By Kate Higgins
The first all female party political broadcast from the SNP which aired on Saturday (above), to commemorate International Women’s Day (IWD), is a welcome innovation. Nicola Sturgeon MSP provided a great opening and closing commentary and it was good to see some of the SNP’s less weel kent MSPs occupying centre stage for once. As Lallands Peat Worrier has already pointed out, some of the symbolism was clumsy: it takes more than simply bolting on weans and their accoutrements to make something totally women centred. I was disappointed by the complete absence of the “i” word and how an independent Scotland might use all its powers, talents and resources to improve the lot of women in Scotland. It would have been nice too to hear a little global solidarity – full equality for women might be some way off here, but it is as nothing compared to the desperate poverty, inequality and oppression of women in many developing countries.
But these are hairs being split. Scotland is now much better at celebrating International Women’s Day – there was even an all day event in the Scottish Parliament at the weekend and a whole host of activities around the country being led and supported by local authorities and especially, the voluntary sector, right throughout March. The days of women’s place being in the home and their talents and achievements hidden under a bushel appear to be over, just.
Moreover, we are getting much better at acknowledging the role and achievements women play in our daily lives and on our greatest stages. Thanks to statutory gender equality duties, all public sector bodies must now consider the impact of their decisions, policies and practices on women’s lives: it’s just a shame that it took legislation to make something happen that should have been a commonplace. Notwithstanding these duties and powers, women centred policy making is not exactly flavour of the month, yet it is the approach that many NGOs, such as Homeless International, adopt as standard in all their funding and community based approaches. Empowering women empowers children and enables communities to flourish: there is much we could learn from such an ethos. Oxfam promoted to the Scottish Parliament finance committee the concept of making early years policy and activities gender biased, on the basis that if women are freed from poverty and inequality, their children are too. Members’ expressions showed they were toiling to get their heads around it; needless to say, it has not been adopted.
For all our celebrations and commemorations today, in marking just how far we have travelled in terms of women’s status in our country, we need to be mindful of the huge inequalities and issues that still require to be tackled, particularly in relation to poverty and income. The key themes – the UN always tries to promote one, but women’s organisations were never very good at being told what to do – are on equal access to education, training, science and technology but also around the impact of violence and war, and women’s influence in society. So let’s look at these in the context of Scotland.
Forty years after the Equal Pay Act was passed, women in full time work still earn 12% less than their male counterparts. If we look at hourly rates, the difference is a staggering 32% – that’s women earning on average almost a third less than men. Women still dominate the lower paid job activities: 67% of the workforce in local authorities is female and they are concentrated in the “5 Cs” of catering, cleaning, caring, clerical and cashiering, in the most lowly paid activities in short. Some professions continue to be stubbornly out of bounds – despite women making up a third of the student population in science, engineering and technology, it is estimated that 50,000 female graduates qualified in these disciplines are not employed in the sector.
Lord Davies’ recent report found that the glass ceiling is all too real in UK companies’ boardrooms: 18 of the top FTSE 100 companies had no female directors at all, rising to an astonishing half of all FTSE 250 companies. In Scotland, women hold only 4% of management positions in Scottish businesses.
Women continue too to suffer greater poverty into old age, being fiscally punished for not accruing the same pension rights as men because their careers and economic activity has been staccato like due to caring responsibilities. 90% of lone parent families are headed by women, accounting for nearly a quarter of all families in Scotland. The women, and children, in these families are more likely to be living in severe poverty than most.
In Scotland, domestic violence is on the increase, though this may be as much to do with more incidents being reported as actual instances increasing. Whichever, the casual violence which men inflict on women day in day out in too many homes and communities is, as the Violence Reduction Unit Scotland put it, Scotland’s badge of shame. At last, we are beginning to address the causes of violence as well as its symptoms but there is still some way to go. Research conducted with young people over the last ten years has consistently shown that they have extremely troubling and inappropriate attitudes to sexual and physical violence towards women. We need to take a whole population approach to violence – and the social issues like alcohol misuse which cause it – so that we stop pigeon holing violence as a women’s issue and through schools, homes, sport and youth activities, we start the long, slow haul of changing mindset and attitudes on violence, particularly towards women, but also towards children and each other.
As we approach the full-on Holyrood election campaign, there will be few poltical parties putting women centre stage of their platform for government which is unfortunate. We need politicians who are prepared to think the unthinkable and totally redesign how we approach the design and delivery of public services. At the very least, we need to make them people rather than issue focussed. For example, given that the SNP and Labour are tripping over each other in their attempts to put economic growth first, it might seem possible that women’s lamentable economic circumstances would feature in their thinking on how to tackle unemployment, low wages and job insecurity. Sadly not. Everything about our economic strategy signals big boy stuff – women make up over half the working population and the kinds of professions and roles they fill are scarcely given a thought when it comes to prioritising sectors, research and development and skills.
Moreover, the political parties’ commitment to gender balance in the Scottish Parliament is in rapid decline and after the 2011 election, we could end up with fewer women MSPs than ever before. To find out more on how bad it might get, you’ll need to visit the burdz own blogpost for IWD.
Eventually – surely! – one day, women like me will no longer need to write blogposts like this on International Women’s Day, chiding and cajoling institutional Scotland into thinking differently, about making big efforts to tackle the ills that blight too many women’s lives. But for the moment, let’s stop the carping. Let’s see the glass as half full and celebrate success. All around us in Scotland, across the UK and indeed all around the world, there are women achieving wonderful things, making people’s lives happier, through small gestures and large commitments, utilising their talents to nurture, to enthrall, to entertain and to care. Delivering everything that we might ever need and want in our lives: a service, an object, a song, a painting, a letter, a novel, a cuddle, a smile, a meal, a bath.
Today, think about all the wonderful things women bring to your life, all the astonishing moments in which women have featured large, all the amazing things you have been able to achieve because of the role women have played in your upbringing and adulthood. And celebrate by saying thank you.