Gender and economic equality in Scotland: mission (im)possible?

Unequal access to life opportunities continues to constitute a chronic impediment to education, participation in civic society and work, and health and well-being in Scotland, especially so of girls and women.

It is a striking paradox that, while the people of Scotland optimistically view their small country on the periphery of Europe as an avowedly equal and democratic polity, evidence suggests that ‘as part of the UK, Scotland is one of the most unequal countries in the developed world’ (Cooper 2014).  Irrespective of the outcome of the recent Independence Referendum, issues of inequality, poverty and disadvantage remain at the fore of a devolved Scotland.

Scotland’s wealthiest households are nearly 3000 times better- off than the poorest.  More than one on five Scottish children lives in poverty. Scots living in rich neighbourhoods can expect to live 10 to 15 years longer than Scots living in the most deprived neighbourhoods (Oxfam, in Cooper, 2014, p4).

Over 220,000 children in Scotland live in poverty and the Institute for Fiscal Studies estimates that by 2020 this number will increase by a further 100,000 (Child Poverty Action Group in Scotland 2014).  By all accounts, urgent action is needed: to understand and address inequalities, poverty and the effects of these for socio-economic marginalization, exclusion and civic non-participation in Scotland.

The transfer of First Ministerial power in Scotland’s Government in 2014 signified a renewed commitment to tackling social inequality related to economic wealth and poverty.  But is there a similar urgency, for instance, to address the issue of gender-based inequality and its complex effects for the poverty and well-being of girls and women?

Research studies conducted by the Scottish Independent Schools Project (SISP) (2006-to date) show that gender remains a salient issue for Scotland at the level of educational and social policy and governance (see e.g. Forbes, Öhrn & Weiner 2011), in schools and communities (Forbes & Weiner 2012, 2013) in learning and teaching and in the reproduction of particular practices and student embodiments (Forbes & Lingard 2013, in press).

The SISP analyses reveal markedly differentiated gender-power regimes operating in each of the independent schools investigated.  For example, a girls’ school was explicitly committed to (liberal) feminist knowledge and a research-informed approach to learning and teaching; a boys’ school sought, as a response to global market forces, to renegotiate its previous traditional, male military and sporting, gender regime so as to incorporate a wider range of cosmopolitan and urbane masculinities; and a co-educational school promoted conventional masculinities and femininities through practices predominantly of benefit to males.  Each school regime had critical effects for the research, including, for example, on ease – or otherwise – of access, research relationships, and feedback to schools (Forbes & Weiner 2013, 2014a).

The SISP research uncovered ways in which gender and other structural categories were interlinked to inequalities such as social class and economic wealth.  Also influential were schools’ historic, social and cultural identifications and the socio-economic fraction from which each school drew its current and future students (Forbes & Weiner 2014b).  So the demographic of pupils in each school varied – according to whether parents desired a ‘traditional’, ‘academic girl-centred or some other kind of education for their offspring, and/or the preferred employment destination in the professions, business and commerce, or elsewhere (Commission on Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission 2014).

Sociologists of education have over the decades shown the impact of ‘intersectionalities’ on schooling in the maintained sector (Crenshaw 1991).  Less research has been carried out on the independent school sector in the UK generally and even less on the independent sector in Scotland.  The insights gained from the SISP studies, we propose, suggest the need for more research aimed at unravelling the operations of intersectionalities of gender, class and wealth – and other such as ethnicity and religion in independent schools, particularly in Scotland.

Reported widely, the administration of First Minister Nicola Sturgeon is now the first – and only – government executive in the UK countries in which cabinet appointments are equally shared amongst women and men.  And, in announcing the legislative programme of her government, Ms Sturgeon made it clear that a priority, indeed her ‘personal mission’, as Scotland’s first female First Minister, is to tackle social inequality.

Will First Minister Sturgeon’s first confident and progressive declarations on gender and inequalities remain rhetorical or symbolic? Or will poverty alleviation – and specifically the elimination of gender-based inequalities in the distribution of income and wealth, become the hallmark of the Sturgeon administration?

Blog post by Joan Forbes University of Aberdeen and Gaby Weiner, University of Sussex


Child Poverty Action Group in Scotland (2014) Child Poverty in Scotland. Retrieved 27 November 2014 from:

Commission on Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission (2014) Elitist Britain? Retrieved 01 December 2014 from: data/file/347915/Elitist Britain – Final.pdf

Cooper, S. (2014) Mission possible: tackling inequality. The National newspaper. Tuesday November 25, 2014. Pp4-5.

Crenshaw, K. (1991) Mapping the margins: Intersectionality, identity politics and violence against women of colour. Stanford Law Review, 43.6, 1241-1299.

Forbes, J. & Lingard, B. (2013) Elite school capitals and girls’ schooling: understanding the (re)production of privilege through a habitus of assuredness. In Privilege, agency and affect. Understanding the production and effects of action. Maxwell, C. & Aggleton, P. (eds) pp50-68. London: Palgrave MacMillan.

Forbes, J. & Lingard, B. (2015) Assured optimism in a Scottish girls’ school: habits and the (re)production of global privilege. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 36.1, 116-136.

Forbes, J. Ohrn, E. & Weiner, G. (2011) Slippage and/or symbolism: gender, policy and educational governance in Scotland and Sweden. Gender and Education, 23.6, 761-776.

Forbes, J. & Weiner, G. (2012) Spatial paradox: Educational and social in/exclusion at St Giles. Pedagogy, Culture & Society, 20.2, 273-293.

Forbes, J. & Weiner, G. (2013) Gendering/ed research spaces: insights from a study of independent schooling. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 26.4, 455-469.

Forbes, J. & Weiner, G. (2014a) Gender power in elite schools: methodological insights from researcher reflexive accounts. Research Papers in Education, 29.2, 172-192.

Forbes, J. & Weiner, G. (2014b) Gender sensitive research in schools: insights and interventions on gender, social class, economic wealth, and other intersections. Paper given at the Scottish Universities Insight Institute Seminar Series 2013-14: Children’s Rights, Social Justice and Social Identities in Scotland: Intersections in Research Policy and Practice. Seminar Three: Intersecting childhood identities, inequalities and social justice: Intersectionality, methods and research. The Scottish Universities Insight Institute, Glasgow, 23 June 2014.

The Smith Commission (2014) Report of The Smith Commission for the further devolution of powers to the Scottish Parliament. Retrieved 27 November 2014 from:

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