Meeting of the Parliament
Meeting date: Wednesday, March 8, 2023
Official Report 1086KB pdf
Agenda: Portfolio Question Time, International Women’s Day 2023, Business Motion, Parliamentary Bureau Motion, Decision Time, Save Loch Lomond
- Portfolio Question Time
- International Women’s Day 2023
- Business Motion
- Parliamentary Bureau Motion
- Decision Time
- Save Loch Lomond
International Women’s Day 2023
The next item of business is a debate on motion S6M-08137, in the name of Nicola Sturgeon, on international women’s day 2023, #EmbraceEquity. Members who wish to speak in the debate should press their request-to-speak buttons. I call the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, to speak to and move the motion. You have around 13 minutes, First Minister.14:50
Thank you, Presiding Officer, and happy international women’s day to everyone here.
International women’s day is a moment of celebration, but it is also a moment of reflection. We rejoice in the achievements of women and women’s organisations here in Scotland and across the world. We mark progress towards gender equality, but, on this day, we also remind ourselves of how much more still needs to be done.
Of course, this is the last international women’s day that I will mark as First Minister. I recall speaking in this chamber on the day that I became First Minister, with my eight-year-old niece looking on from the public gallery. I said then that I hoped that my election, as the first woman to hold the office of First Minister, would help to open the door to greater opportunity for all women and that it would also help leaders to reach a point when girls no longer even question the fact that a woman can hold the highest political office in the land. We have a way still to go to achieve true gender equality, but we have also come a long way in these past eight years.
One of my first acts as First Minister was to appoint a Cabinet that was gender balanced. I got lots of emails in the days after that asking how I knew that all the women in my Cabinet were there on merit. I was struck by the fact that I did not get a single email asking me how I knew that all the men in my Cabinet were there on merit. [Applause.]
At the time, the Scottish Cabinet was one of just three gender-balanced Cabinets in the world. There are many more now. I take this opportunity to say that I hope that future First Ministers will continue that practice. Unless we believe that women are somehow less qualified than men, it stands to reason that any Cabinet that is not gender balanced is not properly reflective of all the talents at our country’s disposal.
Alongside many others, I have campaigned throughout my life for equal representation more generally—not least here, in our national Parliament. We are not quite there yet, but we are closer than ever. As of now, 46 per cent of us elected to this chamber are women. In addition, and perhaps partly because of that greater representation, this Parliament has taken important steps to protect, promote and improve women’s rights.
We were the first Parliament in the world to legislate for provision of free period products. We have ensured gender equality on public sector boards and we have passed vital legislation to give better and stronger protection to victims of domestic abuse. We will soon consider further measures to safeguard the right of women to access abortion services—in other words, to access healthcare—free from harassment and intimidation.
Before I leave office, I will say more about forced adoptions, and I hope that we will, in the interests of building a better future, continue to address and help to heal the past injustices that women have suffered.
We have also made childcare and support for families integral to our economic and social policies with policies including the baby box, the expansion of childcare, extra support for carers and the Scottish child payment—the policy of which I am perhaps most proud. Clearly, those policies do not benefit only women, but they benefit women disproportionately. They are achievements that our Parliament as a whole can be proud of—achievements to which all parties across the chamber have contributed.
Some of our policies to support families are made necessary by United Kingdom Government policies that do not have the interests of women at their heart. For example, we are ensuring that no one loses out financially as a result of the two-child benefits cap and the abhorrent rape clause that is part of it.
Too often, there are steps, including improvement of parental leave or addressing the injustice that is being suffered by WASPI women—women against state pension inequality—that we cannot take because we, in this Parliament, do not yet have the powers to do so. Indeed, the power to improve the rights and the lives of women, and to promote equality more generally, are among the many reasons why I support Scotland—and this Parliament—becoming independent.
That said, I truly believe that the record of the Parliament is one to be proud of—but we must build on it in the years to come. That is why my focus today is on the future rather than on the past. In particular, I will highlight two policy areas—enterprise and criminal justice—in which we now, I believe, have an opportunity, indeed a responsibility, to make more progress.
Two weeks ago, I visited the Roslin Institute with Ana Stewart, the entrepreneur and investor who is the author of a landmark report on women in enterprise. That report lays bare the reality that although women make up more than half of our population, only one in five businesses in Scotland right now is founded by and led by women. That inequality is unjustifiable—first and foremost from the perspective of fairness and equal opportunity. As the review says, the current position represents a
“denial of opportunity on, literally, an industrial scale.”
That inequality is also economically counterproductive. If women are supported to set up businesses at the same rate—or anything like it—as men already do, the benefits to our economy will be immense. The report therefore calls for better integration of entrepreneurial education across our system. It recommends that Scotland should create new sources of support for women-led businesses at the start-up stage, and again at the point at which they seek private funding. It makes the case for establishing Scotland as a leader in femtech, which is technology that is designed to address women’s health issues. It is an area that is of enormous economic and scientific potential that represents a particular opportunity for women entrepreneurs.
The report recommends that business support and incubation services should be available closer to nurseries, schools, supermarkets and general practitioner surgeries, so that primary carers—who are more likely to be women—find them easier to use. Those are powerful recommendations, and I look forward to seeing their implementation.
One of the interesting and important truths underpinning the recommendations is that the gender gap—whether it is in enterprise or elsewhere—is a consequence as well as a cause of the deep-rooted and often systemic sexism and inequality that still exist across our society. That is why the review report places a strong emphasis on education.
It is also why—perhaps unexpectedly in a report about enterprise—the report supports the creation of new criminal offences to tackle misogyny, which continues to constrain the ability of too many women to contribute fully to the economy, politics and wider society, and, sometimes, even just to live our lives without fear. That is something that is particularly true in the toxic online culture that we unfortunately live in, which too often spills over into our daily lives.
That brings me to the second issue that I want to touch on. A year ago today, on international women’s day, Baroness Helena Kennedy’s report, which had been commissioned by the Scottish Government, was published. It recommended new criminal offences for misogyny. Today, we have published a consultation paper on draft legislation to implement the recommendations of that report. The reforms will entail five new laws to give police and prosecutors new powers to tackle the pernicious impact of misogyny. I strongly encourage everyone with an interest to read and respond to the consultation.
That draft legislation is just one of a series of forthcoming changes that are designed to make the criminal justice system work more effectively for women and, by helping to free women from the scourge of misogyny, ensure that more of us can reach our full potential.
In recent years, the Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Act 2018 and action to improve access to forensic medical examination have made a difference. However, despite real progress, there is still too much evidence that the criminal justice system is failing too many victims of sexual crime—most of whom are women.
Will the First Minister consider supporting my colleague Pam Gosal’s bill that would create a domestic abuse register?
I think that I said previously to Pam Gosal in the chamber that we will consider the proposal sympathetically when we see more detail. I give that commitment again today.
It is the case that most victims of sexual crime are women. In 2020-21, the overall conviction rate for all crimes and offences in Scotland was 91 per cent. For rape and attempted rape, the figure was just 51 per cent. We also know that only a minority of rapes are reported to the police in the first place. Obviously, it would not be appropriate for any Government to seek a blanket increase in the conviction rate: conviction is a matter for independent courts. However, we have a duty to address systemic barriers to justice and the many challenges that women face at each stage of a criminal justice process that was designed by—and, to a very significant extent, for—men.
In last year’s programme for government, we committed to introducing a new criminal justice reform bill before this summer. That bill, which I am pleased to say is on track for introduction before the summer, will propose far-reaching reforms to the criminal justice system. Among other proposals, it will address the “not proven” verdict, consider how rape trials should be conducted and seek to implement key recommendations from Lady Dorrian’s review of management of sexual offences. I will not be in the Government when Parliament considers that bill, but I will be a strong advocate for it from the back benches.
Obviously, I cannot go into detail on that bill’s provisions today, but I want to highlight one important aspect of it, which is linked to an announcement that I was pleased to make this morning at the University of Glasgow. One especially intrusive aspect of criminal procedure arises when requests are made to lead evidence about a victim’s sexual history or so-called bad character. As a result, Lady Dorrian highlighted in her review the importance of victims having access to automatic independent legal representation in those circumstances. The Scottish Government is supportive of that, so I can confirm that the forthcoming bill will propose that women have access to free independent legal representation in those circumstances.
I whole-heartedly welcome that. Labour supports that proposal, and we welcome the Government’s bringing it forward.
I thank Pauline McNeill for that support. As she will know, there have been calls for the right to independent representation to go further; indeed, some people argue that it should be granted to victims of sexual crime at all stages of the criminal justice process. A move of that nature would require significant change and would need to be considered very carefully.
However, I want to make it clear that the Scottish Government is sympathetic to the basic principle that victims should have better access to legal support. That is why, today, we have announced that we will provide support for a new dedicated law clinic based at the University of Glasgow. I visited the university’s law school this morning—such visits are always a very happy trip down memory lane for me—to hear more about the clinic, which will be the first of its kind in Scotland and will offer services to victims of sexual offences from across Scotland.
As well as offering advice and representation, the clinic will teach students and do research. Perhaps most poignantly of all, given that it is international women’s day, it will be named the Emma Ritch law clinic, after the late and much-missed head of Engender. [Applause.] Emma was a Glasgow university alumna and is fondly remembered by all of us as a titan of the feminist movement in Scotland. The clinic will be a fitting tribute to her and to her formidable legacy as a fearless advocate for women’s rights. I hope that the clinic will make an important and transformative difference to women’s and girls’ experience of the criminal justice system in years to come.
When I spoke in the chamber on Saturday to mark the 20th anniversary of the brilliant Scottish Women’s Convention, I referred to gender equality as “an unwon cause”. As all of us know, and as evidence that I have cited in this speech shows, we have a huge amount still to do in order to fully win gender equality. It can be easy to become frustrated by, and perhaps angry at, the slow pace of change, but we have a lot to be proud of. When I look back across my career, examples of progress are not hard to find. The world today is a different and, in many ways, better place than it was when I was starting out in politics.
However, I am sorry to say that, in other ways, the world is also a harsher and more hostile place for girls and young women. Abuse, harassment, sexual threats and violence are not new phenomena but, sadly, the modern world offers more opportunities for such behaviour to reach and to harm women. We must tackle that—not just for women’s sake, but for the sake of society as a whole, which needs to harness the talents of our whole population in order to thrive and to prosper.
Let me end on a more positive note. For all the challenges that we still face, we can take pride in—and, I hope, inspiration from—the very real achievements of this Government and Parliament over recent years, whether that achievement is in our social policies, our promotion of equality in the workplace or our improvement of the criminal justice system. In all those areas and others, our Parliament has made real progress for women.
I remain optimistic that we can continue that progress in the months and years ahead, and that we can do so inclusively and with common cause. As we do so, I will be in a new seat, a bit further back in this chamber. No matter how hard it can sometimes feel in these times, I will always be the strongest possible advocate for women’s rights, as this Parliament seeks to win the cause of true equality for the next generation of women.
On international women’s day, I am proud to move, in my name,
That the Parliament welcomes the 2023 International Women’s Day theme of #EmbraceEquity, which recognises that each person has different circumstances, and that there is a need to focus resource and opportunity where it is most needed to reach an equal outcome; recognises that it is the responsibility of everyone to end the discrimination that women and girls face; acknowledges that, while much progress towards achieving equity has been made, there is more to do in Scotland and around the world to achieve and maintain equity; welcomes the independent Stewart review into increasing women’s participation in entrepreneurship; recognises and takes up the challenges given by the National Advisory Council on Women and Girls to address systemic inequality; further recognises that cultural shifts are needed alongside legislation; recognises the tireless work of organisations and communities across Scotland to promote equity and support all women, and agrees that equity is necessary for society and the economy to thrive, and that everyone should work together to embrace equity on, and beyond, International Women’s Day.
I call Meghan Gallacher to speak to and move amendment S6M-08137.2.15:05
Last weekend, I joined the First Minister and MSP colleagues as we gathered in the chamber to celebrate international women’s day. The event was organised by the Scottish Women’s Convention, and I put on record my thanks for such an enjoyable afternoon. A personal highlight of the day were the contributions from Grace and Zara from Our Lady’s high school in Cumbernauld. The quality of their speeches was outstanding. Grace and Zara are an asset to their school and fantastic role models for other young women. It made me proud, as a Central Scotland MSP, to see the next generation of talent afforded the opportunity to speak in this chamber. I hope that we will see them elected, perhaps to the Scottish Parliament or another chamber, in the future.
I will start my speech by talking about opportunity. After all, the theme of this year’s international women’s day is embrace equity. However, it is crucial that we recognise that we are still living in an unequal country. Despite it being more than 100 years since women first received the vote, we still earn 11 per cent less on average than our male colleagues, run just 4 per cent of Scotland’s top businesses, fill just 13 per cent of senior Police Scotland posts and represent just 6 per cent of Scottish newspaper editors. Our journey towards achieving equality is far from over.
Even with all the progress that has been made by generations of feminists, gender still plays an important role in how we are seen and in the life opportunities that we enjoy in Scotland today. We cannot, in any debate about equality, ignore the inequalities that persist in our society for more than half of the population. It is vital that we continue to strive towards ending those inequalities. As a Parliament, we must be ambitious when looking at the progression of women’s rights and, of course, protecting those rights that have been hard won over the years. We cannot afford to go backwards, and we must continue to ensure that the voices of women are heard and not vilified.
Members on my side of the chamber agree with the premise of the Scottish Government motion, and I associate myself with the First Minister and her calls to end the discrimination, harassment and abuse that women and girls face in our country and around the world.
I will start by looking at some statistics for Scotland. Sexual crimes are at their highest level on record. Domestic abuse incidents are at their second-worst level on record: in 2021-22, there were more than 32,000 charges of domestic abuse in cases that were reported to the Crown Office. Threatening and abusive behaviour offences were recorded as the most common types of offence related to domestic abuse. Only yesterday, we heard of the intimidation and harassment that women receive on public transport. That is not the Scotland that I want my daughter or any young girl to grow up in, and I hope that we can all agree that we can and must do better.
The issue of abuse and discrimination is not isolated to one country. Sadly, it is an all-too-common theme around the world. One newspaper story that I hoped that I would never read was about Mahsa Amini, who was beaten to death by Iranian authorities for not wearing a hijab properly. The Law Enforcement Command of the Islamic Republic of Iran claimed that she had a heart attack at a police station, collapsed and fell into a coma before being transferred to a hospital, but eyewitnesses allege that she was severely beaten and died as a result of police brutality. The case shed renewed light on the country’s treatment of women, with a growing number of female Iranians choosing to flout the law to wear the hijab. I applaud the brave women who have stood up against their oppressors, but I worry about the severe consequences that many will face for doing so.
At times like these, we need to be thankful that, throughout our United Kingdom, we have the right to freedom of speech and expression. In Afghanistan, the Taliban have banned women from attending university, leaving future generations of women unable to choose their futures. In Ukraine, the on-going conflict has severely impacted women and girls. From the bombing of maternity hospitals to human trafficking and gender-based violence, the horrors of war are a daily reality for Ukrainian women.
The violation of women’s rights must stop. We must stand together, always, against those who seek to remove basic human rights from women. I lodged the Scottish Conservatives amendment to highlight the violation of women’s rights globally, and I hope that the Government and Opposition parties will support it at decision time.
I hope that, one day, we will be able to use international women’s day as a cause for celebration because we have achieved equity, rather than a reason to talk about progress and the mountains that we still need to climb.
I want to finish on a positive note, as we are celebrating women today. We have achieved many things together, from the roll-out of free period products across the country to support for the introduction of the Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Act 2018. We support women best when we work together across political divides and Parliaments. If we are serious about embracing equity, we must continue to do that.
I will finish with this quotation:
“there is always light,
if only we’re brave enough to see it.
If only we’re brave enough to be it.”
I move amendment S6M-08137.2, to insert, after “maintain equality”:
“; expresses disappointment in the backsliding of women’s rights across the world in the past year, and particularly in Iran and Afghanistan”.
Speaking on international women’s day is one of my favourite moments in the parliamentary year. It is an opportunity to celebrate women and the contribution that they make, to be proud of the progress that we have made on women’s equality and to be hopeful about the changes that are still to come.
There is much to celebrate. Scotland is rich with talented, inspirational and fantastic women. Just this morning, Glasgow’s own Jamie Genevieve was added to the Forbes 30 under 30 list, following the global success of her Vieve make-up brand. Last week, runner Eilish McColgan broke the 10,000m record, beating Paula Radcliffe’s time.
Young girls across the country are looking on as Scotland’s women tear down barriers, reach new heights and give us reason to celebrate every day.
Today is an opportunity to be proud of not just the women who are making the headlines but those whose achievements often go unnoticed—women who are unpaid carers, women who keep the family wheels turning and women in the NHS and social care, who give their all, every day, no matter how hard things get.
Last night, I was grateful to have the opportunity to hear from unpaid carers at an event for the A Scotland that cares campaign. The women from whom we heard shared their experiences of giving up careers, making sacrifices in education and going without, so that they could properly look after someone who they loved when help from the state just was not there.
Some of the women’s contributions were harrowing, but they gave us reason to hope. We do not need miracles if we are to improve those women’s lives; we just need to listen to what they tell us they need. They need respite, so that they can take time for themselves. They need less bureaucracy, so that they are not overburdened with unnecessary administration. They need an end to unfair rules on carers benefits, such as the full-time-study rule, so that they can participate fully in education and work without fear of losing support.
I take this opportunity to thank all those women for all that they do and for being so candid with us. It is only by listening to people’s lived experience that we can deliver the transformative change that so many women need.
I reiterate my commitment and that of my party to fight for that change. Our Labour movement has a long history of supporting women’s rights and pushing forward the march towards equality. Labour Governments brought about the Equal Pay Act 1970 and the Equality Act 2010. In Scotland, it was Labour’s Monica Lennon who helped to change the law on period poverty. We have always embraced equality, not just in our words but in our deeds. Together, we have come far, but the progress cannot and will not stop here. We will continue to embrace equality.
I am pleased to see the First Minister here to lead what might be one of her final debates as First Minister. We might have political differences—there might be many—but I know that she is in the chamber because she cares passionately about women’s equality. As Scotland’s first female First Minister, she has been an inspiration to many young women and girls across the country.
I have spoken many times about the importance of representation and the need for people to see someone just like them in a room if they are to know that they can be there, too. The First Minister was that woman in the room for many of the young women who are entering politics today. I take this opportunity to thank her personally for helping me and my husband when she was our MSP a number of years ago. She helped us to access the care and support that we needed, without which I would not be here today, so I want to say thank you. [Applause.]
Presiding Officer, I sincerely hope that, whoever the next First Minister is, they will protect and progress women’s equality. That will mean supporting women at every turn, embedding gender analysis into our policy-making and spending decisions, and making the changes that women tell us they need because, in the words of Cher,
“Women are the real architects of society.”
Some of this means bold but necessary structural change, but we are not talking just about big-ticket or expensive items. This is also about the smaller and societal changes that are needed to tear down the barriers that women still face and that are still restricting their ability to reach their full potential.
As we heard in yesterday’s debate on women’s and girls’ safety on public transport, women too often do not feel safe going to or from work for fear of being harassed, intimidated or threatened on public transport. However, we can make decisions both here in this Parliament and in local authorities to stop that and to stop the disadvantages that women face right across Scotland by ensuring that councils do not have to scramble for funding to properly light streets and parks; by delaying the implementation of low-emission zones in Glasgow to protect the black cab trade; and by making public transport more accessible for disabled people.
We can give women in low-paid households their financial independence by introducing split payments for universal credit and other household benefits. We have had the power in Scotland to do that for a number of years now. The next First Minister must use the powers that Scotland has to end the outdated and punitive system of paying universal credit to households, leaving far too many women trapped and financially powerless. I hope that the Government will support the Labour amendment to its motion on that today.
We can defend women’s right to choose by supporting Gillian Mackay’s buffer zone bill to protect them from harassment and intimidation outside abortion clinics. I welcome the victory in Westminster yesterday for people accessing and providing abortion services in England and Wales. However, it means that Scotland is now officially lagging behind other United Kingdom nations in introducing buffer zones, so I hope that we pick up the pace on that soon.
We can pull women out of poverty, too, by growing the economy and driving up wages in low-paid sectors. We all know that women are disproportionately in low-paid work, often in jobs that are dreadfully undervalued such as care, so our future progress on equality relies on changing that, too. We must rebalance the economy by addressing the disproportionate number of women in those sectors by investing in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, properly resourcing STEM education, and preparing women for jobs for the future.
There is no magic wand that we can wave that means that we will wake up to a more equal world tomorrow. We cannot just expect policy to catch up by accident, either. We need to fix it by design and take action everywhere. It is the little stuff that adds up to the big stuff—listening to women about where change is needed, working out what is not working and fixing it, and making changes across every single area of Government. That is how we can continue to progress women’s equality.
I move amendment S6M-08137.1, to insert at end:
“; believes that using Scottish choices to implement split payments for Universal Credit is key to this, and calls on the Scottish Government to provide an update on progress made on this within this calendar year.”
I, too, associate myself with the comments from the First Minister and Meghan Gallacher about the inspiring event here on Saturday afternoon with the Scottish Women’s Convention.
On behalf of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, I welcome the First Minister’s announcement of a consultation to reform criminal law to address misogyny, and I trust that the Scottish Government will have an effective awareness campaign about the consultation and how to respond to ensure that as many views as possible are voiced.
This year’s international women’s day theme is “embrace equity”. Equity is about recognising that people are in different circumstances, which can make it more difficult to achieve the same goals. Inequity most commonly affects marginalised communities such as women, people of colour, disabled people and the LGBT+ community. Engender notes that, in advancing work to end men’s violence against all women and girls, we must prioritise the needs of marginalised women at every step. In simple terms, equality is giving everyone shoes; equity is giving everyone shoes that fit.
Patriarchal norms often block women from exercising their right to participate fully in economic life without discrimination. Globally, women and girls do the majority of unpaid care and domestic work and are overrepresented in poorly paid, precarious work.
Eradicating inequality requires an overhaul of the inequitable structures that prevent women from fully participating in the workforce. Research from Scottish Widows shows that, on average, women are retiring with £123,000 less in their pensions than men. Gender imbalances in pay, working patterns and time away from work for caring responsibilities are driving that gap. When talking about women and retirement, we cannot forget the long, on-going fight against state pension injustice by the 1950s WASPI women—women against state pension inequality. The ombudsman found that there had been maladministration on the part of the Department for Work and Pensions. Sadly, many of those women have since died without receiving any compensation. I declare an interest as a member of the WASPI cross-party group.
Age Scotland found that women over 55 are more likely to have a long-term health condition and that one in three women aged 55 to 64 are unpaid carers. We should recognise the valuable contribution that older women in Scotland make to our society, while challenging the inequality that too many experience. Across work and education settings, we need to understand the different challenges that women face and work to remove those systemic barriers. Globally, girls face additional barriers to education. Recent media reports highlighted the suspected poisoning of schoolgirls in Iran, while women and girls in Afghanistan continue to be systemically excluded from education. Funding feminist movements and women’s rights organisations is essential for the delivery of women’s and girls’ rights. Those groups are grounded in communities, are able to identify the needs of women and girls and deliver services. Women’s rights groups also have a vital advocacy role. However, the leadership of women and girls is consistently undervalued. The Scottish Government has committed to establishing a women and girls fund and to mainstreaming gender equality across its international programmes. I echo ActionAid and Oxfam in calling for more details on that work.
Women belong in politics and in Parliament. We still have a long way to go until the make-up of society is reflected in the make-up of our democratic institutions. In the chamber, women make up 45 per cent of participants, compared to 37 per cent in 1999, so we are seeing progress. The Scottish Parliament’s on-going work through its “A Parliament for All” report will, I hope, continue that progress.
UN Women highlights that only 11.3 per cent of countries worldwide have female heads of state. Full democracy needs equal participation of women in all its processes. A recent local event stands out in my mind when I reflect on just how far we have come and how far we have to go. During the signing of the islands growth deal in Kirkwall in January, representatives from three island groups, Orkney, the Western Isles and Shetland, were sitting together. I was there with Shetland’s political leader and council chief executive, who are both women. That is a sign of changing times and a shift in gender representation. All others around the table were men.
Finally, I take the opportunity to say thank you to Shetland Women’s Aid, which is celebrating 40 years of delivering specialist support services to women who have been affected by domestic abuse in Shetland. I pay tribute to the hard-working staff and trustees who provide such an important service.
We move to the open debate, when we will have speeches from back-bench MSPs of around six minutes. I advise members that we have some time in hand and that there is some latitude in that regard. We also have some time for interventions.15:24
I cannot be the only one who gets reflective on international women’s day. I have a ritual: I reread my parliamentary speeches from previous years. This will be my seventh consecutive international women’s day speech in the Parliament. My yearly ritual tells me that things are still not good enough and that they are not improving anywhere near fast enough. In fact, after I reread the speech that I delivered during the Covid pandemic, a couple of years ago, I realised that, during that period, things got worse for women. The same issues are there, stubbornly, year after year. Reports on economic gender parity back that up with data.
Yesterday, I had a look at this year’s women in work index, which is published by PricewaterhouseCoopers. Its report, entitled “Closing the Gender Pay Gap for good: A focus on the motherhood penalty”, said that, if things stay at the same rate, it will take 50 years to close the gender pay gap. Therefore, an 18-year-old woman who is at the start of her career today will not see the gender pay gap close in her working lifetime unless policies, attitudes and compulsions on employers change dramatically.
The UK position on the world women in work index has gone down five places since 2020. Some people will say that there is no silver bullet and that it is complicated and too difficult, but I disagree. At the heart of improving women’s lives and prospects is the open goal of childcare. The cost and accessibility of childcare prices women out of work; it forces mature women, as grandparents, into early retirement to help their daughters go back to work; and it leads to huge pension gaps.
I tell this story all the time. In 2011, the former Norwegian Prime Minister, Jens Stoltenberg, was interviewed by the Washington Post, and the interviewer asked him for the secret of Norway’s economic success. I am sure that the journalist was expecting a reply of “oil and gas”, but Stoltenberg simply replied that the secret was Norway’s women. He said that one Norwegian lesson was that raising female participation helps the economy, birth rates and the budget. Of course, Norway has universal free childcare.
Childcare is a national infrastructure. This Government is investing in it, with 1,140 hours provision, and that is maybe why Scotland’s gender pay gap is starting to come down and is the lowest in the UK. However, we need to get ourselves into a position to do much more to augment that groundbreaking policy. Yes—increasing the hours of free childcare is an obvious route, but the ultimate goal is to be, like Norway, in a fiscal position to provide universal free childcare, so that all the tax receipts from female participation in effect fund the infrastructure.
However, there is more. Let us look back to that index that I mentioned. Who are the current leaders? Luxembourg is first, followed by New Zealand. In Luxembourg, addressing the gender pay gap and all other forms of gender inequality has become a priority for the public policy agenda. In 2015, Luxembourg established the Ministry of Equality between Women and Men. Unlike any other ministry in the European Union, its sole focus is gender equality. That is all that it does, and that is what it concentrates on. Luxembourg has largely used employment law to get to that point where it can celebrate that position in the table. Luxembourg has made targeted interventions, particularly in high-wage private sectors.
Iceland also has a very good story to tell. Its strategy is highly subsidised and accessible childcare, as well as a high take-up by men of shared parental leave.
Of course, those are small independent countries, which are able to make all their own tax, social security and employment law decisions. Genuinely, my core reason for being in the independence movement is the impact that having all those levers at our disposal could have on the prospects of women, in particular. That is what drives me.
The gender pay gap in Scotland sits at 12.2 per cent; UK-wide, it is 14.9 per cent. The UK does have gender pay gap legislation but, as another international women’s day rolls around, I repeat my oft-heard criticism of that legislation, which is that there is no compulsion on the organisations that do the reporting to provide an action plan to reduce the gap if it is wide.
In the absence of that compulsion, I commend the organisations that analyse the yearly reports and call out the companies with the biggest and most persistent gaps. This year, I recommend the Gender Pay Gap Bot Twitter account. I do not really like Twitter bots, but I like that one. It automatically responds to any organisation or company that tweets—with a nice little graphic or picture of a woman working in that organisation—about international women’s day, and it fires its gender pay gap statistics back at it. It is illuminating and, for some of those companies, many of which operate in Scotland, I hope that it is thoroughly embarrassing.
In the current energy and engineering sector, the gap is stubbornly wide. On the cusp of massive Scottish expansion of renewables, let us change that by targeting more girls to attract them into that sector now. There has been a 70 per cent increase in students of renewables technologies in Scotland, but only 28 per cent of them are women. I am keen to meet the Minister for Higher Education and Further Education, Youth Employment and Training, Jamie Hepburn, to discuss how we can improve that.
Closing the gender pay gap could add £17 billion to Scotland’s economy and, if we closed the enterprise gap, with targeted, female-led business support, we would be looking at a £6.7 billion influx into the Scottish economy. As convener of the cross-party group on women in enterprise, I was pleased to hear the First Minister concentrating a great deal of her speech on that issue. Of course, I extend to her an invitation to join the cross-party group in four weeks’ time.
Economic gender parity is not just good for women; it is good for everyone who wants to end poverty and inequality. Serious, targeted work on economic gender parity is the key to reaching that goal. If we prioritise that, we will not have the MSP for Aberdeenshire East giving this same speech in 20 or 30 years’ time.15:30
I am delighted to have the chance to speak in the debate. As a Scottish Conservative MSP, I am proud that our party is a party for women. Not only was the first female member of Parliament a Conservative, but the first three—and only—female Prime Ministers have been Conservative. We know what a woman is, and we will always stand up for the rights of women and girls, at home and abroad.
International women’s day is an annual global event that is celebrated on 8 March to recognise the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women, as well as to advocate for gender equality and women’s rights.
International women’s day has celebrated the achievements of women for more than 100 years. Despite significant progress in past decades, women still face discrimination and inequality in various aspects of their lives, including access to education, employment and political representation. This year’s theme is “embrace equity” and encourages people to talk about why equal opportunities are not enough.
I want to focus on sport because, at one point, I was quite fit and active. As a former hockey player and a hockey umpire, I want to touch on some of the remarkable and recent achievements of British women in sport. To contextualise that, I recognise that hockey is a sport that has parity and equality of gender at all levels of the game. In fact, in the lead-up to the Commonwealth games in Glasgow in 2014, it was the women’s team that had greater support and investment, with players being paid as professionals.
I am sorry to interrupt, Ms Webber, but I say to members that we have a speaker on the floor and it would be courteous to listen to her.
Thank you, Presiding Officer.
The Scottish Hockey Union had limited funds, as many sports do, and it had to choose what its priorities were, and it actively chose to support the women’s side.
Far more recently, at the weekend, there was great success for our woman athletes at the European indoor championships in Istanbul. First, Great Britain’s Keely Hodgkinson retained her 800m title in style, despite the loss of her lifelong coach the previous week. She dedicated her win to him.
Just as Keely Hodgkinson crossed the finish line, the GB team captain, Jazmin Sawyers, won a sensational long jump gold when she jumped exactly 7m. For many, that was an unexpected win, but not for Jazmin. She had been inspired by her teammates and she was absolutely thrilled to complete her winning jump. When she saw Keely Hodgkinson on the track at that same time, there ensued massive supportive and congratulatory hugs and tears, as members can imagine. I think that that is one thing that separates women’s sport from men’s: we are far more team focused and supportive of our team mates at every level.
Also at the weekend, we had further success when Laura Muir won a record fifth European indoor championship title as she claimed victory in the women’s 1,500m final, becoming the most successful Briton in the history of the competition. Breaking down barriers—as Pam Duncan-Glancy said—and, more so, hurdles, she has surpassed Colin Jackson as the British athlete with the most indoor European titles. She spoke of coming to that tournament 10 years ago and of the great progress that she has made since then. That is a bit of an understatement—another point on which women differ from men.
On the other side of the world, we had Eilish McColgan, who set a new British 10,000m record in California. The 32-year-old Scot beat Paula Radcliffe’s time, which was set in Munich back in 2002.
Our most successful British tennis player, Andy Murray, has been a champion for women’s sport, including tennis, for as long as I can remember. Wimbledon is a great example of male and female athletes receiving equal pay, and I really hope that other sports and competitions will follow suit.
However, as we celebrate the successes that we have in so many sports, we cannot ignore the fundamental differences in biology. I will talk about one specific example. Dr Marshall M Garrett, an independent medical expert, recently authored a report entitled “Overview of Concussional Injuries in Female Rugby from a Medicolegal Perspective”, which was undertaken following instructions received in August 2022 from Aberdeen Rugby Ltd.
The objective of the review was to provide an evidence-based opinion on whether concussional injuries in female rugby players occur with greater frequency than in males and whether symptomatology in the female cohort is more severe and/or persistent. The report indicates evidence of significant anatomical and physiological differences between men and women as regards head and neck function, resulting in a lower ability to withstand abrupt head blows and neck acceleration. It stated:
“there is a significant advantage in neck strength and head support ability between appropriately height and body weight matched males ... and females.”
Therefore, when it comes to contact sport, in particular, it would be unfair and even unsafe if men were to take part in women’s sport.
We cannot escape biology when it comes to sport. From head and neck anatomical differences to differences in bone density and muscle volume, biology makes a difference to performance, and we cannot pretend otherwise.
Although the status of women in Scotland and in the rest of the UK in general has improved, far more work needs to be done to achieve absolute equality between the sexes.
International women’s day 2023 provides an opportunity to raise awareness about the issues and to promote a more inclusive and equitable society. Whether it is through advocacy, activism or simple acts of kindness and support, we can all contribute to building a world in which every person has equal opportunities to thrive and succeed, regardless of their gender.15:37
International women’s day should be a day of celebration and empowerment. We take stock and mark the immense achievements of women in the face of systemic barriers to those achievements. However, I am not in a celebratory mood.
Undoubtedly, there has been much progress, and the very notion that feminist ideals have become mainstream in our discourse is testament to that. In taking that wider view, I understand the case for optimism; however, there is no room for complacency.
We should think of the brave women in Iran who are systemically subjugated and denied equity of status and basic rights such as access to education. I thank Meghan Gallacher for raising the case of Mahsa Zhina Amini, whose death last year fomented a wave of rebellions from women and the wider population, who are rising up against tyranny in that country.
Women around the world remain subject to profound inequity and, in some cases, state-sanctioned barbarism. We, in western Europe, can become all too complacent in this discussion. Many in liberal democracies blithely assume that women’s equality is a fact. What started as a rights movement has become an accepted normative principle, but belief in that principle can be a grievous mistake, because illiberal and populist thinking is rising in countries across Europe.
Only yesterday in the chamber, a debate was held on the safety of women and girls on public transport. Tomorrow’s debate focuses on reforming the criminal law to address misogyny. Every woman we meet will have experienced misogyny. Prejudice and misogynistic attitudes are thriving. Some men on social media parade their toxicity, safe in the knowledge that those behaviours still enjoy a level of social acceptability. Harassment, sexual assault and rape remain commonplace.
I thank Beatrice Wishart for mentioning Scottish Women’s Aid. My office has helped a number of constituents dealing with domestic abuse and we regularly work with our local Motherwell and District Women’s Aid group. Its vital specialist support services are experiencing unprecedented demand and its finances are strained almost to breaking point.
If we are truly to embrace equity, we must recognise that it is not a static fact but a shifting ideal that demands our vigilance and protection if we are to make any progress.
The aim of the 2023 #EmbraceEquity campaign is to get the world thinking about why equal opportunities are not enough. People start from vastly different circumstances, so true inclusion and true progress demand equitable action. That often means positive intervention.
I thank Gillian Martin for highlighting the gender pay gap statistics. In my office, I have a “Mind the Gap” poster that states:
“Prepare your daughter for working life. Give her less pocket money than her brother”.
Every single young person who visits my office is perturbed and annoyed by that. “Well, that’s not fair,” they cry. What happens, from primary school age to adolescence to adulthood, that blinds us to that simple injustice?
The UN is calling for more action to highlight and solve the persistent gender pay gap, the gap in digital access, the underrepresentation of women, girls and other marginalised groups in STEM, both in education and in careers, and the threat of online gender-based violence. It also calls for action to highlight the achievements of women in science and technology. Those are all things that we should be doing.
We have outstanding leaders in Scotland. Dr Silvia Paracchini, Professor Dame Anne Glover, Professor Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, Professor Dame Muffy Calder, and Professor Lesley Yellowlees are all pioneers in their field, as is Professor Sheila Rowan, who is leading the way on experimentation with gravitational waves. In my field of computing science, Gillian Docherty is the chief commercial officer at the University of Strathclyde and a former chief executive officer of the Data Lab.
There are also outstanding companies, including Antibody Analytics in my Motherwell and Wishaw constituency, that are co-founded by women and succeeding in initiatives to address gender imbalance in their company.
The First Minister is an inspiration to many of us, not least in her love of literature. I am reminded of one of my literary heroes, Ursula K Le Guin. On being asked to write the foreword to a collection of new fantasy short stories, she wrote:
“I cannot imagine myself blurbing a book, the first of a new series and hence presumably exemplary of the series ... the tone of which is so self-contentedly, exclusively male, like a club, or a locker room. That would not be magnanimity, but foolishness. Gentlemen, I just don’t belong here.”
She said that in 1987. As the First Minister said, Ursula K Le Guin did belong. All young women deserve to belong in their endeavours in life.
I used to think that the dystopian novels of Le Guin and Margaret Atwood that shaped my perceptions of the world were just fiction and not portents of what my life experience might be. However, for too many women, what is set out in “The Handmaid’s Tale” is close to their reality.
Last year, I read “The Shining Girls” by Lauren Buekes. Part of the book is set around the underground network supporting women who were exercising their reproductive rights in the 1960s. The chapter ends whimsically with a message that people should not worry because a court case is coming that will enshrine those rights “forever”. The book was published in 2013. At that time, Roe v Wade seemed unassailable, but look at what is happening in the USA today.
On this international women’s day, it is more important than ever to recognise where we are failing and, together, to resolve to achieve not just equality for women but equity for women across the world.15:44
Happy international women’s day to everyone who is celebrating.
I, too, place on the record my best wishes to Nicola Sturgeon as she counts down the days and hours to leaving the office of First Minister. She is our first woman First Minister but, I hope, not the last—and that is in no way a comment on the leadership contest that is under way. I hope that, regardless of political beliefs and party affiliations, women and girls across Scotland and the UK and, indeed, beyond will have taken inspiration, courage and confidence from the First Minister’s commitment to public service. I think that we all agree that leadership is for women and girls, regardless of their background.
Colleagues have been reflecting today on the collective progress that has been made towards achieving equality and equity for women and girls, and there is a lot to celebrate. However, as the First Minister and others have said, there is still a hell of a lot to do.
I turn to historical forced adoption. At First Minister’s question time last week, I received a positive indication from the First Minister that the Scottish Government has been listening carefully to the women and families affected by historical forced adoption. I am pleased that the issue was raised and reinforced in the First Minister’s speech today. We all know that an apology is due, and I hope that it will happen very soon, in the time that the First Minister has left.
We are joined today by Marion McMillan, who is in the public gallery. Marion’s son was taken from her in 1967 simply because she was an unmarried mother. It is really hard to talk about this as a historical injustice when Marion and her family and thousands of others who have gone through a similar experience are still living with the trauma and its life-changing impacts.
Marion is a survivor of multiple injustices and adversities. In addition to forced adoption, she was subjected to diethylstilbestrol, or DES—the drug that was given to women to dry up their breast milk as their babies were snatched from their arms. We now know that the drug increases the risk of cancer and other diseases. She is also a mesh-injured woman, and it is really a miracle that Marion is here, because she is also living with cancer. I am looking at Marion, and she is not a victim—she is a survivor. She is a warrior woman who has supported and championed countless women not just in Scotland but around the world.
She could not be with us in the public gallery in June 2001, when Parliament spoke with one voice on the need for a formal apology. I am pleased that she is here today, supported by her husband, George, and sitting with another phenomenal woman who also happens to be called Marion—the award-winning journalist Marion Scott, who is the political editor of the Sunday Post. Frankly, she has fought for justice for these women’s families when so many others in the media were simply not interested. We need warrior women in our media, too.
Forced adoption has left emotional scars on mothers, fathers, adoptees and extended families. None of us can change what happened, but we can acknowledge the harm that was caused through a formal apology, alongside a plan for access to specialist trauma-informed support and better access to adoption records.
Esther Robertson describes herself as a mixed-race black girl who grew up in a white adoptive family during the 1960s and 1970s. She was taken from her mother, Ann Bruce Lindenberg. I know that the First Minister might have more time soon, and I recommend that she and all colleagues listen to the podcast “Looking for Esther”, which is on Spotify. It was written and produced by Esther’s partner, Gayle Anderson, and it is about Esther’s 50-year search for answers on her birth parents, her background and her identity. It is a really important perspective.
While I am name-checking women, I have a wee gift for the First Minister, as I know that she likes books. It is “Adoption and Loss” by Evelyn Robinson—a Scottish woman who left our nation in 1970 after her son was taken. Evelyn was instrumental in ensuring the Australian adoption apology. I have several copies of the book in my office and I can provide them if other colleagues want to speak to me after today’s business. There is so much that we need to learn from these women, and I feel that we are finally getting there.
I mentioned the drug that was given to Marion McMillan. Colleagues know that I am passionate about women’s health. Over a year ago now, at a round-table discussion, we heard from Caitlin McCarthy, who is an American educator and award-winning screenwriter of an upcoming feature film about the DES drug disaster. She was inspired to write about that because she is a DES daughter.
There are so many more women to mention, but I have only a few seconds left. I also want to talk about period dignity, which other members have mentioned. At the weekend, I had the privilege of being a guest speaker at the University of Cambridge, and I want to let colleagues know that the work that we are doing collectively in Scotland on period equality is creating waves around the world.
I heard from Dr Zareen Roohi Ahmed, who has been inspired to set up a charity and a business to get free period products to as many people as possible, and particularly to women in refugee camps. She was inspired to do so because her daughter had a dream and vision but was abducted and murdered when she was 19. I did not want to dwell on violence against women today, but we should not have to turn to such dark times to find a way forward for gender equality.
I am running out of time, and there is so much more to say. I ask all colleagues, if they have not already done so, to download the PickupMyPeriod app and get it on their smartphones and other devices. Shona Robison and I had a really good meeting last week. Excellent work on period products is happening in local government, but we all have to tell our constituents how they can access those products.
I will finish with a short quote from Dolly Parton, because Cher got a name check and I do not want to leave out Dolly. We want all women to believe in themselves, so all that I want to say is:
“Find out who you are and do it on purpose.”
It is a pleasure to follow Monica Lennon, who is perhaps another warrior woman.
In my contribution to today’s international women’s day debate, I want to look forward with ambition, but I will begin by looking back for inspiration, and I can find that aplenty in my constituency of Argyll and Bute. For example, there is Ella Carmichael, who was born on Lismore in 1870. She was an editor and scholar and is remembered as a supporter of the Scottish Gaelic language. There is Eliza Maria Campbell, who was born in 1795 in Inveraray and was a skilled painter and keen horticulturist who took up the study of fossils. There is Margaret McKellar, who was born on the Isle of Mull in 1861. She became a member of the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario and went as a medical missionary to central India. I will quickly mention another person who has an island connection in my constituency: Lady Astor, whose family has an estate there. She was the second woman elected to Westminster, after Connie Markievicz, an Irish nationalist, in 1918.
Those women opened the door and gave others a glimpse of what could be achieved. I am very much a believer that looking back and learning are essential to moving forward.
On Saturday, I was in the chamber with more than 200 women who all represented the many colours and aspects of life in Scotland, at an event that was organised by the wonderful Scottish Women’s Convention. As others have said, that was the 20th anniversary of the gathering, so there was much celebration of what has been achieved in Scotland for women. We have the baby box, increased free childcare provision and legislation to improve representation on public boards, as well as the fact that Scotland was the first country to make period products free, along with many more examples.
However, we were also challenged as to what still needs to be done to achieve and maintain equity and to maintain the momentum. That challenge comes from two directions. Outlining the first aspect was Dr Radhika Govinda, who is a senior lecturer in sociology at the University of Edinburgh. She spoke about the importance of recognising that everyone has their own unique experiences of discrimination and oppression and that, therefore, we must consider everything and anything that can marginalise people, be that gender, race, class, sexual orientation or physical ability. Dr Govinda suggested that our challenge is to understand and address all potential roadblocks to an individual’s or group’s wellbeing. It is only if we see those roadblocks as a whole that they can be overcome.
The second challenge was outlined by Zara De Almeida and Grace Lennon, both of whom are senior students at Our Lady’s high school in Cumbernauld, as Meghan Gallacher mentioned. They spoke not only about their admiration for women whom they know, such as their mums, teachers and friends, but about women whom they respect for what they have achieved: Malala Yousafzai, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and our own First Minister.
They challenged everyone in the chamber to imagine what they wanted to see in 20 years’ time—creating a better future by imagining it now and setting high ambitions. Both had attended the Parliament for international women’s day last year and, as a result, they took part in roadshows that were organised by the Scottish Women’s Convention. The convention works closely with women in Scotland to ensure that their voices are heard as part of decision-making processes, and I thank it for its incredibly important work.
Zara and Grace were both clear that they felt included and listened to. They said that it was refreshing that they had a voice and were not being ignored. They felt that they were being seen and were part of an invaluable community. Their clear message was that, in 20 years’ time, women—all women—will be equal and that they deserve fairness. Normality should be for women to expect respect. I have paraphrased their wonderful contributions and have certainly not delivered my speech with the poise and confidence that they both showed on Saturday.
I say to colleagues that I think that the future of women in Scotland and across the world is safe in the hands of those young women and many others like them. They will certainly work together to ensure that the equity that is necessary for society and the economy to thrive is delivered. As legislators, we must not let them down and must work with them to fulfil that dream.
Returning to Argyll and Bute, I will mention a fantastic young woman who is daring to be different. Jodie Sloss, who grew up on a croft in Tighnabruaich, is now setting the motor racing world alight. She started her racing career on horseback, but she has swapped to the horsepower of motor sport. Competing against an international field of more than 1,000 entrants, Jodie competed in the 2022 Formula Woman competition in the UK, making it to the final 70 who took part in ice driving. It was on a frozen lake in Sweden that Jodie’s raw talent shone through, and she was chosen to be the first Scottish driver in the Formula Woman GT cup championship team. Jodie puts her success down to driving on Argyll and Bute’s tight, narrow roads.
I am pleased that Jodie will be joining me in the Parliament tomorrow to meet the sports minister, Maree Todd. We will discuss Jodie’s experiences in motor sport, the benefits that her journey has given her and how those might be spread around Scotland. Who knows? She might even give me some tips on how to negotiate those tight, narrow Argyll and Bute roads.
The women I have mentioned are hugely varied, but they all share at least one thing: burning ambition to be the best that they can be. Those wonderful women have shown us the way. Let us all share that ambition.
I begin by recognising, as others have done, that this is, I think, the last debate in the chamber that the First Minister will take part in as First Minister. It is appropriate that that is happening on international women’s day. I thank the First Minister for her leadership, especially on the issue that is before us today. Although we still have work to do, Scotland is better able than it might otherwise have been without Nicola Sturgeon’s leadership to tackle the various issues of gender inequity that we face—so thank you.
I also thank the women across Scotland who work hard to support other women, through paid or unpaid work, as family members or friends, as colleagues or as strangers, and I thank the community groups and organisations that work every day to further gender equality and to support women. I know some such organisations very well—I refer members to my entry in the register of members’ interests.
Under this year’s international women’s day theme, we are told to embrace equity. This afternoon, we have the opportunity to ask ourselves exactly what that means. Equity is not just a synonym for equality or a way to ring the changes on a well-worn tune; equity is something different that asks more of us and that offers more to those for whom we speak.
In some legal traditions, equity has long been understood and recognised. It is a fairness that goes beyond the common law, addressing the ways in which simply adhering to standard practice does not bring about justice.
Equity is about situations in which equality is not enough. That is illustrated by the familiar drawing of children behind a fence. To see what is happening on the other side of the fence, the littlest need the largest boxes to stand on.
Equity is about situations when we do not know exactly what justice requires. It is no coincidence that we speak not of intergenerational equality but of intergenerational equity. The needs of future generations—the women and girls of the future—depend on the decisions that we make now.
We know, as ActionAid and Oxfam reminded us this week, that our overlapping crises—of cost and climate, food and fuel, housing and habitats—all carry brutally gendered impacts. Unless our choices now are informed by equity, those disparities will widen into unbridgeable gulfs of suffering and despair.
Equity is demanding of everyone involved. It demands honesty, integrity and attention to nuance and granular detail. Whoever comes to equity, says the old legal adage, must come with clean hands. It is not an easy option. It is not a weapon for playing political games or constructing moral panics. If we are, indeed, to embrace equity, as feminists, we must be clear about what it requires from us and from the communities that we help to build.
First of all, equity needs to be intersectional. We must remember the visceral force of Kimberlé Crenshaw’s original metaphor. For the women who stand in those junctions, heavy traffic thundering towards them from all sides—misogyny, racism and transphobia—equity is not a nice idea but a life-saving necessity.
There are many intersections that we do not know enough about. Age Scotland has highlighted, for example, the lack of data about older disabled women, older women of colour and older LGBTQIA+ women. Unless we know who we are talking about, where they are and what they need, our strategies will be mere well-meaning hopes.
Secondly, equity must be grounded in the particular, and it must be recognised that no woman’s experience is the same as another’s and that each bears her unique story. Hearing those stories must not be an afterthought—a colourful illustration of the narrative that we have already decided to tell. As representatives, policy makers and legislators, we must listen, not merely hear.
Thirdly, equity must also be collective. We must recognise our shared experiences of the particular and stand in solidarity as allies for as long as it takes. Our equity cannot come from the top down; it must be nurtured and grown by those who need it most. Processes of equity must be truly participatory and truly iterative. We will not always succeed, but we can definitely fail better.
Fourthly and finally, the equity that we seek to embrace is inclusive. We must build on the best of all that has gone before. It does not need to choose between justice and care. Indeed, it must not choose between them but be deeply imbued with the ethics of both. The giving of care is central to the daily lives of thousands of women in Scotland and millions across the world, but so is the experience of injustice. There is no incongruity between recognising the deep human value of the care—paid or unpaid—that many women give and saying that they, their daughters and their granddaughters deserve better.
We can do better and do differently, not just in Scotland but, as we take our place on the global stage, in developing and enacting a genuinely feminist foreign policy. War, climate change, conflict and forced migration exacerbate all oppressions, precarities and social and gender disparities. Only the most meticulous care and the most radical justice can address them. We embrace those. We embrace equity.
To close, I share Rebekah Bastian’s words on gender equity, with due apologies for what some might consider to be an inappropriate word:
Age, ability and sexuality
There is no one size fits all strategy
To empowering woman equitably ...
We need to remember women’s many identities
And then create systems that work towards equity
This is more than a list or some boxes to check
We have multi-dimensional matrices to inspect
To break down the 50 percent into stories
And understand women in all of their glory
But the hard work is worth it, without a doubt
We have too much untapped talent just waiting to come out
We’re all here right now because we give a shit
About gender equity. And this is it.”
I welcome the opportunity to speak in this debate on international women’s day. This year’s theme is “embrace equity”, which brings a focus on the fact that people start from different places and that, therefore, true inclusion and belonging bring equitable action. The theme clearly recognises the fact that equity is not just nice to have—it is a must-have. That point was articulated well by the First Minister in her contribution, and I was pleased to see her opening today’s debate.
It must be acknowledged that the First Minister has done a great deal in leading the Scottish Government and making significant progress on achieving equity. I pay tribute to everything that she has done and achieved since becoming Scotland’s first female First Minister. As has already been mentioned, she brought in Scotland’s first gender-balanced Cabinet. Her leadership has been strong and determined, but perhaps she will not miss First Minister’s question time every week, when all the Opposition parties’ male leaders line up to shout.
Of course, it is not just up to women to achieve equity. This morning, I met community representatives at Clydebank town hall for a flag-raising event to highlight international women’s day. There was strong support for the event, and it was good to raise awareness in that manner. We are a strong community. I pay tribute to Women’s Aid and the wider support groups in my constituency. They are a tower of strength to many women at the time of their greatest need. Quite simply, they have saved lives and supported women. That is why one of the features of international women’s day must be remembering all those strong and determined women who have gone before us and what they have achieved.
There are so many to mention, but one such woman with a strong connection to my constituency is Jane Rae. She was a political activist who took part in the Singer sewing machine factory strike in 1911. Jane was among the 400 workers who were sacked for their involvement in the strike, which ran from March to April in 1911. From 1922 until 1928, she served on Clydebank Town Council. She was part of an anti-war network and a supporter of the suffragette movement. She even chaired a meeting with Emmeline Pankhurst in Clydebank town hall.
Jane is especially famous for her role in the Clydebank rent strike, which has been described as one of the key events in the legend of red Clydeside. If we could muster just a small part of the energy that Jane showed to secure equity, we would achieve so much. It is right that we are fuelled by her achievements and those of many others.
When striving for equity, we must also reflect on what has been achieved by the Scottish Government and our Parliament. Those achievements include the introduction of the world-leading Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Act 2018, which made psychological domestic abuse and controlling behaviour a crime; the publication of the women’s health plan to reduce inequalities in health outcomes and improve information in services for women; the appointment of our first women’s health champion; the expansion of free childcare, to make available 1,140 hours of childcare a year to all three and four-year-olds and eligible two-year-olds; the full mitigation of the benefit cap and the introduction of the Scottish child payment, with no Westminster-like two-child benefit policy and its abhorrent rape clause; the carers allowance supplement, which corrects a wrong that was created and maintained by successive Westminster Governments; the collaborative work on period poverty, which has already been mentioned and which enshrined in law access to free period products; the implementation of the equally safe strategy, to prevent and eradicate all forms of violence against women and girls and to tackle the underlying attitudes that perpetuate it; and the refreshed fair work action to tackle the drivers of the gender pay gap.
Those are significant milestones. However, as a woman and, indeed, the first female MSP for Clydebank and Milngavie, I know that much more needs to be done.
In Scotland, the gender pay gap is lower than it is in the rest of the UK, but it is still a significant and major barrier to equity. With the burdens of caring still falling on women—although improved assistance to unpaid carers is welcome—we also want to see the new carers assistance recognise the further reforms that are needed.
The Poverty Alliance has highlighted that women are twice as dependent on social security as men. The UK social security system is not fit for purpose, and increases to conditionality for women with children have made it worse. We need to address that through further devolution and a minimum income guarantee for all.
Those are just some of the things that we need to fix if we are to make further progress. However, let us celebrate international women’s day and push for the equity that all women deserve.16:09
I am glad that the Cher lyrics that Pam Duncan-Glancy quoted were not
“If I could turn back time”,
especially in this context.
It gives me great pleasure to follow all the other contributions from right across the chamber today, and I align myself with many of the comments that have been made.
It is testament to the achievements, bravery and dedication of women who have gone before us that so many women are here today, and not only in this chamber but in Parliaments and Assemblies across the United Kingdom and, indeed, the world.
It has been 105 years since women were given the right to vote and 95 years since women got to vote on equal terms with men in the UK. Since then, we have collectively campaigned for equality at work, access to birth control and healthcare, education, economic opportunity and recognition of past sins, and we have begun to enshrine?gender equality?in domestic and international law. We have achieved so much in the past 105 years, but there is so much more that we can and must do.
As is my way, it is time for the personal anecdote. I was recently at a constituency visit in Rosyth, for the cutting of the steel for the new frigate, where I was chatting to another woman who was originally from Canada and who worked in the civil service. We bonded over our positions, the effects that our jobs have on family life and the fact that we are women. The conversation moved on to the erosion of woman’s rights around the world, with the examples of changing abortion laws, the banning of education for girls, beatings for ill-worn headwear and on-going gender concerns. When we were mid-discussion, an ex-councillor from Perth—whom I know—came over to say hello, and we proceeded to bring him up to speed on our conversation. His response was to tell us that we were wrong. He then proceeded to tell us that women’s rights had not moved back at all—with no evidence for his statement other than self-assured protestation. In effect, he cancelled our truth.
I did not mention that incident to highlight the behaviour of the gentleman in question—because that happens daily to women in business, politics, public life and in the home, all over the world. I brought it up because I said nothing—neither of us did. I did not stand up. I let the conversation dwindle, and, soon after that, we all went on to talk to others at the event. As the motion highlights, it is the responsibility of everyone to end the discrimination that women and girls face, and that can be done in the simplest of ways. Calling out everyday prejudice and that baseless assertion would have been a good start, and I promise that I will not let what happened then happen again.
The Scotland that I know is not a nation to look inward. International women’s day gives us all a chance to be reminded of what and who has gone before us, and of how we can pave the way for a better future for those who are still to come. However, in recent years authoritarian leaders have launched assaults on women’s rights and democracy that threaten to roll back?decades of progress?on both fronts.
Across the world, there are women and girls who are still treated horrifically. The Taliban—the self-declared government of Afghanistan—promised that girls would be able to access education; they are not in education. Women were promised that they would be able to continue to work or go to university or to work; they are not permitted any of those freedoms. If they are caught studying or working, they are met with such severe punishment that it can lead to death—and in some cases it has. Those women are being made to feel that they are being punished simply for being women.
Horia Mosadiq was a girl when Russia invaded Afghanistan in 1979. Now, Horia works at Amnesty International. She said:
“Afghan women were the ones who lost most from the war and militarisation.”
They lost all the freedoms that had become the norm across the country in a matter of weeks.
In Iran, women have been sent to jail for publicly speaking out in favour of equal rights for women. The Ayatollah described the notion of gender equality as
“unacceptable to the Islamic Republic.”
The death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old student who died on 16 September 2022 after morality police beat her, apparently for wearing a loose hijab, was the catalyst for the new wave of protest. Protesters have adopted the Kurdish slogan “woman, life, freedom” as their rallying cry, and they have taken to the streets to demand political freedom in the face of internet blackouts, mass arrests and live-fire attacks by security services.
Women are continuing to stand up. Many thousands of nameless, faceless women are standing side by side and demanding that their voices are heard. We stand in the Parliament, time and time again, naming the person who is the face of a campaign—and quite rightly so—but a leader is only as strong as the people who stand behind them, and it is they who, I believe, need special recognition.
We agree that there is more to do in Scotland and around the world to achieve and maintain equity, and those wonderful women are taking the challenge head on, and our example is set. We must never lose sight of the fact that there is still so much more to fight for if we are to drive forward the rights of women and girls at home and across the world.
On a final note, it is imperative that we support one another and that men and women work together to embrace equity, here and across the globe. We need to big up one another and to cheer for our achievements. Men, I speak to you now, because equity is about fairness, and it is a role that you should all embrace. Stand with women, because change can come only from a joint will to make it. We must support our daughters and educate our sons. We must live in an equal society, and we must fight to achieve that. We want men to encourage, support and help, so I ask: will you do that?16:15
I am really happy to speak in the debate, and I am honoured to be the first male member to do so on this very important day—international women’s day. I thank our First Minister for bringing the important issue of embracing equity to the chamber. She has been a role model for a lot of women in the world. I thank her for that.
International women’s day is a day to celebrate women’s achievements, to raise awareness of discrimination and to move towards gender equality. Gender equality is not just an issue for women; it is one for everyone to pay attention to, including men. I get told that every day. I grew up with five sisters and 21 cousin sisters, and I now have a daughter who reminds me of that every day.
We must all be present to listen to the experiences of women and girls and to join in the conversation. International women’s day was originally set up to help to draw attention to women’s right to vote, but its initiatives have changed in line with the issues that are most pressing in society. In response to the armed conflicts that were happening worldwide, international women’s day 2010 highlighted the struggle of displaced women.
Women and children make up almost 80 per cent of displaced people. We are again seeing the displacement of women and children with the war in Ukraine. Women are being displaced at a higher rate, and there have been reports of people trafficking, which disproportionately affects female refugees. I spoke about the need to protect refugee women in the Scottish Government’s debate to mark one year of war in Ukraine.
Today, I want to draw attention to the important theme of this year’s international women’s day: embracing equity. Ensuring that every woman and girl be provided with an equal opportunity to succeed, regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation or social or economic background, must be a priority for this Parliament. Equity is vital to making sure that international women’s day is inclusive for all women and girls across Scotland.
For that reason, on this international women’s day, I want to draw attention to ethnic and religious minority women. Many ethnic and religious minority women experience misogyny and sexism in different ways, and, if we want to tackle sexism and misogyny, we must recognise the multiplicity of experiences.
Yesterday, my colleagues spoke about the safety of women and girls on public transport. Many spoke about the worrying statistic that around half of women and girls feel uncomfortable using public transport after dark, and the fact that many women have no choice other than to take an expensive taxi, as they do not feel safe taking public transport or walking home alone. The Scottish Government must do better to ensure that women and girls are able to travel safely and without fear or harassment, no matter the situation or time of day.
The feeling of danger when walking alone at night or taking public transport alone is shared by women across Scotland, but ethnic and religious minority women have the added fear of discriminatory behaviour to factor into their safety.
Some Muslim women wear a hijab or niqab that represents a sign of modesty and faith in their religion. Because of that religious choice, they face violence, discrimination, and harassment. I have been told of cases of Muslim women avoiding train stations altogether out of fear that someone would push them on to the tracks.
Recent reports on Islamophobia in the UK have found that women are much more likely to be targeted than men, but violence against women and girls is not the only way that ethnic and religious minority women face further inequality. In employment, the gender pay gap for ethnic minority women is even wider. In sport, black, Asian and ethnic minority women and girls suffer from particularly low levels of involvement. In higher education, academic positions are dominated by white people, and senior roles are predominantly held by men.
Embracing equity means acknowledging the added discrimination and inequality that women and girls from ethnic and religious minority backgrounds face. Embracing equity means recognising that different resources and opportunities must be provided to strive for an equal outcome for all women and girls. Embracing equity means reaching full equality for all women.
I call Natalie Don, who is the final speaker in the open debate.16:21
International women’s day means something different to everyone. Of course, celebrating the achievements of women and scrutinising the progress that is still to be made come front and centre, but there are many different issues surrounding equality and how we achieve it. All women have very different experiences and priorities, as has been accurately reflected in the debate today.
Women are still disproportionately impacted by poverty. In Scotland, that is even worse than it was last year, with women having been hit hardest by the cost of living crisis. Women are still more likely to have caring responsibilities and to depend on social security, so of course they are directly impacted by the benefit cap and the two-child limit. The cost of living crisis is just compounding inequalities.
If we are to truly embrace equity in order to build a more diverse, equitable and inclusive society, tackling poverty must be at the absolute core of what we do. Women will never be able to be the best that they can be when they are living in poverty. Although that is true of any person, women in Scotland are disproportionately impacted.
I turn to Parliament and politics. As part of this year’s international women’s day, Engender is calling on MSPs to act for women’s equity by supporting equal representation for women and marginalised groups in politics, and I absolutely support that. We are doing well in Scotland on that front and the difference that that is making is clear. Over the past few years, I have been so proud to hear more and more women’s issues being raised and discussed in Parliament. At one time in our history, it would have had to be international women’s day for issues such as periods, women’s safety, perinatal mental health, menopause or breastfeeding to make it to the forefront—but not any longer. It is so refreshing to speak openly and honestly about those things.
Thanks to the representation of women in this Parliament, more and more policies and legislation are being passed with the aim of advancing women’s rights. Just look at the women’s health plan, the women’s health champion and key policies including the expansion of early learning, which has unquestionably broken down so many barriers for women.
However, although more and more women’s issues are being raised and debated, structures and attitudes are not moving quickly. I have experienced sexism and misogyny in Parliament and have witnessed it on countless occasions. Most of the women who are here today will have experienced abuse on social media, and many will have been questioned in ways that no man would ever be questioned.
I always think back to one of the first things that happened to me when I was first elected as a local councillor. When I attended my first community council meeting, someone told me that they did not like the jumper that I wore in my photo that had gone on the council website. I know that the women in the chamber will understand how deflating that was. I was attending my first community council as a councillor and, before I had even opened my mouth, I was being judged on my choice of clothes in a picture rather than on my priorities, my views or my work to date. It is sad that I and many others continue to have such experiences on a daily basis.
I also have concerns about the “family friendly” label that the Parliament has. I have a one-year-old and a three-year-old at home, so I have direct experience of the issue. There have been no childcare facilities in the Parliament since before the pandemic. My attendance at cross-party group meetings and parliamentary receptions is almost out of the question if I want to make it home for story time. The timing of debates is so unpredictable that it is impossible to be a reliable parent. That impacts not just on members but on staff and the public.
I say that not so that people will feel sorry for me or for politicians, but to emphasise that there are still huge barriers to women entering politics. That is true of so many spheres in which women have historically had less involvement than men have had. How can we possibly hope to inspire more women to enter politics when the system is not yet ready for them and attitudes still need to move on?
I once heard someone say, during a discussion on similar issues, “Well, that’s politics for you.” They were promoting the idea that someone who enters politics has to accept the institution for what it is. That is such a dangerous way of thinking. Politics and the establishment were all built for men, by men, around men, so it is no wonder that the system does not fit with the lives of women in the 21st century.
We need women in Parliament because that means more women’s issues are at the forefront of the conversation. Likewise, we need more mothers, more disabled women, more women who come from poverty and more women from different ethnic groups. As we work to encourage women into politics, we need to ensure that we break down barriers and make the structural change that is needed so that Parliament, politics and all other spheres work for women just as much as they work for men.
I was pleased to see the recommendations that emerged from the Parliament’s gender sensitive audit, and I look forward to their being progressed.
I want to speak briefly about historical misogyny. A year ago today, the First Minister made an apology to the women who were historically convicted of witchcraft. Not long after that, I lodged my proposal for a witchcraft convictions pardons bill. My members’ bill proposal received a lot of support, naturally, but a lot of people also told me that it was a waste of time.
I want to respond, briefly, right here and right now on international women’s day. We absolutely have to look to the past if we are to tackle issues such as misogyny in the modern day, because it is in history and tradition that stereotypes and misogyny are manifested. It is unacceptable that women who were accused of witchcraft, arrested and, at times, beaten, starved and brutally raped, are still labelled as criminals in the eyes of the law. I do not want my children growing up in a society where that is the case.
On this international women’s day, let us commit to continuing to look at our behaviours, past and present, and to tackle the inequalities that still exist in society. [Applause.]16:28
That was an absolutely excellent speech by Natalie Don; 100 per cent of this afternoon’s speeches have been excellent, and I have enjoyed them all.
On international women’s day, it is important for us to reflect on how far we have come and to discuss what we have yet to achieve.
As other members have done, I want to recognise what Scotland’s first woman First Minister has accomplished not just in the United Kingdom and Scotland, but internationally. I know that that is true, because when I was on a recent visit to Jordan—Nicola Sturgeon knows about my passion for the middle east—someone found out that I was from Scotland and asked, “Oh, do you know Nicola Sturgeon?” I said, “I’ve never heard of her.” [Laughter.] Seriously, I did. The First Minister is laughing.
From a private conversation that I had recently with Nicola Sturgeon, it turns out that we share a passion that I should not really reveal—all I will say is that it begins with “sh” and ends with “oes”.
I want to say something personally to Nicola Sturgeon. You might not recall this but, in 2011, I found myself losing my seat. I kind of thought that it would happen, but my team were devastated. All that I will say is that I will not forget the kind words that you said to me back then. I thank you for that and I thank you for the service that you have given this Parliament, in public life.
Today, I also want to reflect, as others have done, on the position of women and girls around the world—in particular, the position of women in Afghanistan. That is important to mention because Afghanistan is the only country in the world in which education of girls is actually banned. Some poor countries are trying very hard to get girls educated, so it is a disaster and it is shocking that girls in Afghanistan cannot be educated at secondary-school level.
Women and girls across our country face many issues that have been mentioned by our First Minister and others. However, we must draw attention to the struggles of women and girls around the world, in conflict zones and in regimes that deny fundamental human rights. If I may, I will mention, because it is a passion of mine, the Palestinian women who suffer deeply in occupied Palestine because of a lack of healthcare and a lack of fundamental rights.
I had the privilege on Monday of representing Labour at the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly. The assembly recognised 25 years of peace in Northern Ireland. I and other colleagues had the privilege of listening to former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern and other key people who were around 25 years ago, including Sir John Holmes. They talked about how difficult it was to get the peace agreement signed 25 years ago and how different it might have been had people like John Major, Tony Blair and others not been sitting round the table.
However, importantly, we also heard from the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition, which was set up at around that time. I have to say that I did not know much about it until I heard about the role of women in achieving peace and about their being party to the agreement. That is something that we do not hear about often, but it is crucial. The Women’s Coalition also had the job of trying to get women to stand for local elections and went from no candidates to 79 candidates in a matter of weeks. Those amazing brave women should be recognised for what they did.
I give way to Emma Harper, who was also at the meeting.
I was at BIPA as well and was struck by the words of the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition and how effective it had been in promoting sustainable peace in Ireland.
Does Pauline McNeill agree that we need to highlight the work of the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition and the importance of women being engaged and included in peace processes in Ireland and conflict zones anywhere in the world, and that we need to value the contribution that women can make to lasting and sustainable peace across the world?
The role of women is absolutely vital in resolving conflicts around the world. I am absolutely certain that the role of women is also absolutely vital in keeping peace.
The Westminster Government has completely abandoned human rights and its duties in relation to asylum seekers. I have to say that, because it is something that I feel strongly about. If there is to be no legal route through which people can claim asylum, it will be impossible for women and children to flee regimes under which their lives and liberties are threatened. It is important to say that in this debate.
In Scotland today, asylum-seeking women are experiencing increasing food insecurity, women with caring responsibilities are struggling to afford essential items, and single mothers are facing further pressure in keeping their households afloat on a single income. As others have said, sexism, misogyny and gender inequality are still so deeply rooted in our society that, sadly, they have become normalised.
Therefore, Scottish Labour—as Pam Duncan-Glancy said in opening the debate for Labour—is committed to pushing for change. Last year, we launched a consultation that proposes a long-term strategic response to ending, once and for all time, gender-based violence in Scotland. There is some excellent work by the Scottish Government on that: I welcome what Nicola Sturgeon said about the importance of justice, in that regard.
Tackling women’s poverty and continued economic inequality is also critical to realising gender equality and embracing equity in Scotland. It is absolutely clear that the escalating cost of living crisis is resulting in untold harm being done to women. It is deepening gender inequality at a time when women continue to experience the fallout from the on-going Covid-19 pandemic.
In Scotland, women make up the majority of people who are employed in temporary work and on zero-hours contracts, which means that they are disproportionately exposed to worry about the reduced hours, unemployment and underemployment that are associated with precarious work.
Young women are full of power and promise, but many are held back by inequality and sexist attitudes. Unfortunately, they are the same, if not worse, sexist attitudes that their foremothers experienced. As I and other members have said in many debates, we have a serious duty in that regard. We would have expected, by 2023, to see a massive difference in the level of sexism. However, if anything, in some respects it is getting worse.
During the pandemic, young women—especially black and minority ethnic women, as well as those on low-incomes—were less likely to have their furloughed salaries topped up by their employers. Scottish Labour believes that work that is considered to be “women’s work” should be properly valued, so we repeat our call for an immediate pay rise to at least a £12 per hour in social care.
Presiding Officer, I have gone well over my time. I will cut to the end and say that the debate has been excellent. Monica Lennon quoted Dolly Parton and Pam Duncan-Glancy quoted Cher, so I will quote Beyoncé. In the future, “Who run the world?” I hope that it will be women and girls.16:36
I join Monica Lennon in welcoming Marion and George McMillan and Marion Scott to the gallery. The unimaginable cruelty of forced adoption is something that I do not think that any of us can fully comprehend. I have three girls and I cannot imagine what it would have been like for me to have been forced to give them up. On behalf of the Opposition, I welcome and echo the First Minister’s words and say sorry on behalf of the Parliament to all those who suffered. We can never make up for the trauma that you went through, but I hope that the apology from the nation is some small comfort.
Today is a good day to be a woman in Scotland and the United Kingdom. That is not to say that better times do not lie ahead. On that note, I wish Nicola Sturgeon all the best in whatever the rest of her political career brings. For a woman who is living and growing up here, today can be a day to celebrate, proud of all that women have achieved in this world and looking forward to a future that is unencumbered by misogynistic barriers of old.
I listened with interest to Beatrice Wishart, who spoke about women who have been prevented from fully participating in the workforce, and the inequalities faced by older women, who, as she quite rightly said, have much to offer. Gillian Martin spoke about the need to work to narrow the gender pay gap, and Pauline McNeill and Natalie Don spoke about the impact of the rising cost of living on women.
In contrast to the freedom that women and girls have here, it is important that we acknowledge women in other parts of the world who, by virtue of their biology, are denied so many of the rights that we take for granted.
Today in the chamber, we join millions across the world in celebrating international women’s day. My colleagues Meghan Gallacher and Clare Adamson spoke about violations of women’s rights across the globe. Foysol Choudhury highlighted the plight of displaced women in war, particularly in Ukraine. In Afghanistan, there will be no celebration. Instead, Afghan women face subjugation. In the UK, women are well ahead of men in university admissions, but this year, no women in Afghanistan will even have the opportunity to apply. Indeed, under the Taliban Government, education at any level has become all but inaccessible for women and girls.
ActionAid has welcomed the women and girls empowerment fund that the Scottish Government has launched, but it wants to see evidence of how the fund will work in practice, because the detail is yet to be published. It is important for the Scottish Government to monitor that.
In 1979, when the UK’s first female Prime Minister was elected, there ceased to be any limits on what a woman in Britain could achieve in politics, as my colleague Sue Webber mentioned. However, there are still countries where for women to participate in democracy is to put their lives on the line. I believe that that point is worth dwelling on for a minute.
Organisations such as Women2Win have championed the participation of women in politics, and people such as Theresa May and Anne Jenkin have been at the forefront of that work to ensure that hundreds of women are elected to public office. I am very proud to be part of that organisation, which does so much to further the role of women in politics.
However, while we enjoy that support and encouragement, women in patriarchal societies continue to have their suffrage—never mind their prospects of election to public office—suppressed through violence, intimidation and regressive national attitudes. Today, we must call out the countries that have those attitudes and suppress women’s suffrage, and I have no doubt that everyone in this chamber will join me in doing so.
Of course, internationally, suffrage is not the only issue that women must contend with. Time will, most certainly, not permit me to cover everything, but, since hosting a debate in 2021 on endometriosis, which blights the lives of so many women in Scotland and internationally, I have been keen to understand the global picture of women’s health.
During cervical cancer awareness month, in January, we heard from Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust that Malawi has the highest levels of mortality related to that dreadful disease. With our sights set on eliminating cervical cancer as a public health problem here, it is important to acknowledge the disparities in women’s health across the globe, particularly in relation to largely preventable diseases, such as cervical cancer. Resources for healthcare might be scarce where that disease is most prevalent, but the taboo nature of women’s health in some of those areas can also act as a barrier to treatment and prevention. Cervical cancer is not the only disease that has a higher prevalence where those attitudes persist. Rates of sexually transmitted diseases and blood-borne viruses are higher in many countries that are typically perceived as being patriarchal.
Closer to home, women’s health concerns still require more attention. I pay tribute to my colleague, Douglas Ross, who has persistently and passionately campaigned to reinstate consultant-led maternity services at Dr Gray’s hospital in Elgin.
Pam Duncan-Glancy also brought up a really important point when she spoke about the need for safe access to women’s healthcare, particularly in relation to Gillian Mackay’s recent abortion services summit, which we attended, on creating buffer zones to protect women when they access safe healthcare.
I go back to endometriosis. It is clear that we have a lot more work to do in Scotland to improve women’s healthcare services. I have recently spoken to women who poignantly talked about the impact that that debilitating condition has on their life. Women wait a long time for diagnosis, never mind treatment. During that time, the condition can leave them crippled with pain and sometimes unable to work.
I recently wrote to the newly appointed Scottish Government women’s health champion to highlight women’s concerns and call for the establishment of a specialist service covering each health board in Scotland. I very much look forward to receiving her response and to working with the Scottish Government and the cross-party group on women’s health to improve health services for women across the country. This morning’s news that a new treatment for endometriosis is being trialled across the country is also incredibly welcome.
Just as Jenni Minto spoke about Jodie and her motor sport ambitions, and her Argyll and Bute constituency, I want to finish my speech by talking about some of the incredible achievements of women from my constituency in the Borders over the past year. I congratulate Lana Skeldon and Chloe Rollie for doing Scotland proud at last year’s rugby world cup, Sammi Kinghorn for smashing record after record in wheelchair racing, Eryn Rae for being crowned Scotland’s young traditional musician of the year, and Rachel Gardiner, a community learning disability nurse in the Borders, who was awarded the prestigious Queen’s nurse title. Those are just some of the incredible women in the Borders I am proud to represent in the Parliament.
Having reflected on my colleague Roz McCall’s speech, which I thought was excellent and thought provoking on this international women’s day, I will close by saying that, despite women making up half the planet’s population, many have no voice. We are the lucky ones, so let us not waste our voice but use it to help others. The right to speak is a wealth that we take for granted, so let us not waste it but help to redistribute it.
I call Shona Robison to wind up the debate for the Government.16:44
This debate has been a valuable and impactful way to mark international women’s day this year. I thank members across the chamber for their powerful and thoughtful contributions, and I reflect on how we have come together as a Parliament to express the importance of our shared aim of advancing equality for women and girls, just as we unite to condemn sexism, misogyny and gender-based violence. At this point, I will say that I am happy to accept both amendments.
Talking of women from other countries, I feel that it is particularly poignant to be marking international women’s day this year, one year on from the start of the war in Ukraine. Over the past year, we have seen women forced to flee violence in Ukraine to make a home in a new land, often with their young children. I take this opportunity to express solidarity with the people of Ukraine and particularly with women and children, who we know suffer the impact of war severely. This morning, I got a message from the lady that I host, Margarita, who is from Dnipro, asking me whether we celebrate this day as they celebrate it in Ukraine, so it was lovely to be able to say that I might even give her a wee mention in the international women’s day debate in the Parliament.
When Nicola Sturgeon and I entered the Parliament for the first time, in 1999, which was a few sleeps ago now, there were 48 MSPs who were women—37 per cent of the chamber. Notably, at that time, women made up 50 per cent of Scottish Labour MSPs and 43 per cent of SNP MSPs. At the time, that was called “a gender coup” and was compared with the high numbers of women who are in elected positions in Nordic countries. It was a dramatic change in the gender representation of elected politics in the UK, which had previously had a pretty dreadful record on women’s representation. On 6 May 1999, more women were elected to the Scottish Parliament in one day than had been elected to represent Scotland in the House of Commons since 1918, when women were first allowed to stand to be an MP.
That did not happen by accident. There was a campaign by women’s organisations, trade unions and civic society—and, indeed, across political parties—which came together because we wanted to see equal representation in our new Parliament. That is something that we must remember and continue. Now, women’s representation is at 46 per cent, so there is still a bit of work to be done and we cannot be complacent about women’s representation in politics or Parliament. We know that women still do not have equality in society and countries around the world, which is why debates such as today’s remain vital.
I want to close this international women’s day debate by mentioning the work of one particular woman: the First Minister herself, who, I think, might today have spoken in her last debate in that role. I want to thank members from across the chamber for their very personal tributes to her.
As well as recognising her many years of public service, we should also thank the First Minister for being a role model for women and girls in Scotland and beyond. There have been many achievements in her time in office, and I want to mention just a few that are, I think, particularly important to women in Scotland.
It was, of course, this First Minister who, in 2017, set up the National Advisory Council on Women and Girls to champion gender equality, tackle inequality and the lack of representation and challenge gender stereotypes. At the United Nations 26th climate change conference of the parties—COP26—she led the Glasgow women’s leadership statement on gender equality and climate change, which was jointly sponsored by the Scottish Government and UN Women. That committed to strengthening efforts to support women and girls addressing climate change. Further, of course, she helped to ensure that free period products were put in every school, college and university, building on the work that Monica Lennon has done and continues to do, and now it is common to see such products in many settings.
I thank the cabinet secretary for mentioning my favourite subject—I am very grateful. I want to do a wee shout-out for Hey Girls, whose representatives are out in the members’ lobby, and I thank Paul McLennan for hosting them. Colleagues might be aware that Hey Girls has some period pants on display. I have been lobbying the UK Government about period pants, because they are still taxed as a luxury item, when we know that there is nothing luxury about periods. Therefore, I hope that the cabinet secretary and the rest of Parliament will join me in supporting Hey Girls, which is here with its reusable products, and in speaking with one voice to ask the UK Government to take VAT off our menstrual products.
Absolutely. I pay tribute to the work of Hey Girls and join Monica Lennon in that important call.
There are too many initiatives to mention, but I will mention two further things that I think are important: the recognition of the importance of free childcare, which has been put firmly at the centre of the work that the Government has been doing; and tackling poverty and inequality. Nicola Sturgeon has made tackling child poverty a national mission, and a lot has flowed from that core commitment, including recognising that, if we can tackle women’s poverty, we tackle child poverty by association. The work on the Scottish child payment and the five family benefits have been critical to that.
I guess that it is not easy holding the highest office in Scotland, which might be stating the bleeding obvious. Anyone who has held such a position will feel the pressure of that role. For a woman in that role, it is not easy to face the misogyny that it brings. Over that time, the rise in social media has impacted on not only the First Minister but probably women across the chamber due to the misogyny and abuse that has become all too common.
It was great to hear in the First Minister’s opening remarks about the work that is going on to introduce criminal offences to tackle misogyny, building on the fantastic work of Helena Kennedy. What a fitting legacy to Emma Ritch that the law clinic is named after her. That is a tremendous thing that we have heard about today, and I know that Emma Ritch’s family will be delighted by that.
As women, we all have a role in doing so, but Nicola Sturgeon has led from the front in speaking about issues that, back in 1999, we would have perhaps found difficult to talk about. Words such as “miscarriage” or “menopause” were maybe whispered in the corridors of the Parliament but were not spoken openly in speeches about international women’s day or other subjects, because we felt that they were taboo. The First Minister and the other women in the Parliament have led by making it absolutely normal to talk about the menopause and about miscarriage. Now, I hear women openly discussing issues that are deeply personal but which they feel can now be brought out into the open and discussed.
When she perhaps moves to other seats in the chamber, I know that the First Minister will continue to champion the equality and rights of women and girls. As the first female First Minister, and as one of the few women leaders in the world, she has shown that the glass ceiling can be shattered. There is the saying, “You can’t be what you can’t see”—well, girls across Scotland have seen that they can aspire to hold the highest office in our country, and that is a huge achievement.
I apologise that I have not got a singer’s quote to give here.
I know—I should have done better. However, I want to quote—[Interruption.] I want to quote Ann Richards, who was the governor of Texas and a strong feminist. She said about Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire—there is a dance in there—that she did everything that he did, but in high heels. I think that we can definitely say the same about our First Minister.
It has been a pleasure to take part in the debate, and the tone of the debate has shown the Parliament at its best. It has, once again, been led by women. Well done to everybody.
That concludes the debate on international women’s day 2023, #EmbraceEquity.
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