotas for boards of private companies. The general mood within the world of business, after all, is resistant to quotas. David Watt, of the Institute of Directors Scotland, says his organisation is “against quotas”. “We’re extremely supportive of diversity, both in terms of gender and age and disability and ethnic minority, but the problem is that if you start applying quotas to each and every one of the groups, it would end up being much more like a jigsaw puzzle than a board.”

Watt points out that the problem, in business, is not just lack of women on boards. It’s lack of women at the top of the Scottish corporate world. “I think the key challenge,” he says, “we’ve got in Scotland, is the lack of women in the executive level, and just below that. If you look at FTSE 100 boards, they’re packed with CEOs and senior financial directors from other companies, who understand the marketplace. There just aren’t enough women in these CEO posts to go onto the boards. For some reason the executive pipeline of women isn’t strong enough.”

Watt’s views reflect a large section of the corporate world, which has become convinced of the merits of diversity - since research has shown that its good for the bottom line and for business - but not of quotas. In general what they prefer is voluntary targets. For instance, Hugh Aitken, CBI Scotland Director, states: “The CBI supports a voluntary, business-led approach… All businesses should aspire to equal representation of men and women at every level of their business and set their own voluntary targets for progress towards doing so.”

Among those who argue strongly against quotas, is Professor Len Shackleton of free-market think-tank the Institute of Economic Affairs, who says: “Forcing changes in board membership on companies creates a diversion of effort from core business, risks damaging performance and is likely to benefit nobody but the newly-appointed individuals, most of whom will inevitably in the short to medium term be non-executives – a group of which we probably have too many already. It also demeans the increasing numbers of genuinely successful businesswomen.”

Targets, meanwhile, are already making some difference in the UK. In 2011, in a report by former Labour trade minister Lord Davies, voluntary goals were set for women to hold 25% of boardroom roles by 2015 – and, this having been achieved, the goal has been extended to a third by the end of the decade. Currently the UK is on target, yet is still, according to recent Global Board Diversity Analysis, lagging way behind many countries in Europe, including Norway, Sweden and France.

What’s clear from looking at this league table is that most of the countries with the highest female representation on boards are those with mandatory quotas. Five countries have already adopted mandatory quotas for boards of companies, including Norway, which pioneered the legislation in 2005. It’s possible therefore already to see the impact of such compulsory measures.

Italy, for instance, introduced mandatory quotas both for the candidate lists of political parties and boards of directors of companies listed on the stock market in 2011. The effects there were investigated by Paola Profeta, associate professor of public economics at Bocconi University. Prior to the quotas women had been, she notes, “highly under-represented in top business and political positions”, with only 6% representation on boards. The Italian approach was designed as a kind of shock therapy to accelerate change - a temporary, implementation of mandatory quotas over a period of just nine years. The first target for the boards was 20%, followed by a target of 33% for the second board election.

What Profeta’s team found was that the quotas stimulated a better selection process, and “at the end the selection, candidates, whether elected politicians or board directors, were ‘better’ than in the absence of quotas”. Not only were highly qualified women gaining places on the boards, or elected, but, she observes “the quality of the men in the positions increased”. What were being lost, she says, were “the lower quality men”. She also analysed the performance of companies after the quotas and found that quotas in Italy have not been associated with different firm performance.

In all areas, whether politics or business, it’s not just having quotas that makes the difference; it’s having quotas that are properly designed and are supported by the kind of measures that make the workplace more women-friendly, and also create pipelines for talent to rise through the entire system.

Meryl Kenny observes of quotas in parliamentary politics: “They need to be effectively designed, they need to have placement mandates so it’s not just about the overall percentage of women, but about standing a certain percentage of women in winnable seats or winnable places. They also have to have sanctions, so if parties break the rule, which they frequently do, something happens.” She adds: “Quotas also need to go hand in hand with other measures - like capacity building initiatives for women candidates, training, financial assistance, those kinds of things.”

The gender gap is persistent. At the current rate, for instance, the gender pay gap in Scotland will not close till 2069, and, if stagnatory trends persist in Scottish politics, we will never see gender balance among MSPs. Given this, legislated quotas are a way of speeding things up. But they are not the entire answer. There is a great deal more that needs to change.

As Talat Yaqoob, founder of Women 50/50, puts it: "Quotas for women is one answer to a problem that needs many solutions. The campaign is advocating quotas because it has been proven time and again to be the fastest way to create change. Along with quotas we need to support women with training and guidance to be candidates and most critically, we need to challenge and root out sexism and negative stereotypes across politics and society. Quotas play a role in changing attitudes as well as changing the system.”