SCOTTISH universities are close to achieving a historic 50:50 balance between men and women on their governing bodies for the first time ever.

In 2013 less than one third of the members of universities' ruling Courts were women, but the figure has now risen to 46 per cent after a concerted campaign to tackle the issue.

Seven of Scotland's 18 higher education institutions have now achieved a gender balance on Court with the remainder closing in on the target.

Universities where women make up 50 per cent or more of the ruling body include Abertay, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Queen Margaret, UHI and the University of the West of Scotland. Strathclyde University leads the way with 68 per cent of its ruling body women.

The development comes after the Scottish Parliament passed the Gender Representation on Public Boards (Scotland) Act in January.

The legislation sets an objective for public boards that 50 per cent of non-executive members are women by the end of 2022 and also requires action to encourage women to apply to become non-executive members of public boards.

Universities have introduced a number of initiatives in a bid to boost the number of women including advertisements which specifically target female applicants from the private, public and voluntary sectors.

Members of university nominations committees - who select members of the public to serve on Courts - have been trained to recognise issues such as unconscious bias, which has been known to prevent the selection of women in the past.

In addition, institutions have co-opted women onto their governing boards to give them experience of the role so they can determine for themselves whether they are interested in applying.

The figures highlighting progress were welcomed by campaigners and universities.

Dr Veena O’Halloran, secretary of Strathclyde University, said: “As a socially progressive university, we are committed to gender equality and diverse representation in our governing body.

"This ensures decisions are made which reflect the interests of our diverse community and that we draw on the broad range of strong, independent experience and knowledge that effective university governance requires."

The improvement was also welcomed by Professor Sarah Pederson, an academic from Robert Gordon University who is helping run a new project on supporting women leaders in higher education, backed by charity Advance HE.

She said: "Universities want to be seen to be working on this issue and we now have a lot of the right policies in place, but we need to make sure that filters through to what actually happens.

"These figures demonstrate that when you give women the opportunity to perform this kind of public service they will step up and they will do it."

Alastair Sim, director of Universities Scotland, which represents principals, said institutions had recognised that it was "absolutely right" that university Courts and boards reflected society.

He said: "This has been a conscious decision on the part of universities who have provided support to new members of court as well as specifically targeting advertising for these posts to get women to apply for positions.

"As part of the sector’s commitment to continuous enhancement we will be looking to see how we can continue the diversity of our governing bodies to reflect a more diverse Scotland."

Concerns over gender equality on Scottish university campuses have been raised a number of times in recent months.

In January, Scottish universities were accused of 'ingrained sexism' over promotion prospects for women after figures showed male professors overwhelmingly dominate senior academic roles.

And in April a book warned Scottish female academics were being held back by an old boys network amid claims institutions were "in denial" about the barriers preventing many from reaching the top.