The resignation of Mark Thompson as director-general of the BBC has prompted excited speculation that a woman could head the corporation for the first time.

Sir Michael Lyons, former chairman of the BBC Trust, no less, has acknowledged: "It is important to have a DG who shows some proper empathy with members of the female audience".

The grubby reality is that, in addition to skill set and characteristics of the individual, whether the new director-general of the BBC is a man or a woman will owe much to the salary on offer, which will be substantially less than Mr Thompson's package of £671,000.

If the new boss of the BBC is a woman, the appointment will be claimed as a signal that the top posts in the country are open to a more diverse range of candidates, conveniently obscuring the fact that most women are still paid less than men. The gender pay gap, although shrinking, is 9.1% and women have been worse affected by unemployment. This continuing disparity, despite girls overall doing better than boys in education, requires more than a belated acknowledgment of the need for more women at the helm of public bodies and private companies. Lord Davies' report on the women on boards of directors exhorted the UK's top 350 companies to increase the proportion of women to 25% by 2015 but drew back from imposing quotas, which have markedly increased the number of female directors elsewhere.

The most frustrating aspect of the under-representation of women in public life, however, is not the failure to promote an equal proportion of able and talented women beyond middle management level. It is the lack of female councillors, MSPs and MPs in numbers who can adequately represent the needs and views of half the population. The opportunity offered by devolution to create a legislature that would operate in a way that would be equally attractive to men and women was enthusiastically seized in 1999. Equal opportunities are one of the four founding principles of the Scottish Parliament and the horseshoe chamber, family-friendly hours and debate concentrated in committees appeared to have paid off by 2003, when 40% of MSPs were women. Hopes of a gender balance were dashed four years later when women gained only 33% of the seats and last year the proportion improved only marginally to 35%. It would appear the problem lies within the political parties.

The situation is even worse in local government, where just one-fifth of the people making decisions on our behalf about essential services from education to planning are women. The last council elections in 2007 were the first to use the single transferable vote (STV) system. As a result, local authorities are more representative of the political views of the voters and most now operate as coalitions or minority administrations requiring consensus if not collaboration to replace confrontation on the part of councillors. It may be a stereotype to claim women are better at this method of working but it contains more than a grain of truth. Yet political parties have been slow to field more female candidates. In 2007, 21% of SNP candidates, 19% of Labour candidates, 24% of Conservatives and 30% of Liberal Democrat candidates were women. Most expect to increase that number (Labour to 30% and the SNP hopes to reach 40% ) in May but, with the honourable exception of the Green Party, it will remain woefully short of a representative 50%.

All councillors will be faced with difficult, often unpalatable, economic decisions over the next few years. Of course gender should never trump policy but anyone whose priority is retaining after-school clubs or a vital day-care service for an elderly relative, for example, might see it as worthwhile to consider theirgender as one factor when they rank candidates in order of preference. Women in Inverclyde, who have been represented by an all-male council, might even regard placing women at the top of their rankings as helping to deliver the coup de grace to an outdated patriarchy.