Poor gender balance as council dominates employment scene


ALMOST a third of Shetland’s work­force is on the council’s payroll, it has been revealed.

There are 2,469 “full time equivalent” members of staff in the SIC, with part-time workers taking the roll up to 3,762 – made up of 2,758 women and 1,004 men.

The total number of employee records held by the council, in­cluding relief and supply staff, students and duplicate records, is 5,728, almost one in two of the 12,426 people who were working in the isles last year, according to Shetland in Statistics.

The figures do not include the number of people employed by the various charitable trust-funded bodies.

SIC convener Sandy Cluness said the situation was of great concern, particularly because by the time the number of people working in Shetland’s various trusts, NHS Shet­land, police, benefits agencies and other public services were factored in, he feared the proportion of people working in the public sector would be close to 40 per cent.

The statistics, published in the council’s first ever gender equality study, follow a recent report on Shet­land’s population and migration trends, which stated that the dominance of public sector jobs and services has “limited the motivation and opportunities for private sector enterprise” and suggested many potential entrepreneurs have had to leave the isles in order to establish their businesses.

“Most economists would say that [40 per cent] is far too high a proportion to be sustainable in the long term, which is why we’re rather keen to promote the economic and private sectors if we can,” said Mr Cluness.

“When Sullom Voe came first, the opportunities were so wide that people set up their own businesses, as accountants, taxi firms, opening new restaurants, and that kind of balance was much healthier than it is today.

“This is sustainable so long as we retain Shetland’s reserves but in the long-run, there is no way we could sustain this, so really the expansion of the private sector has to be one of our main drivers here.”

The gender study states that the SIC continues to be the worst-performing local authority for sexual equality in Scotland, albeit the picture is skewed by unique statistical anomalies.

While the extent of employment in the marine sector within the council – where no women are employed because none apply for the vacant posts – in part explains the imbalance which leaves Shet­land bottom of all 32 local authorities, the report makes clear that there are other factors too. Almost nine out of 10 of the top two per cent of earners are men and the report states that the council has “a piece to travel yet” to improve the situation.

The proportion of those standing for, and holding, public office is little better, with only five women out of 22 councillors at present. The eight-strong shortlist for February’s Lerwick South by-election was made up entirely of men, while in last year’s council elections only 10 of the 50 candidates across Shetland were women.

Mr Cluness said there were “clearly not enough” women coun­cillors. “I don’t know what it is that prevents women from standing,” he said. “I suppose it’s the same as with men, if you don’t have the time and commitment it’s very difficult, especially for younger people bringing up families. We’ll have to see what we can do to encourage more women both to stand for the council and appoint them where necessary.”

SIC head of organisational development John Smith said the gender balance had not shifted dramatically in recent years but accepted there was a great deal of work to do.

There are only two women out of 19 chief officials within the council – head of schools Helen Budge and recently-appointed director of executive services Hazel Sutherland – but Mr Smith said that without the male domination of high-paid marine jobs the SIC would be rated, statistically, among the top five local authorities across the country.

Mr Smith said: “[The marine sector] continues to be a wholly male-dominated industry, right across the world. [But] it’s still a societal problem in the UK. If you look at political representation levels, chief executives and direc­tors of private companies, and public service breakdown, Den­mark, Norway and Sweden are getting close-ish to 50-50, but in the UK if you take any of those categories it’s still quite skewed.”

He said that although turnover was slow, the situation in middle management was improving and for the first time there are now more women than men in the second rank of general management, 31 to 30. Over time, Mr Smith said, this would hopefully lead to more women being appointed to some of the top positions within the council.

He also voiced surprise at findings of a survey of 71 secondary three pupils at the AHS, undertaken as part of the report. Forty four per cent of the boys questioned felt the current level of male domination both in the chamber and in top council posts was right, with explanations including that “men do a better job at running a country”, while 24 per cent were unsure and only 32 per cent felt it should be split more proportionately.

Eleven per cent of the boys, aged 14-15, said they did not think men and women should be paid the same wage for doing the same job, with a further seven per cent undecided. Over 70 per cent of females, meanwhile, felt there were specific career paths for men and women and that it would be unnatural for a young man to choose a career in childcare or a young woman to choose a career in engineering.

“Until that kind of general feeling is overcome, it’s difficult to arrive at a complete solution,” said Mr Smith. “I thought young folk were further down that journey. My understanding of what was happening in schools and education was that there is a better performance by girls than boys and a very strong degree of confidence that they could tackle any career, that they would be competing in a society that had overcome those sort of barriers. These things can be very deep-rooted [and] it takes a long time to change perceptions.”

Women do outnumber men by almost three to one among teachers, mainly down to the predominance of female primary school teachers, while 78 per cent of manual workers – mainly in social care – are women.

The report is part of the council’s gender equality scheme, launched in June 2007 on the back of new sex discrimination legislation, and anyone who wishes to comment on its findings is being asked to contact Laura Saunders in the policy unit on (01595) 743728.


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