NICOLA Sturgeon has been accused of hypocrisy over her party’s failure to guarantee women the top candidate slots in the elections to the European parliament.

SNP members will select three men and three women to fight the election if it goes ahead, but there is no gender zipping mechanism to stop males coming at the top of the party List.

It is understood a meeting of the party’s national executive committee (NEC), which was attended by the SNP leader, is responsible for the decision.

Sturgeon, who has described herself as an “ardent, passionate feminist”, is a vocal champion of women’s rights.

It was recently announced that the First Minister was to become a global advocate for a UN Women campaign on gender equality.

She said in February: “The Scottish Government has signed up to the UN’s #HeForShe campaign because it is vital we continue to make progress with gender equality. I am honoured to have been asked to be their first Global Advocate.”

Sturgeon has also backed the high profile Women 50/50 campaign, which has called for at least 50% representation of women in Parliament, councils and on public boards.

After becoming First Minister in 2014, she also unveiled a gender balanced Cabinet and the SNP on her watch has used all-women shortlists for Holyrood selections.

However, she is under fire for the way the SNP has decided to select the candidates for the European election, which may take place following the delay to Brexit.

In the 2004 election to the Brussels Parliament, two male SNP MEPs - Alyn Smith and Ian Hudghton - were elected, while the third placed candidate, Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh, lost out.

Smith and Hudghton will stand again in the event of an election and party members will rank six candidates - three men and three women.

However, the candidate slots will not be gender zipped (alternating the places for men and women) which could result in men securing the top three positions.

A recent meeting of the SNP NEC considered various options and zipping was ruled out.

One party insider said the procedure adopted gave some protection to the two sitting MEPs, as a zipping mechanism could have led to to either Smith or Hudghton being ranked third.

However, another source said: “The SNP has not backed zipping in the past.”

Scottish Labour opened applications for potential candidates last week and the party will produce a zipped list, with alternating male and female candidates.

The Lib Dems, who believe they have a chance of picking up an MEP seat, are reserving their top spot on their list for a woman. The top ranked candidate for the Scottish Greens will also be female. The Scottish Tories, by contrast, do not support positive discrimination measures for female candidates.

Scottish Labour MSP Pauline McNeill MSP said:

“This stinks of hypocrisy from Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP. You cannot achieve greater representation of women in our politics through speeches at the UN alone, it takes leadership and action at home.

“That’s why it is so disappointing that the First Minister stayed silent whilst her fellow party bosses decided to potentially make it so much harder for female members to become MEPs.

“Unlike the SNP, Scottish Labour will field a gender-balanced, zipped list of candidates as part of our long-standing commitment to better reflect the communities we represent.”

Talat Yaqoob, co-founder and chair of Women 50/50, said:

“It is crucial that at every election, all parties take forward mechanisms to ensure gender equality is clearly on the ballot paper. Since our campaign was launched, we have been pleased by the positive response we have received from the greens, Scottish Labour, SNP and the Liberal Democrats, however endorsement of a campaign must be translated into action on it.

“In the rush to select candidates for the upcoming European elections, and the confusion that has been caused by Brexit, we cannot forget women’s representation, and default back to the status quo which usually favours male candidates.”