Women chief executives in Scotland’s councils

By Professor James Mitchell

Local by-elections in Orkney rarely draw much attention but the West Mainland by-election in August has done so because of the all-women field of candidates. That this is deemed newsworthy speaks volumes. The position of women in local government is mixed and a significant difference outlined below invites careful attention.

While women continue to be under-represented in candidate selection, election and leadership positions across Scotland’s thirty-two local authorities, a different picture emerges in the appointment of senior officers. For over six months, both Glasgow and Edinburgh City Councils – Scotland’s two largest authorities in population terms – had women chief executives before Dame Sue Bruce retired from her position in Edinburgh in July. There are now 14 women heading up Scotland’s 32 local authorities compared with only five women council leaders (out of 33 when we account for the two men jointly heading Aberdeenshire Council).

While population size is only one way of measuring local authorities (landmass is another but scale of public policy challenges is the most important) it shows that women chief executives are in charge in authorities responsible for just under 42 per cent of Scotland’s population. Edinburgh makes up just over 9 per cent of the Scottish population so that until July, women chief executives were running authorities covering 51 per cent of the population.

The comparison with elected council leaders is instructive. The five women council leaders are heads in authorities covering only 14.7 per cent of the Scottish population.

There are likely to be a number of explanations for this disparity. The appointment processes are different though some obvious points of similarity. The pool of talented women in senior positions across Scotland’s local authorities and public services is considerable as compared to the more limited number of women councillors. While an understandable emphasis has been placed on the number of women elected politicians, it would be mistaken to ignore others who yield significant power. Indeed, some might argue that the advance of women to senior positions as officers in local government is more likely to affect policy-making than becoming local council leaders.

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James Mitchell is Professor of Public Policy and Co-Director of the Academy of Government at the University of Edinburgh. He is the author of Devolution in the UK (Manchester University Press 2009) and The Scottish Question (Oxford University Press 2014). He tweets @ProfJMitchell.

Table: Scotland’s Council’s, their Chief Executives and Leaders.

Council Population Chief Executive Leader
Glasgow 592,800 Annemarie O’Donnell Gordon Mathieson
Edinburgh 486,100 Andrew Kerr Andrew Burns
Fife 365,000 Steve Grimmond David Ross
North Lanarkshire 326,000 Gavin Whitefield Jim McCabe
South Lanarkshire 311,900 Lindsay Freeland Eddie McAvoy
Aberdeenshire 245,800 Jim Savege Richard Thomson/Martin Kitts-Hayes
Highland 221,600 Steve Barron Margaret Davidson
Aberdeen 217,100 Angela Scott Jenny Laing
West Lothian 172,100 Graham Hope John McGinty
Renfrewshire 170,300 Sandra Black Mark MacMillan
Falkirk 153,300 Mary Pitcaithly Craig Martin
Dumfries & Galloway 148,200 Gavin Stevenson Ronnie Nicholson
Perth and Kinross 147,800 Bernadette Malone Ian Miller
Dundee 144,300 David Martin Ken Guild
North Ayrshire 135,200 Elma Murray Willie Gibson
East Ayrshire 120,200 Fiona Lees Douglas Reid
Scottish Borders 112,900 Tracey Logan David Parker
South Ayrshire 111,400 Eileen Howat Bill McIntosh
Angus 110,600 Richard Stiff Ian Gaul
East Dunbartonshire 104,600 Gerry Cornes Rhonnda Geekie
East Lothian 97,500 Angela Leitch Willie Innes
West Dunbartonshire 90,600 Joyce White Martin Rooney
Stirling 89,900 Stewart Carruth Johanna Boyd
East Renfrewshire 89,500 Lorraine McMillan Jim Fletcher
Argyll & Bute 89,200 Sally Loudon Dick Walsh
Moray 87,700 Roddy Burns Stewart Cree
Midlothian 81,100 Kenneth Lawrie Catherine Johnstone
Inverclyde 79,800 John Mundell Stephen McCabe
Clackmannanshire 50,600 Elaine McPherson Les Sharp
Comhairle nan Eileanan Siar 26,200 Malcolm Burr Angus Campbell
Shetland 22,400 Mark Boden Gary Robinson
Orkney 20,100 Alistair Buchan Steven Heddle
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