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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, March 3, 2022

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 03 March 2022 [Draft]

Agenda: Business Motion, General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, International Women’s Day 2022, Portfolio Question Time, Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland) Bill, Justice (Risk Assessment), Public Service Broadcasting, Decision Time, Correction


International Women’s Day 2022

The next item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S6M-03136, in the name of Michelle Thomson, on international women’s day 2022: break the bias. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

I ask those members who wish to speak in the debate to press their request-to-speak buttons now. I point out to members that there is absolutely no time in hand, as we are due to resume business at 2 pm sharp. Therefore, members—including the opening speaker and the minister—will be required to stick to their allotted time.

I call Michelle Thomson to open the debate. You have up to seven minutes, Ms Thomson.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament recognises 8 March 2022 as International Women’s Day (IWD); acknowledges what it sees as the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women through history and around the world; understands that the theme of IWD 2022 is #BreakTheBias, which aims to highlight the impact of bias, both conscious and unconscious, on women and girls and to imagine a world free of bias, stereotype and discrimination; notes the view that it is important for MSPs to reaffirm a commitment to upholding the fundamental human rights of women and girls, while working together to accelerate gender parity in society; further notes the view that it is crucial for influential organisations to reject discrimination and abuse in society and within their own communities, while committing to be positive role models, and notes the calls to collaborate and unite behind the principles of IWD 2022, to ensure equity, diversity and inclusivity, and to break down barriers and forge women’s equality in communities in Scotland and across the world.


Thank you, Presiding Officer.

Today, I dedicate my speech for international women’s day 2022 to the women of Ukraine, and I call on the minister and all members who speak in the debate to do likewise. [Applause.]

In normal times, I would outline a few of the key facts about women in Ukraine: equality and respect for women in Ukraine, as is the case in many countries, is still proving elusive; women are more frequently the victims of domestic violence; there is still a gender pay gap, although considerable progress has been made on that in recent years; there are still some types of roles from which women are disallowed, although those do not include combat; representation of women in Ukrainian politics is advancing slowly, but it is increasing over time; they do not yet have anything near a 50:50 split by sex at any level; and there is still some way to go in social attitudes. A study that was undertaken in March 2020 by the Razumkov Centre showed that 83 per cent of respondents thought that a woman’s most important task was to take care of her home and family, as compared to the belief of 75 per cent of respondents that a man’s guiding mission was to earn money.

However, exactly a week ago today, the women of Ukraine were plunged into Putin’s war. With Putin, as the First Minister acknowledged,

“underneath the veneer of power lie insecurity and fear.”—[Official Report, 24 February 2022; c 10.]

War has a devastating and disproportionate impact on women that is too little understood. The women who are fleeing the cities, the women who are left behind and the women who are staying to fight will all face unique and specific challenges.

Zoe Clack from Edinburgh has recently undertaken research into women in Afghanistan and Iraq for the Reduce Explosive Violence Increase Victim Empowerment campaign and the University of Stirling. I am a director of the REVIVE campaign—I point members to my entry in the register of interests in that regard. Her report suggests some outcomes for women who are involved in conflict. For example, she points out that, when male breadwinners have been killed, women who are left behind are more vulnerable to sexual exploitation.

Zoe described the situation in this way:

“Changes in earnings when one member of a household becomes a victim of the conflict can cause an intersection of trauma and discrimination for women and girls. Their route to financial security can often come at the cost of either ‘choosing’ or being forced into marriage or sexual favours. The bodily autonomy of women is being taken away … In these spaces where women are dependent upon others ... for economic survival, they are extremely vulnerable to physical and sexual violence”.

That helps to explain why Human Rights Watch has pointed out that conflict has a disproportionately greater effect on the mental health of women, in comparison with men. Yet, while we hear, rightly, of the mental health challenges that are faced by male troops, there is precious little coverage or consideration of the mental health burden that is faced by women. Not only are the consequences for the mental health of women insufficiently appreciated; they suffer precisely when it is they who must take the lion’s share of the responsibility for rebuilding families and communities.

Rape and sexual violence are weapons of war. Steve Crawshaw of Freedom from Torture has pointed to the rape and torture of women that was carried out by the Putin regime in Chechnya. Recently, reports were made on social media—I cannot confirm whether they are true—that Ukraine was trending on various porn sites, as men anticipated the live-streaming of rapes.

Fortunately, Ukraine has encouraged women and children to get out of harm’s way, while the men stay to fight. Around one million people, mostly women and children, have left. However, that separation, in and of itself, will have significant impacts.

What of the women who have stayed to fight? Estimates suggest that women on active duty make up nearly 16 per cent of Ukrainian armed forces. How women’s fighting in wars affects them has been eloquently articulated by Svetlana Alexievich’s writing on Russian women in the second world war. She highlights that war is seldom told from the woman’s point of view. What interested her were the tales not of heroism but of “small great human beings”. Those women learned quickly that there was nothing heroic about war and that the stereotypes of that time—and, arguably, now—did not want to acknowledge the strong, tough women. When those women returned home from the fight, their voices were missing in action.

Social media is full of photographs of the brave young women who are taking up arms in Ukraine. Those include a former Miss Ukraine—but why did we need a photograph of her in a bikini? She is there to defend her country, the same as any man.

Because of the nature of the conflict, the humanitarian infrastructure has been an early casualty. A few days ago, the entirety of United Nations and independent aid organisations announced their withdrawal. The support from those agencies will be limited for some time yet. That goes to the heart of war for women: their needs remain unheard, and the support structures need to be greatly extended. The major problem is structural. It is to do with men’s structures—the framing of their issues—and it will take a huge amount of time to create the cultural circumstances for meaningful empowerment.

In a speech in January this year, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, described how the involvement of women in policy-level peace building is deteriorating and is “vastly worse” than it was a couple of years ago, with, according to a related UN press release,

“an insidious uptick in a host of actions by spoilers aimed at silencing their voices.”

Men make the policies, but it is mainly women who do the hard lifting, both during and after conflict.

Brave women of Ukraine, I salute you.


Women taking up weapons, women confronting Russian soldiers, women caring for their loved ones—they are upholding the fundamental rights of not just women and girls, but everyone, and I dedicate this speech to them.

Conflict often makes us think in different ways, to find solutions to life changed out of recognition. Persuading girl guides, sea scouts and schoolchildren to collect sacks full of curly red seaweed on Scottish beaches might not be the most obvious wartime activity, but the knowledge of marine biologist Sheina Marshall was to prove vital to British medical research during the second world war. Marshall and her colleagues identified that seaweed as the best home-grown source of agar, a jelly-like substance that was vital for growing bacteria in laboratories and the development of vaccines. Japan was the world’s main supplier of agar, but when it entered world war 2, it became essential to find other sources.

As a child on the Isle of Bute, Sheina suffered from rheumatic fever. While she was recovering, she immersed herself in the writings of Charles Darwin. After graduating with a degree in zoology from the University of Glasgow, she made her life’s work the study of plankton in marine food chains and the examination of the effect of fertilizers on marine productivity. The west of Scotland’s coastline was her laboratory, and her pioneering work served her country through the war and beyond. Today, students at the Scottish Association for Marine Science in Oban study in a building named in Sheina Marshall’s memory.

In 1934, Bessie Williamson started a summer job as a secretary at Laphroaig distillery on Islay. She was to have profound impact on the whisky industry. After owner Ian Hunter suffered a stroke in 1938, her managerial skills ensured that the distillery remained in good working order throughout world war two. After the war, she noticed that newspapers were giving increasing coverage to the merits of Scotch whisky’s peaty notes. Instead of wasting Laphroaig’s peaty punch in blends, Bessie began to market Laphroaig single malt, driving higher prices for a luxury product.

Her efforts were noticed by the Scotch Whisky Association, and she took on the role of US spokesperson, travelling across America promoting all Scotch whisky, but particularly single malts. So influential was Bessie Williamson that she became known as the first lady of Laphroaig, and she was awarded the title of woman of the year in the 1950s.

In 1987, Ray Michie fought and won, at her third attempt, the Westminster constituency of Argyll and Bute. Politics was in her blood. As a teenager, at meetings in the far-flung constituency of Inverness, she supported her father as holding speaker until he arrived from previous meetings. As members will have heard me say, Argyll and Bute is diverse and contains 23 inhabited islands, which Ray visited regularly. She often turned her ferry trips into impromptu surgeries, which is something that I recognise.

Ray’s two main aims at Westminster were Scottish self-government and the development of the Gaelic language. She was therefore delighted by the creation of her long-fought-for Scottish Parliament. I am sure that she would be delighted to see the increased representation of women in this session.

Those women—a scientist, a distiller and a politician—played an extraordinary role in the history of Scotland and the wider world.

To finish, I will quote from the international women’s day website. This is particularly poignant with regard to what we are seeing in the independent country of Ukraine:

“Imagine a gender equal world. A world free of bias, stereotypes and discrimination. A world that’s diverse, equitable, and inclusive. A world where difference is valued and celebrated. Together we can forge women’s equality. Collectively we can all #BreakTheBias.”


I thank the member for bringing forward such an important motion for members’ business, celebrating international women’s day. I, too, hold in my thoughts the women and girls of Ukraine while I make this speech. I am honoured to be opening today for the Scottish Conservatives, as the subject is close to my heart.

Tomorrow is the anniversary of my father’s death. As a teenager and female coming from an Asian background, it was very difficult for me to suddenly become the head of the family and run the family business in a male-dominated sector.

That was not without its challenges, but I made it work. It is important to me, on this day, that we celebrate women’s achievements and, most important, reflect on the challenges that women continue to face and the steps that we need to take as a society to remove the barriers that we have faced, for the next generation of women.

The theme of this year’s international women’s day is “Break the bias”. Scotland has made many notable achievements in advancing women’s equality, but we still have a long way to go in breaking down barriers for women in education and employment.

The education of young women and girls is of paramount importance. Education gives women choices and provides long-term sustainable economic growth for Scotland. If the future is digital, women need opportunities to be represented in the technological evolution. In 2021, young women accounted for 45 per cent of science, technology, engineering and mathematics students in higher education. Uptake of computer science is particularly low, with women accounting for only 16 per cent of computer science students. We must continue to encourage and promote STEM subjects to young women. Women’s involvement in STEM-based employment will improve workplace diversity, as men currently make up 82 per cent of the digital technology sector.

I want to talk about the importance of removing obstacles to sustainable, long-term employment for women. Around half of mothers who had a flexible working request approved felt that they were treated unfavourably as a result, while 62 per cent of surveyed employers did not feel the need to conduct a pay review, because they considered themselves to be equal pay employers. Almost three quarters of black and minority ethnic women surveyed said they felt that they had experienced racism, discrimination or bias in the workplace.

On Tuesday, as a member of the Equalities, Human Rights and Civil Justice Committee, I heard first hand from witnesses about the disproportionate effect of lockdown restrictions on women. I heard, for example, that women experienced increased demands on the time they had available for employment, due to caring responsibilities, and that they were concerned for their financial security. I heard, too, that BAME women have experienced a larger negative impact on their income and employment. That was worsened by inadequate support and services, because one size does not fit all.

As a Parliament, as politicians and as individuals, we have a responsibility to ensure that women are properly represented in all spheres of life. First, we can make change happen through policy in this chamber and we can be a voice for women and girls. Secondly, we can empower women and girls and be role models who they can relate to. Last but not least, we have the power to open doors for other females. We have a duty to push for better female representation on boards, in politics and in leadership roles, so that decision making reflects women.


I congratulate my colleague Michelle Thomson on securing this extremely important debate to mark international women’s day 2022. It is so good to welcome the minister back to the front bench. As Ms Thomson’s motion states, this year’s theme is “Break the bias”, which is intended to highlight the impact of conscious and unconscious bias on women and girls, and imagine a world free of bias, stereotype and discrimination. I, too, dedicate my time to the women of Ukraine.

Everyone has a choice to challenge stereotypes. We can choose to fight bias, broaden perceptions, improve situations and celebrate the achievements of women. It is important for us all to work to enable that to happen and to strive for gender empowerment and equality.

Members might recall that, in 2020, I secured a members’ business debate on United Nations Security Council resolution 1325, which is on women, peace and security.

The resolution specifically addresses the impact of war on women, and the importance of women as negotiators in conflict resolution and in addressing hatred and discrimination. Janet Fenton, with her Secure Scotland hat on, highlights that security is not solely about the physical security of the country but about security of housing, education, food and clean water supply. As we are seeing the horrific conflict in Ukraine—and witnessing civilian casualties—it is even more important that we highlight the value of women, including the women of Ukraine, being included in negotiations to achieve peace. That is paramount as events unfold.

Internationally, Scotland, working in partnership with the United Nations, has pledged practical and financial support for women and girls to achieve that goal and to learn peace-building and conflict resolution skills. In doing that, women and girls will feel confident in challenging war and intolerance. In a joint Scottish Government-UN programme that runs over three days and consists of talks, seminars and lessons, women and girls will have access to international peacekeeping experts, female role models in positions of power and the opportunity to learn from each other. Will the minister reaffirm the Scottish Government’s commitment to the programme, especially as we dedicate today’s debate to the women in Ukraine?

Earlier this year, I became a Commonwealth Parliamentary Association UK gender champion. Recently, we had our first meeting and I met other gender champion parliamentarians, including some from Tasmania, Tanzania, Gibraltar and Grenada. The purpose of the CPA gender champions is to represent and advocate for CPA UK gender priorities within our Parliaments. The priorities are: championing and advocating for gender-sensitive spaces for women to enhance their leadership skills; supporting Parliaments to implement gender-sensitive approaches; and supporting the strengthening of gender-based violence legislation. The bottom line of the role is to advance women’s rights in our roles as parliamentarians.

From the initial discussion with CPA colleagues, I realised how far the Scottish Government and our Parliament have come in our journey to advance women’s rights and inclusion in our democratic systems in Scotland. I look forward to advancing the role and I am happy to engage with colleagues from across the chamber about the CPA gender champion role.

There are many ways in which the Scottish Government is promoting gender equality and the empowerment of women. As events continue to unfold in Ukraine, it is so important to enable that. I thank members for speaking in the debate and I look forward to the minister’s response. I support continued efforts to break the bias.


As we approach international women’s day, I welcome the opportunity to speak in Parliament on this year’s theme of “Break the bias”. I thank Michelle Thomson for bringing the debate to the chamber. I echo Ms Thomson’s recognition of women in Ukraine and other war-torn countries—she made a powerful speech about that.

I warmly welcome Christina McKelvie back to the front bench.

I also thank Close the Gap for providing a briefing ahead of the debate.

International women’s day has been marked for over a century. While it is a welcome opportunity for collective and individual action to celebrate the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women, it is also a reminder of the bias, stereotyping and discrimination that women across the world are due to face each and every day of the year. This year’s theme encourages us all to raise awareness of and take action against deliberate or unconscious bias that makes it more difficult to achieve equality. We need to actively call out gender bias, discrimination and stereotyping every time we see it, and, as policymakers, to take the steps needed to level the playing field.

Most of us will be familiar with the book “Invisible Women” by Caroline Criado Perez, which outlines inequalities in a society created for men, which too often ignores the needs of women. The book covers examples in all aspects of our lives, from heating in offices to emergency healthcare, highlighting the sum of the challenges that we face in breaking the bias.

In last year’s debate on women’s health, I spoke about the impacts of such bias, for example in misdiagnosis in relation to heart disease. The inequality in approach means that women’s health has been marginalised, unacknowledged and devalued; there has been and continues to be systemic, institutional and societal failures in the treatment that women receive and the public health messages and support that they are given. The creation of the women’s health plan is a welcome step, but progress needs to be swift and comprehensive.

Discrimination continues to characterise many women’s employment experiences in the Scottish labour market. It restricts the ability to enter and make progress in good-quality employment. That is particularly true for black and minority ethnic women and disabled women. In recent years, we have seen an increased focus on the gender pay gap, but little meaningful progress to address the barriers to equality in the labour market.

We know that the pandemic has more adversely impacted women, and the lesson must be learned that the delivery of services can be improved. Existing inequalities have been exacerbated and gender biases have been highlighted, as women have been more likely to take on additional caring responsibilities and to have negative impacts on their ability to take on paid work. Referrals to services for women and girls experiencing violence have increased during the pandemic, and access to often vital services has changed.

At the beginning of the pandemic, the likely negative impacts on women’s inequality were highlighted. We need to question and examine whether appropriate steps were taken to mitigate those impacts. This morning, the Social Justice and Social Security Committee heard evidence on domestic violence and violence against women and girls. I urge members and the minister to reflect on the evidence that was heard this morning from organisations that told us that women were an afterthought in Covid planning and that they were disappointed that women do not seem to have been recognised significantly in this week’s economic strategy.

We need investment in public services that recognises and supports women’s needs, from investment in more flexible care provision to investment in workplace strategies that recognise changes throughout women’s lives and how they impact on work and other activities. We have started to better recognise the bias that exists, but we are not yet close to breaking it.

We all support the principles of international women’s day, but we must continue to work every day to achieve equality, diversity and inclusivity, so that we can forge equality for women in communities throughout Scotland and around the world.

I call Marie McNair, who is joining us remotely.


I am immensely proud to be called to speak in this members’ business debate on international women’s day, and I congratulate Michelle Thomson on securing it and on everything that she contributes to the campaign for equality.

I stand with Ukraine and send strength, hope and love to the women of Ukraine.

I am contributing to this debate as the first female MSP elected for the Clydebank and Milngavie constituency. I feel a great sense of honour in carrying that achievement into the heart of our Parliament, and I hope that it sets an example to girls and young women in my constituency that encourages them to go for what they want to achieve and not be held back by bias and discrimination.

The theme of international women’s day 2022 is “Break the bias”. It challenges us to secure

“A world free of bias, stereotypes, and discrimination ... A world that is diverse ... inclusive”

and unbiased, and

“A world where difference is valued and celebrated.”

We are urged to work together to “forge women’s equality”, as

“Collectively we can all #BreakTheBias.”

As the first female MSP for Clydebank and Milngavie, I welcome the progress that has been made to secure equality by the Scottish Government and our Parliament. However, it is clear that there is much more to be done. We cannot let up our efforts to secure a gender-equal world. We also owe it to the brave and determined women who have gone before us never to give up. I pay tribute to those women for what they have done.

It is an honour to be led in the Parliament by the first female First Minister of Scotland. We do not have to cast our minds back too far to remember the courage and leadership that our First Minister showed in standing up to sexism and misogyny. She continues to show strong leadership every week in the Parliament when all the Opposition male party leaders line up to have a go.

I also pay tribute to Women’s Aid and the wider support groups in my constituency. They are a tower of strength to many women at times of greatest need. Quite simply, they have saved lives and supported women.

International women’s day challenges us to break the bias in our communities, workplaces, schools, colleges and universities. We must call out Government policy that discriminates against women. As a working-class woman who volunteered and worked in my constituency, I saw at first hand the inbuilt discrimination of the UK benefit system. When I was elected, I pledged to call that out at every opportunity. It is bad enough that those policies gave an inferior pension to women for many years and continue to withhold money that many female pensioners are due, but that discrimination has been turbo boosted by the so-called welfare reforms, such as the two-child policy and its abhorrent rape clause. In an appalling manifestation of bias, the policy forces women to have to declare the worst abuse by men. As Engender said to the Social Justice and Social Security Committee this morning, women are forced to expose trauma just to feed their children.

We also have the benefit cap, which denies families the basic subsistence rates, and they are already not enough. I could list many more examples. As we all know, the UK benefits system is biased against women, and I will continue to fulfil my pledge to call it out.

We must use the power of education to change attitudes to gender, and we must continue to support our schools, colleges and universities to do that. I recently spoke to a teacher, who told me of a time when they asked their pupils to draw a picture of a nurse and a pilot. The pupils proceeded to draw along gender lines, and the outcome was female nurses and male pilots. One pupil did not even know that a nurse could be male.

Although great progress has been made, that account illustrates the size of the challenge that remains. As the first female MSP for Clydebank and Milngavie, I welcome the opportunity to speak in the debate and urge everyone to break the bias wherever it exists. It is not too bold to imagine a gender-equal world; it is a necessity.


I thank Michelle Thomson for bringing the debate to the chamber. I agree with the content of her motion and with her support for the women of Ukraine.

Without wanting to turn this brief speech into an episode of “Who Do You Think You Are?”, I will begin by delving into my family tree—I ask members to forgive me. My great-grandmother Nessie was one of three sisters. Her older sisters were Frances and Margaret McPhun, who both devoted their lives to fighting for women’s rights. Exactly 110 years ago, in March 1912, the two suffragette sisters left Glasgow for London, and they were among 148 people who were arrested for a mass window-smashing campaign. One newspaper reported scenes of

“unexampled outrage on the part of militant suffragists.”

Frances and Margaret were sent to Holloway prison, where they went on hunger strike and were violently force fed.

A decade ago, I reported on the centenary of the McPhun sisters’ heroic actions, which remain largely unrecognised. I tell that story in part in tribute to their actions, but also to illustrate the long, hard and continuing battle for women’s rights and equality. As the famous quote has it,

“Well-behaved women seldom make history.”

What would the McPhun sisters make of Scotland in 2022? It is a country that talks the talk about rights and progress, but our criminal justice system still abjectly fails women and girls. We need only look at the backlog of tens of thousands of court cases, many of which involve domestic violence; at female victims who spend years in agonising limbo while cases move glacially though the courts; or at how prosecutions can be casually abandoned with zero explanation. Somehow, the so-called “bastard verdict” of not proven still remains and is used disproportionately in rape cases. The Government has been talking about scrapping it for more than a decade. Furthermore, what about brave female victims of rape being forced into the civil courts to secure justice?

Today, outside Parliament, there will be a memorial protest to mark one year since the murder of Sarah Everard. It is shameful that women do not feel safe on our streets. However, even in their own homes, safety and security cannot be assumed. Last year, a 67-year-old lady called Esther Brown was raped and beaten to death in her Glasgow flat. Responsibility for that lies entirely with her killer, but he should never have been free to do what he did. He had already raped and violently assaulted a retired nurse in her home—he was jailed for seven years and was back out after five. He had 23 previous convictions. He was a registered sex offender who was supposedly being monitored by the police, but he was reportedly legally able to hide his past simply by changing his name.

If hand wringing and platitudes were any measure of success, our justice system would be world leading. However, the reality is that women are still fighting for basic fairness and equality. Warm words are all very good, but actions speak so much louder, as the McPhun sisters demonstrated 110 years ago.

Given the number of members who wish to speak in the debate, I am minded to accept a motion without notice, under rule 8.14.3, to extend the debate by up to 30 minutes. I invite Michelle Thomson to move the motion.

Motion moved,

That, under Rule 8.14.3, the debate be extended by up to 30 minutes.—[Michelle Thomson]

Motion agreed to.


I, too, welcome the minister back and thank Michelle Thomson for bringing this important debate to the chamber.

I welcome the theme of this year’s international women’s day, which is “Break the bias”. The world’s eyes are on Russia’s invasion of and aggression in Ukraine, and I take this opportunity to reiterate Scottish Liberal Democrat solidarity with the people of Ukraine. A million people, mostly women and children, have been displaced in a week, and what comes next is uncertain. Biased views see conflict as a male arena, but women and girls are deeply impacted by war and can play active roles ranging from combatants to journalists and carers. We see in Ukraine how women are being forced to make difficult decisions about whether to fight or flee in order to save their families, their homes, their democracy, their freedoms and their way of life—the things that we take for granted.

Our eyes and attention have understandably been pulled away by other events, but we must not forget what is happening in Afghanistan. Women’s rights are human rights, but the Taliban has no respect for them. Unsurprisingly, the Ministry of Women’s Affairs in Afghanistan has been closed, and its Kabul headquarters now host the reinstated Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, which monitors residents’ behaviour. In the 1990s, its members beat women who violated Taliban policies, including its strict dress codes and prohibitions on work and education. Taliban rules ban women and girls from secondary and higher education; they dictate what women must wear, how they should travel and what kind of mobile they should have; and they enforce workforce segregation by sex. All of those things are enforced through intimidation and inspections.

Although the biases and stereotypes about women’s roles and abilities are being taken to extremes, some women have pushed back, putting themselves at great risk by standing up for their rights. In Zabul, in south Afghanistan, women went to the education department and demanded to be allowed to continue to teach and learn. After a compromise whereby girls and boys would be taught in separate places, the girls school reopened. However, such successes are sadly the exception. Afghan women report relentless feelings of anxiety, hopelessness, insomnia and loss because of their Government’s actions.

Governments should keep us safe and empower us as individuals, not terrorise and restrict us. Harmful views about what women can and cannot do are limiting the lives of millions of women, and we must continue to demonstrate our support for women in Afghanistan and Ukraine. Let us break the bias so that we see the back of regimes that have no regard for human rights and the rights of women.

In the efforts to end conflict, women are often left out of the peacekeeping process. Between 1992 and 2019, women accounted for just 6 per cent of the signatories in major peace processes, despite research recognising the importance of women’s involvement in peace and security issues to achieve long-lasting stability. UN Security Council resolution 1325 addresses the disproportionate impact of violent conflict on women and girls and recognises women’s critical role in peacebuilding efforts. It shows bias to see women solely as victims of conflict. Women have an important place in rebuilding new societies after conflicts, and rebuilding provides a chance to transform social structures to ensure greater equality and enjoyment of women’s human rights. We must call for women’s inclusion in such processes around the world.


Presiding Officer,

“i want to apologize to all the women i have called beautiful
before i’ve called them intelligent or brave
i am sorry i made it sound as though
something as simple as what you’re born with
is all you have to be proud of
when you have broken mountains with your wit
from now on i will say things like
you are resilient, or you are extraordinary
not because i don’t think you’re beautiful
but because i need you to know
you are more than that”

Those are the words of Rupi Kaur, a Canadian poet, author, illustrator and photographer, and I think that they capture something of the essence of this year’s theme for international women’s day.

Bias—conscious and unconscious—is deeply rooted in our patriarchal society. It is right that we come together to recognise that and identify what we need to do to challenge and dismantle the structures and cultures that perpetuate inequality. I thank Michelle Thomson for lodging her motion and giving us that opportunity. I also thank the organisations and companies that sent briefings and information about their work. I, too, hold the women of Ukraine in the forefront of my mind.

Bias is systemic and deeply ingrained in each of us. It requires active thought to challenge it and break it down. One bias can be compounded by another. Intersections of difference make for a complex landscape of oppressions and inequalities. We have only to look at pandemic statistics to realise how older women were more likely to be furloughed than younger women and men and to realise how women of colour were more likely to face increased isolation, discrimination and abuse during lockdown, as we heard so eloquently stated in the Equalities, Human Rights and Civil Justice Committee this week. More broadly, we also know how disabled and poorer women suffer more in times of war than others.

Intersectionality matters and biases are not fixed. That is at the core of my intersectional feminism. The fight to tackle gender stereotyping and discrimination must recognise the multiple and overlapping impacts of other characteristics, such as race, disability and gender identity.

It is abundantly clear to me that tackling inequalities, wherever and whatever they are, is good for everybody. It is good for women, girls and men. Each and every one of us in the Parliament has a part to play in that collective struggle. We must recognise that the struggles that we fight in Scotland are connected to the struggles that are being fought by women and girls all over the world, as we have heard eloquently stated.

Perhaps it is especially poignant that I end as I started with the words of a woman of colour. Roxane Gay, an academic and writer, challenges us all:

“Women of color, queer women, and transgender women need to be better included in the feminist project. Women from these groups have been shamefully abandoned by Capital-F Feminism, time and again. This is a hard, painful truth. This is where a lot of people run into resisting feminism, trying to create distance between the movement and where they stand ... But ... Feminism’s failings do not mean we should eschew feminism entirely. People do terrible things all the time, but we don’t regularly disown our humanity. We disavow the terrible things. We should disavow the failures of feminism without disavowing its many successes and how far we have come.”

We have come far, but the road is long ahead of us.


I congratulate Michelle Thomson on securing this year’s debate and her stunning speech. My speech is not about the women of Ukraine, but my heart and my hopes are with them. Slava Ukraini!

Michelle Thomson has been a strong public voice for women for many years and has a wealth of experience in many areas. The chamber is now packed full of champions for women.

It is great to see the growing number of elected female politicians with lived experience of entrepreneurship and wide industrial sectoral experience. The light has been firmly directed on improving women’s experience of work as a result of that increased representation. That experience suffers greatly from the impact of unconscious bias, particularly in career progression and accessing business support, so the theme of my speech is business support and support for women entrepreneurs.

I have spoken frequently about the work of Women’s Enterprise Scotland. It is a shining example of what can be achieved when women with shared experience come together to effect culture change and push for outcomes that will close the gender enterprise gap and, as a result, boost Scotland’s economy. Last week, Ms Thomson and I had the pleasure of joining Women’s Enterprise Scotland and women business owners from across Scotland and around the world in person and online at their conference. The hot topic was, of course, the impact of the pandemic on female-led business.

At the same time, the Scottish Parliament information centre has produced an insightful and well-researched paper that has at its heart the experiences of a large cohort of women business owners by way of 10 case studies. It is called “The Impact of Covid-19 on Scotland’s Women Entrepreneurs” and I encourage everyone to read it. The report summarises asks of female business owners, which mirror what I have been hearing for years as a former business owner and in the six years that I have convened the cross-party group on women and enterprise in Parliament. Those asks are better access to funding; dedicated seed funding for female entrepreneurs; more opportunities for women to come together to learn and network in their own communities; the creation of coaching and mentoring champions for women in every Scottish region; and the expansion of affordable childcare.

Those asks fall into two categories: directed and tailored business support that has a gendered lens; and the infrastructure of social support for those who have families and caring responsibilities. The Scottish Government has made significant commitments to both. Early learning and childcare have been rolled out, and I hope that, in years to come, we will see the scope of that increase. We also have as a manifesto promise the establishment of a women’s business centre.

Last week, at the WES conference, the economy secretary, my friend and colleague Kate Forbes, announced a new short-life review of support for women in enterprise and how the pledged £50 million will be invested in the current parliamentary session to support more women into entrepreneurship and enterprise. As it stands, women-owned businesses in Scotland are now only just 14 per cent of small and medium-sized enterprise employer business, and that is down from 20.6 per cent in 2017.

In a subsequent international women’s day speech, I want to be able to say that the enterprise gap in Scotland is narrowing, because if it does, we will have a thriving economy with the injection of an estimated £7.6 billion in revenue from business gender parity.

Gillian Martin is talking about women in enterprise. Will she welcome the Scottish Government’s work in implementing and funding the women in agriculture programme?

As a north-east quine in a farming community, I do—absolutely and 100 per cent.

As Maggie Chapman said, gender parity helps men and women in society. However, only with targeted attention and unconscious bias of support decisions will we get there.

Finally, before I sit down, I want to welcome back my friend Christina McKelvie—the strongest of women.


I thank the members who have given me a warm welcome back to the chamber. I am delighted to be responding to the debate. I thank Michelle Thomson for proposing the debate and for her incredibly strong and reflective speech. It will give us all pause for thought, and I am grateful for that.

We have covered a wide range of issues, reflecting the priority and seriousness that we all give to ending the inequality that women and girls still face in society, here and globally.

On the global picture, I want to pick up on some of the points that have been made. My heart and best wishes are with the women of Ukraine today. As Michelle Thomson said, war has a devastating and disproportionate impact on women and children. We have been watching some pretty horrific scenes on the news—women and children fleeing from their homes towards safety. It is such a desperate situation that our hearts go out to the people of Ukraine and to all the women and children who are fleeing the war.

Beatrice Wishart reminded us that we must think about such situations and the impact that they have on a woman’s decision to “fight or flee”. I would put that in quotation marks, because that is exactly the decision that they must make, and they usually have to make it in the time that it takes to snap their fingers. Women are not deciding whether to fight or flee only in Ukraine; they are doing so in Afghanistan and in other parts of the world.

Emma Harper and Beatrice Wishart mentioned UN resolution 1325. Since 2016, the Scottish Government has contributed to the international women, peace and security agenda, which was initiated through invitation by the UN special envoy to Syria. The First Minister committed to funding a pilot project to train 10 women from the Syrian women’s advisory board of the UN special envoy. After the pilot, the programme became known as the women in conflict 1325 fellowship programme and was delivered by Scottish human rights organisation Beyond Borders Scotland. It was assisted by UN experts and endorsed by the then UN special envoy to Syria.

When the women in conflict 1325 fellowship commitment came to an end in April 2021, the Scottish Government was presented with an opportunity to assess whether and how it would continue to fund activities in relation to the women’s peace and security agenda. I would be happy to speak to Emma Harper, Beatrice Wishart and any others who might like to give us some understanding of their ideas on how we can continue the work. I look forward to hearing from them.

I think that we can all agree that the intention behind this year’s theme—#BreakTheBias—is long overdue and is something that we are all working towards.

In response to members’ contributions, I want to agree with Pam Gosal that this is a celebration: it is a celebration of Russell Findlay’s great-aunties, a celebration of Pam Gosal herself becoming a leader in her household, and a celebration of all the women’s organisations that have been mentioned today. It is a celebration of all the women’s enterprise networks and other women’s organisations that Gillian Martin and Marie McNair highlighted.

I want to celebrate all the amazing women with whom I work every day—many are in the chamber. In fact, they are all in the chamber, but there are also the women whom I see in the work that I do in my constituency and as a minister. I want to celebrate their roles, too.

I also want to celebrate friends and family. Indeed, I could not have got through the past year of my life without my friends and my family. I celebrate the role models, the activists, the care givers and the business leaders. I celebrate the women who deal with and overcome the obstacles that life puts in front of them, and their families and who continue to keep their lives on track day in and day out, just quietly getting on with things and smashing it. Today, they are the women of Ukraine. I also celebrate the people whom Jenni Minto mentioned: Sheina Marshall, Bessie Williamson and Ray Michie. International women’s day is for all of you, so I thank you so much for all that you do.

The Government is tackling gender inequality at different levels by addressing the immediate and acute consequences, including the insidious violence and abuse that many women face and, likewise, the poverty, homelessness and ill health that blight the lives of too many women and girls. However, we must also continue to work towards the systemic change that we want and, ultimately, the end of gender discrimination. As Maggie Chapman reminded us, we need to do so for all women—minority ethnic women, disabled women, trans women and women of all ages, denominations, sexual orientations and backgrounds. If we make policy by taking an intersectional feminist approach that works for women in all their diversity, it will work for everyone.

As we all know, if we are to be successful at any level, it is vital that we have the evidence to ensure that we are taking the right action. That is because evidence tells us that we do the majority of the caring—paid and unpaid—and that, as a result, many of us work in the lowest-paid jobs, which are undervalued in society. That is where we need to break some of the bias. It runs alongside the gender-based violence and misogyny that we face throughout our lives.

That is why we continue to prioritise funding for violence against women services, and are providing more direct support than at any other time. Throughout the Covid pandemic, I and my officials have worked with Scottish Women’s Aid and Rape Crisis Scotland. Between 2020 and 2021 we allocated an additional £10.75 million to services in order to deal with increased demand. Indeed, we quickly realised at the beginning of the pandemic that women would be victims of it.

It is why we asked Baroness Helena Kennedy to consider whether Scotland should have a stand-alone offence to tackle misogyny. We await her findings, which I hope will come soon. It is also why the Forensic Medical Services (Victims of Sexual Offences) (Scotland) Act 2021 will be commenced on 1 April 2022. It will establish a legal framework for consistent access to self-referral so that a survivor can access healthcare and request a forensic examination without having to make a police report.

So many areas have been covered in today’s debate; however, looking at the clock, I think that I will finish now. On doing more than what we have talked about doing today, I have to say that, as minister, I am happy to work with anybody from across the chamber who has new, refreshed or different ideas. It would be too easy for us to lose the momentum that we have gathered; history will not judge us kindly if we do. I plan to celebrate international women’s day by celebrating all the women of this world, then I will roll up my sleeves for the work that we have ahead of us to break the bias.

I hope that you will all join me. [Applause.]

That concludes the debate. I suspend the meeting until 2 pm.

13:45 Meeting suspended.  

14:00 On resuming—