Standing back from the propaganda battle between the Scottish National party and Labour over which has the most to brag about after Thursday's council elections, one neutral fact emerges: local government in Scotland is a little less male, pale and stale.

An analysis of the final results by Meryl Kenny and Fiona Mackay at Edinburgh university has found that – against some expectations – the number of women elected to Scotland's 32 councils has gone up to nearer 25%, the highest level in decades (perhaps ever).

With the very real anxieties about a record low turnout confounded by the less than terminal estimated 42% rate on Thursday, these gender diversity figures would also appear to be better news.

After years where the number of women running Scottish councils had been effectively static at 22% (with a headline figure of 21.6% in 2007), the new overall total is 24.3%.

This rise is largely down to Labour's new positive action programme, where 50% of new vacancies are being filled by women, and the SNP's much more coincidental increase in female representation; unlike Labour, the SNP does not have any positive action in place as its policies are still being formulated, but its number of elected women is very close to the percentage put up as candidates.

Kenny and Mackay, who have been pioneering this field of studies, are still not impressed. The overall figure is still less than one in four women councillors, while in England's 36 Metropolitan councils, the overall rate of women's representation is now 40%.

Several English councils are doing extremely well on gender parity: Bury, with 64% women, South Tyneside on 57% and Gateshead at 55% - far better than any council in Scotland, where none has yet broken even 40%. So, why are aspiring women politicians in England finding it easier to get ahead? After all, party policies are pretty much the same, in both jurisdictions.

In their latest analysis, they say this:

While these numbers represent a modest improvement on previous elections – and a record performance since the mid 1990s – the general trend remains one of stalled progress... We're a long way from saying goodbye to the male, pale and stale face of Scottish local politics.

Their latest blog is one of several very strong commentary pieces posted over the weekend analysing the results: Susan Dalgety on Birdseyeview attacks Scotland's low voting rates by contrasting them with Malawi's 76% rate; Birdseyeview herself, Kate Higgins takes the SNP's shortcomings at the council elections to task there too, while the Jimmy Reid Foundation asserts again that local democracy overall in Scotland is in dire trouble.

On women's representation, the wooden spoon again goes to Inverclyde, which has just one women councillor in Vaughan Jones for Labour. That was better than its 0% rate in 2007 but Jones was the only woman standing for election there. Inverclyde is followed closely by East Lothian, with has 8.7% women and no excuses, and then Orkney and the Western Isles at 9.5% and 9.7%.

In these latter places the domination of non-party independents in local politics works against systematic positive action (on Shetland, which is also run entirely by independents, it has a 13.6% rate), suggesting that wider political and community culture is at issue there.

On the positive side, they add, Scottish Labour's positive action programme has had fruits in Glasgow and Edinburgh, both places where the party won the most seats. In the capital, while the number of women councillors overall has dropped to 15 out of 58 – most notably with the defeat of its Lib Dem council leader Jenny Dawe – Labour's ratio has jumped to 40%.

In Glasgow, which had the lowest voter turnout of all council areas on Thursday, at 32.4%, the Scottish Labour women to men figure rose from 22% in 2007 to 31.8%. By contrast, only 2 of the 18 SNP councillors in Edinburgh are women (11%) and 7 out of 27 in Glasgow (25.9%).

Yet Glasgow is only one of five Scottish authorities which have broken the 30% barrier on female representation, along with Aberdeenshire, Moray, South Ayrshire and South Lanarkshire, which takes top prize with 37.3%.

On a party footing, the SNP's overall figure is up from 21.2% in 2007 to 24.8% in 2012, boasting 106 women councillors. Scottish Labour, which insists it will reach full parity by 2020, has 104 female councillors and has recorded by far the best improvement, to a 26.1% representation rate from 17.5% in 2007.

Perversely given their dismal performance on Thursday, the Lib Dems have the best overall rate of 36.6%, the Tories barely changed at 24.3%, while the Scottish Green party's positive action strategy (to get at least 40% women elected) has failed badly: while more Greens were elected, its rate is now 28.6%, down from 50% in 2007. The number of women independents has meanwhile fallen back, from 20.8% to 15.3% now.

Mackay says she may well revise her first view that these figures represent "stalled progress", given Scottish Labour's advances, but the two researchers insist not enough is yet being done:

These dismal figures should surely serve as a wake-up call to parties and councils that something has to change in order to make local politics more inclusive, and to ensure that local councils look like the communities they represent. As we have noted elsewhere, the time has come for tough action on women's representation in Scotland.

Their critique is shared by Kate Higgins, the political blogger who runs Birdzeyeview and herself a former councillor. She believes the overwhelming and often over-bearingly male dominated culture within many Scottish parties and local branches is the root cause, while many party leaderships seem unwilling to take decisive action.

Higgins, who is preparing her own blog on this, said women are still routinely seen as a nice bit of novelty – the "young women councillor" - or boxed into branch secretary posts. She believes a full-scale culture shift is needed: are middle aged men prepared to give up or share their power?

The big dichotomy is if you look at community structures and community activism: there are lots of women, if not more than men, running playgroups, parent councils, community councils and gala committees, so why aren't they involved in helping to run political parties and standing as candidates? There's a very much male-dominated culture at local level in all parties and that's the blockage which needs to be fixed.

© Guardian News and Media 2012

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