This morning Labour MSP Jenny Marra called on the Scottish Government to set quotas for women’s representation on the boards of public bodies.

Her amendment to the Police and Fire Reform Bill, setting out that the board of the new single police service should consist of a minimum of 40% women and 40% men, was rejected at committee stage by the SNP and Conservatives.

In the debate today, Marra said: “Gender equality at boardroom level is unlikely to happen organically in the next 13 years unless we take bigger and bolder steps to make it happen.”

34% of public appointments in Scotland in 2011/12 were held by women, but with significant gender imbalances within organisations: as quoted by Marra, the board of sportscotland is 78% male.

The Scottish Government appears keen to make progress in improving women’s representation in public life, if perhaps not to the extent of quotas.  According to Sports Minister Shona Robison:  “It is patronising to assume that there aren’t equal numbers of equally suitable male and female candidates, and it is worse than patronising to assume that the best candidate just happened to turn out to be male on so many occasions. Public appointments have seen some good progress being made over the years but it is not enough.”

The Scottish Government’s response is to hold an open event hosted by the Scottish Government and supported by the Public Appointments Commissioner to review the progress of the Diversity Delivers strategy.

Many European countries are looking at following the example of Scandinavian nations, in introducing quotas to improve the representation of women on public and private boards. The Westminster government has an aspiration that by 2015, 50% of new appointments to public bodies will be women. In the private sector, companies are working towards a voluntary target, introduced by Lord Davies in 2011, to increase the percentage of women on FTSE 100 boards to 25% from 12.5%.

Norway introduced legislation in 2003 to set 40% quotas for women on boards. The proposed legislation caused a great deal of public debate in Norway, with opponents arguing such measures would be unfair to men,  that private companies should be free to appoint who they like, and that more competent men would be replaced with less able women.

According to Aagoth Storvik, who conducted the study Women on Board into the Norwegian experience together with Mari Teigan, “It is surprising because when the quota was introduced it created a lot of debate, especially from people in the business sector, who were critical of the reform. But after the reform went into force almost nobody seemed to object, hardly anybody is writing about it in the newspapers any more or telling us about negative experiences.” Further research published in 2012 indicates the changes are not an economic burden.

Earlier this year, the EU urged businesses to consider affirmative action to voluntarily improve women’s representation on boards, in order to demonstrate that compulsory targets will not be necessary. Storvik and Teigen’s findings demonstrated that without the compulsory order being imposed Norwegian boards only made modest improvements in representation. But Shona Robison is right to note in the debate in Holyrood that there is no consensus on the issue.

Like Jean Stephens, the chief executive of RSM International, I believe quotas are a ‘necessary evil’ to make the change in boardroom culture we need. According to Stephens, “Proposals for European-level legislation to set binding targets for Women on Boards is both welcome and essential. Equality within the boardroom is drastically lagging and realistic quotas are a necessary evil to kick-start the changes needed to create a correct level of diversity.”

Representation, especially on public bodies, should reflect society. That means public boards need to include people from all parts of the community, and women are not a minority in that. I believe quotas work, and it would have been both brave and the right thing to do for the SNP to introduce them to the new single police board. Nonetheless, I hope in moving forward from Marra’s call today, the Scottish Government will reflect on how a better and more equal Scottish state needs more women to be at the table, and how that they as the government have the powers to make that happen.