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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Meeting of the Parliament 30 January 2019

Agenda: Portfolio Question Time, Education (Presumption to Mainstream), Tackling Antisocial Behaviour, Business Motions, Parliamentary Bureau Motion, Decision Time, Equally Safe at Work


Contents


Equally Safe at Work

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Christine Grahame)

The next item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S5M-15427, in the name of Gail Ross, on the equally safe at work accreditation scheme. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament welcomes the launch of the new employer accreditation programme pilot, Equally Safe at Work; notes that this has been developed by Close the Gap, which it considers to be Scotland’s women and the labour market expert; understands that it will be piloted by local government and is part of the implementation of Equally Safe, which is Scotland’s strategy to prevent and eradicate all forms of violence against women and girls; welcomes the introduction of what it sees as this world-leading and innovative programme, which recognises that gender inequality is the root cause of violence against women and that addressing labour market inequality is a key step in ending this; considers that both the pilot accreditation programme and strategy are essential to achieving these aims; believes that the latest evidence suggests that over 70% of women in Scotland have reported experiencing or witnessing sexual harassment in the workplace and that one-in-five will experience domestic abuse at some point in their life; understands that throughout the 2019 pilot, Close the Gap will work closely with The Highland, Aberdeen City, Midlothian, North Lanarkshire, Perth and Kinross, Shetland and South Lanarkshire councils, supporting them to work toward accreditation by taking the necessary steps to address the causes of their gender pay gaps and to better support employees who have experienced gender-based violence; believes that it will help and encourage employers to advance gender equality in the workplace and in wider society, challenge violence against women and create genuinely inclusive cultures that play a crucial role in preventing such violence, and wishes Close the Gap every success as it takes forward what it sees as this invaluable accreditation programme.

17:08  

Gail Ross (Caithness, Sutherland and Ross) (SNP)

I am delighted to open this evening’s debate on the equally safe at work accreditation scheme. I am particularly pleased to see so many members attending on a day that marks the official launch of the scheme. I want to thank the members who signed the motion and those who intend to speak in the debate.

I welcome Ruth Boyle and Kelsey Smith from Close the Gap to the gallery, and thank them for hosting a drop-in session for MSPs in Parliament today.

Scotland’s equally safe strategy is a fantastic example of partnership working between the Scottish Government and the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, in association with a wide range of partners from the public and third sectors. That partnership recognises the importance of working together to tackle and, ultimately, to eradicate violence against women and girls. First published in 2014, “Equally Safe: Scotland's strategy for preventing and eradicating violence against women and girls” was revised in 2016, and in November 2017 “Equally Safe: A Delivery Plan for Scotland’s strategy to prevent and eradicate violence against women and girls 2017-21” was published to promote collaboration. In November 2018, a report was produced, in which the significant activity and progress on the delivery plan were measured.

Earlier today, as part of the overall strategy, Close the Gap formally launched the equally safe at work accreditation programme, which aims to address the causes of the gender pay gap and to ensure that there is better support for employees who have experienced gender-based violence.

Close the Gap is Scotland’s expert policy and advocacy organisation on women’s labour market participation. As part of its work to support the equally safe strategy, Close the Gap reviewed international practice and found no existing employer accreditation programme that focuses on violence against women, gender inequality and the workplace.

Poverty in Scotland is gendered. The gender pay gap is the difference between men and women’s hourly pay and is the result of a range of factors, including lack of flexible working opportunities, perceptions about gender-appropriate jobs, and grading structures. Women’s inequality at work is a key contributor to the higher rates of poverty among women. Women are twice as dependent on social security as men are, so they have been disproportionately affected by welfare reform. Women’s economic inequality reduces their financial independence, restricts their choices—in employment and in life—and can create an environment in which violence against women is more likely.

The world-leading equally safe at work accreditation programme is pioneering, in that it makes that link and focuses on the employer’s role in preventing violence against women. The pilot programme provides participating employers with a framework to support their work, along with a detailed handbook that offers evidence-based advice and best practice.

For too long, some employers have regarded violence against women, domestic violence and gender inequality as issues for others to deal with, which do not need to be tackled in the workplace. The programme seeks to change such attitudes by providing support and guidance in order to ensure that employers are in a position to support the implementation of the equally safe strategy. It is crucial that employers recognise their role in tackling inequality and gender-based violence.

After the decision was taken to establish the accreditation scheme, Scotland’s councils were asked to express whether they were interested in participating in the pilot programme. I was satisfied to hear that all 32 of our councils responded positively. That is a clear demonstration of the commitment of local government to the ambition to eradicate violence against women.

The councils were asked to complete a self-assessment of their equality measures, and seven were subsequently selected to take part in the pilot scheme. There was recognition of the different stages that councils have reached and the need for geographical spread. Over 2019, the Highland Council, Aberdeen City Council, Midlothian Council, North Lanarkshire Council, Perth and Kinross Council, Shetland Islands Council and South Lanarkshire Council will work towards achieving accreditation by taking the necessary steps to address the cause of their gender pay gaps, and to better support employees who have experienced gender-based violence.

Alongside the pilot group, a shadow group has been established that includes councils that completed a self-assessment but were not selected for the pilot. It is hoped that those councils will be involved in the next phase of the accreditation scheme.

Each pilot council will undertake an employee survey from February, and the exercise will be repeated towards the end of the pilot year in order to measure the change in attitudes and awareness, and to demonstrate improved understanding of gender violence and the role of the employer.

I am sure that members are wondering why we need an accreditation scheme. Each year, more than 3 million women in the United Kingdom experience violence, and many more experience abuse. Violence and abuse affect all aspects of a woman’s life, and the workplace is no exception. In many ways, employers are uniquely placed to support women to find the help that they need and stay in work.

Perpetrators of domestic abuse and stalking often use workplace resources including phones and email to threaten, harass and abuse. Tactics such as sabotage, stalking and harassment at work have an effect on women’s productivity, absenteeism and job retention.

Sexual harassment in the workplace is now a high-profile issue, and there is increasing pressure on employers to take action. Women report that sexual harassment has a negative impact on their mental health. Some women avoid certain work situations in order to avoid the perpetrator. All those effects and responses are also likely to diminish women’s performance and confidence, and to reduce the likelihood that they will apply for promoted posts.

In the Highland Council area alone, 2,336 incidents of domestic abuse were recorded by the police in 2017-18. Those are only the cases that were reported: we know that many others are never reported. Our local councils are our largest employers, which places them in a unique position to make a real change to attitudes. The launch of the equally safe at work accreditation scheme places Scotland at the forefront of actions to tackle violence against women and girls.

I very much look forward to hearing the outcomes from the pilot programme at the end of the year, and to the first councils being awarded their accreditations. I thank the minister in advance of her closing statement, because I know that she has worked very closely on the subject.

17:16  

Rona Mackay (Strathkelvin and Bearsden) (SNP)

I thank Gail Ross for bringing this important debate to the chamber. It is important to all of us as we strive to make equality and protection for women and girls absolutely mandatory. I also thank Close the Gap for its comprehensive briefing.

As Gail Ross explained, equally safe at work is a world-leading employer accreditation programme that is being piloted throughout 2019 in the seven councils that she referred to. The programme is being developed by Close the Gap and supports the implementation of “Equally Safe: Scotland’s strategy for preventing and eradicating violence against women and girls”. The strategy recognises that violence against women is a cause and consequence of gender inequality. As co-convener of the cross-party group on violence against women and children, I know that the reality of gender-based violence is shocking.

The programme focuses on women in the workplace, which is a fundamental step in addressing gender-based violence generally in society. As Gail Ross outlined with her statistics, violence against women is perpetrated at epidemic levels: 3 million women experience violence each year in the UK and many more women live with past experiences of abuse. It is a violation of women’s human rights and an enduring social problem that should not exist in 2019. It affects all aspects of women’s lives and the workplace is no exception. It is vital that employers understand the impact of gender-based violence on women so that they can support women better at work and can help them to access the support services that they need.

The economic cost of violence against women in the UK is estimated to be £40 billion, which includes the cost to public services and the lost economic output of affected women. Domestic abuse is estimated to cost the UK £16 billion, which includes an estimated £1.9 billion lost due to decreased productivity, administrative difficulties from unplanned time off, lost wages and sick pay.

However, for me it is about much more than money; it is about the degradation of women and the abuse of their human right to be treated with respect. One in five women in Scotland experience domestic abuse in their lifetime, and three quarters of women are targeted at work. That is shocking. Perpetrators of domestic abuse and stalking often use workplace resources such as phones and email to threaten, harass and abuse their current or former partners, or even strangers.

Studies have shown that the emerging practice of co-working or hot desking, leaves women with no protection against predators. That must be addressed urgently, with clear guidelines applied to those using and renting workspace. Research on experiences of sexual harassment at work is likely to be affected by underreporting because most women do not report it from fear of being blamed and a lack of confidence in complaints procedures.

As Gail Ross said, women report that sexual harassment has a negative impact on their mental health, which makes them less confident at work and induces them to stay away from certain work situations to avoid coming into contact with the perpetrator. That severely affects women’s chances for progression at work and exacerbates the gender pay gap, not to mention their own financial situation and confidence.

Equally safe at work will support councils to develop an increased capacity for addressing those inequalities and for better supporting female employees who have experienced gender-based violence. As Gail said, it provides employers with a framework that provides evidence-based advice and guidance and best practice.

Equally safe at work is a good initiative. It will play a vital part in protecting women in the workplace. I hope that the pilot can be rolled out to as many workplaces as possible, so that they can learn from good practice. Women must be protected in the workplace.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

Chatty and friendly though this debate is, I gently remind members to use full names when referring to colleagues in the chamber.

17:20  

Annie Wells (Glasgow) (Con)

I thank Gail Ross for bringing this extremely important topic to the chamber today.

Last November, I participated in a debate on ending violence against women and girls. During the debate, we acknowledged the importance of tackling sexual harassment and assault in the workplace—an issue that has garnered a lot of attention due to the #MeToo and time’s up campaigns.

Too many women in this country remain subject to sexual harassment and assault in their everyday employment. Following the widespread sharing of stories in the wake of the Weinstein scandal, we began to understand the extent of the problem. A poll has shown that half of British women and a fifth of men have been sexually harassed at work or at a place of study. Of those victims, 63 and 79 per cent kept that to themselves.

In the wake of the campaigns, it is encouraging to see pressure for change. In the Scottish Parliament, culture of respect workshops, which are open to all staff and MSPs, are being held. Outwith this place, I am encouraged to see the setting up of the new employer accreditation programme pilot, and I thank Close the Gap for its efforts in developing it. I will be very interested in hearing how the pilot develops over the year and how best practice can be encouraged in the private and public sectors. At the very least, it should be clear in every workplace in Scotland whom employees can make their complaints to and how they will be handled. It should also be clear what constitutes sexual harassment at work. Despite the impact of the #MeToo and time’s up campaigns, there is still a lot of confusion about what exactly sexual harassment is. That needs to be clarified in the mind of the public, and I am interested in looking into that issue.

Employers have a vital part to play in advancing gender equality and creating a safe environment for women. As Close the Gap points out, that will involve preventing violence against women at work and employers considering women’s different experiences in all aspects of the workplace. Women are concentrated in undervalued, low-paid jobs such as admin and cleaning, and they are vastly underrepresented in management and senior positions. By creating greater economic equality between men and women, and by increasing women’s choices in employment, the risk factors leading to a woman’s resilience being diminished in the workplace can be reduced. That is a hugely important topic in itself, but it is one that, unfortunately, we do not have time to debate today.

At present, women are estimated to earn £70,000 less over their lifetime than men because of the gender pay gap, and that labour inequality costs the Scottish economy £17 billion a year. Those figures are stark, and it is time that we had a frank discussion on bold measures for childcare, flexible working and inspiring young women through educational reform. Only through societal change will women be able to reach their full potential.

I again express my support for the employer accreditation programme pilot and for all efforts at eradicating gender-based violence in the workplace. No woman—or man—should be subject to such behaviour, and it is vital that we stand shoulder to shoulder in condemning it. I hope that, through societal discussion and initiatives that embed a good ethos in our workplaces, real progress is made.

17:24  

Jackie Baillie (Dumbarton) (Lab)

I, too, thank Gail Ross for bringing such an important issue to the chamber and for the content of her speech. I also thank Close the Gap for providing such a useful briefing.

This is not the first time that I have stood up in the chamber and spoken about why gender inequality has no place in any aspect of our society and why violence against women and girls simply cannot go on any longer. In the very first session of the Parliament, I was the minister with responsibility for equalities and tackling domestic abuse, so such issues are not new to me. Progress has been made across Governments of different political hues, but there is still much to be done.

I whole-heartedly support the work that is being done by Close the Gap in its fight to eradicate gender-based inequalities from our workplace. Its work is integral to understanding the embedded, societal reasons for women, all too often, coming second to men in the workplace. More important, it understands how in-depth legislative changes and a re-evaluation of the whole labour market must occur if we hope to make a step in the right direction towards ending workplace gender discrimination. The fight is far bigger than just trying to change the stubborn attitudes of a select few.

The equally safe at work strategy is a pioneering programme in incorporating the role and the duty of care of the employer as a way of preventing and ending domestic violence. I am encouraged to learn that—as others have referenced—seven Scottish local authorities will pilot the strategy in 2019. I know that far more have expressed an interest, including the councils in West Dunbartonshire and Argyll and Bute, in my part of the country. In fact, as Gail Ross said, every local authority responded to the request for an expression of interest. There is a shadow group of early adopters for when the programme is rolled out after the pilot, which is encouraging.

Women who suffer domestic abuse often do not know where to turn for support. They do not know whom they can trust or, all too often, who will believe them. The workplace should—and must—be a safe haven for women who are being abused. Employers must be properly trained and equipped to support employees who come to them seeking support and advice. However, we must ask ourselves wider questions. How can a woman feel confident that her employer will support her when she sees how embedded gender discrimination still is in workplaces across the country? How can she hope to feel sufficiently financially independent to leave an abusive relationship when the gender pay gap is all too rife in our society? When 52 per cent of women in the UK have admitted to experiencing sexual harassment at work, the importance of the work that is carried out by the equally safe at work strategy should not be underestimated.

For decades, women have been pigeonholed into gender-appropriate jobs while keeping quiet and shrugging off sexual harassment for fear of being further discriminated against. Through evidence-based advice and guidance, employers will, for the first time, be adequately equipped to support female employees who suffer from abuse, harassment or discrimination. That is a significant breakthrough in how we deal with gender inequality and sexual harassment in a professional setting, and I hope that that approach will spread through every aspect of society.

In closing, I appeal to my colleagues—both those who are here, in the chamber, and those who are unable to join us this evening—to follow the groundbreaking work of Close the Gap. The Scottish Parliament is a large workplace, and each and every one of its members is an employer to a number of staff who are based either in this building or across Scotland. We have a duty of care to protect our employees, and it should be our priority not to discriminate against them on the basis of their gender. Our staff have the right to come to work without fear of sexual harassment. In the unfortunate cases in which they may be victims of domestic abuse, it is vital that, as employers, we ensure that support for them is in place so that they can be made to feel safe and protected. I hope that we will lead by example to ensure that workers across Scotland are truly equally safe.

17:28  

John Finnie (Highlands and Islands) (Green)

I congratulate Gail Ross on bringing this very important issue to the chamber. I welcome the launch of the equally safe strategy and commend the work of Close the Gap. I should declare that, along with my colleague Rona Mackay and others, I am a co-convener of the cross-party group on men’s violence against women and children. We undoubtedly face significant challenges in that area. Equally safe, which is Scotland’s strategy to prevent and eradicate all forms of violence against women and girls, is hugely important. However, tackling gender-based violence requires cohesion, and that must be addressed very robustly.

I welcome the participation of Close the Gap in the labour market, which I think will be a very valuable contribution. I note that it works with policy makers—including people in the Parliament—employers and employees to influence and enable action to address the causes of women’s inequality at work. My colleague Gail Ross outlined a number of those causes, which I will not repeat.

Others have talked about the leadership role that the Parliament and members should be taking, which is pivotal. The issue is a cross-party one, and there should be no divergence on it. There is an important role for men to play in calling out the great challenges that remain, which is why I commend the work of White Ribbon Scotland. On Friday, I will join other male politicians to promote its initiative, which involves working in betting shops to make it very clear that violence against women is unacceptable.

Partnership working is the key. I was delighted to hear of COSLA’s involvement and the response from Scotland’s local authorities. Like Jackie Baillie, I am pleased to note that Highland Council and Shetland Islands Council, which are in my region, are involved.

Seventy per cent of women in Scotland have reported experiencing or witnessing sexual harassment in the workplace. That is a damning indictment. We are talking about someone’s mother, grandmother, daughter or niece. They are our fellow citizens.

There are obligations on employers to ensure that workplaces are places of safety. As Jackie Baillie said, there is a duty of care. There is also a role for trade unions, staff associations, workers, customers and bystanders—indeed, there is a role for all of us.

A key word in the motion to which I was drawn is “challenge”. That will not always mean direct intervention. I know that some people will have concerns that challenging will escalate problems, but the aim is to share, act and never ignore.

One in five women will experience domestic abuse at some point in their life. That statistic shames not just the perpetrators but all of us. We know how pernicious and far reaching such abuse is. In passing the Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Bill, we have examined coercive and controlling behaviour and its reach. The workplace is not beyond that reach; indeed, it is somewhere where people are known to be, and they can often feel trapped.

The hierarchy that is reflected in pay, grading and access to training—the patriarchy at work—has also been alluded to.

I am not an optimist—I am sorry; let me start again, Presiding Officer. I am an optimist, not a pessimist about the matter. Great progress has been made over the years, but it is clear that there is a way to go. The workplace is no different from anywhere else, and education is absolutely the key. I wish Close the Gap and the participating authorities well, and I know that there will be continued interest in the Parliament in what happens.

Once again, I congratulate my colleague Gail Ross on bringing an important issue to the chamber.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

We are very pleased to learn that you are an optimist after all, Mr Finnie.

17:32  

Liam McArthur (Orkney Islands) (LD)

I join other members in thanking my good friend Gail Ross, and I congratulate her on bringing this important debate to Parliament. As John Finnie suggested, the equally safe at work initiative should and does command cross-party support. I acknowledge and thank Close the Gap for the contribution that it has made and will make.

Obviously, the initiative is part of the wider equally safe strategy. Gail Ross was right to remind us of the collaborative approach that underlies that. That is the only way of ensuring that the strategy enjoys the success that we all wish it to have.

Annie Wells pointed to our debate in November on violence against women and girls. That was an excellent debate. At that stage, we were right to acknowledge the progress that has been made in a number of areas. The Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Act 2018 was fresh in our minds, and the approach that Police Scotland and the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service are taking was commended, but it was acknowledged across the chamber that we have some way to go in addressing concerns. The latest figures on sexual crimes had shown a worrying increase.

It was accepted that men and boys can be and are affected by violence. However, just a cursory glance at the statistics demonstrates beyond any contradiction at all the gendered nature of violence. The reasons for that are perhaps more complex than I will be able to articulate in four minutes. However, Gail Ross was absolutely right in opening the debate to draw a link between violence against women and inequality in society more generally but specifically in the workplace. I looked at figures that suggest that the gender pay gap means that, on average, women in Scotland earn around £183 per week less than men and that over the course of their working life that can result in anything up to around £0.5 million of disparity. That is a colossal divergence in financial independence between women and men.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission report estimated that 54 per cent of women will lose their jobs as a result of becoming pregnant or going on maternity leave, which is a shocking statistic. Jackie Baillie and John Finnie referred to statistics on the levels of sexual harassment at work. It beggars belief that any business would fail to treat its employees equally and fairly. A business that takes a zero tolerance approach to harassment in any form in the workplace is a business that will attract the best and brightest and have a hope of realising its potential as an organisation. There are, therefore, probably many self-serving reasons why businesses should take the issue more seriously.

I am delighted that a number of local authorities have taken up the Close the Gap initiative and that the response across the board has been so positive. I hope that, through debates such as this and our continued interest in the issue, we can encourage other local authorities to do the same. However, for the time being, I wish Close the Gap well and thank Gail Ross again for allowing the Parliament to debate the issue this afternoon.

17:36  

Bill Kidd (Glasgow Anniesland) (SNP)

I thank Gail Ross and Close the Gap for bringing this important topic to the chamber for debate.

Employers have good reason to take on the task of tackling violence against women, because their place of work may be one of the only spaces—or, sadly, the only space—where a victim of domestic abuse can seek help, as normally the perpetrator is not there. Establishing safe mechanisms for those individuals to approach a trustworthy colleague could make all the difference.

Local authorities, which employ 245,000 people in Scotland, are a good example of a group of employing organisations that are well placed to champion that kind of change. I hope that there will be a shift in perceptions that will encourage victims of domestic abuse to seek help at work and make the safeguarding of women the norm in human resources policies.

In my contribution to the debate, I want to make two things very clear. First, abuse is never acceptable. We inherently deserve to be treated with dignity, respect and love. If anyone who is listening to this debate thinks that that does not apply to them, they need to hear that they are wrong. There is nothing in this world that strips that birthright away from us. If someone is in an abusive relationship or situation, they are not being treated the right way; they deserve to be treated with dignity, respect and love. No one is an exception to that rule.

Secondly, help is available. For women, Scottish Women’s Aid is a good first point of call if they are a victim of domestic abuse. Men who are victims of domestic abuse can go to SurvivorsUK or the Men’s Advice Line for help. All those organisations can help someone safely leave a partner and can provide support along the way.

There is a clear moral imperative for employers to provide support for victims of domestic abuse and ensure that the pay gap is closed. Through equal pay, women can become financially independent—that has been said more than once in the debate—and the control that is exerted by an abusive partner is lessened. That task is relevant to employers because, in all likelihood, there will be people in their workforce who are victims of domestic abuse. Moreover, any employee who is experiencing domestic violence will be affected by it while they are at work.

In the UK as a whole, violence against women is estimated to cost £1.9 billion to the economy. Specifically, that is due to decreased productivity, administration difficulties due to unplanned time off work, lost wages and sick pay. Three quarters of women who are experiencing domestic abuse will, while they are at work, be harassed, threatened or abused by their current or former partner. That, of course, has an impact on the victim’s ability to work as normal, particularly as work phones and emails are often the way in which the perpetrator continues to make contact.

One in five women in Scotland experiences domestic abuse in their lifetime; it directly affects 553,300 women in Scotland. That means that, for every five women working in a company, statistically speaking one of these employees will have experienced domestic abuse. That is a devastating statistic. We owe it to those women to take seriously our collective responsibility to tackle domestic violence.

Local authorities will make a significant impact by championing the equally safe at work accreditation programme. I urge all employers listening to this debate to consider seriously what steps they can take to tackle domestic violence among their workforce. For every woman moved into safety, those steps are unequivocally worth it.

17:41  

Rachael Hamilton (Ettrick, Roxburgh and Berwickshire) (Con)

I thank Gail Ross for bringing the debate to the chamber today and Close the Gap for its briefing. I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak on the very important issue of equality in the workplace.

No matter what their age, race, background or gender is, everyone should feel safe and comfortable in their workplace. Everyone has a job to do, and no one should ever be held back from achieving or striving to do the very best that they can. Even though attitudes are improving and awareness of harassment in the workplace is increasing, sadly, behaviour and attitudes that are derived from gender inequality perpetuate.

The figures for sexual harassment in the workplace make for grim reading, with almost three quarters of women in Scotland witnessing or experiencing sexual harassment at work. So much more needs to be done to tackle this scourge in our society.

When I learned of the equally safe at work programme through Gail Ross’s motion, I decided that it was a vitally important endeavour, which I wanted to support. The programme aims to eradicate violence against women and girls, and it is the only one of its kind. As Jackie Baillie said, it is pioneering.

Although equally safe at work is not being rolled out as a pilot in my area, the Scottish Borders, I wish all those involved in pilots across other parts of Scotland success. I hope that it creates a long-lasting impact on workplaces, building a foundation for change on which to embed a strong culture of gender equality in those organisations and any that take it up in the future. I hope that it proves to be effective, so that we see it across Scotland, not just in local government but in other sectors.

There is no doubt about the negative impact of domestic abuse in the workplace. The programme aims to highlight the effects that domestic abuse has on productivity in the workplace. Many of us take for granted being able to turn up for work ready to face the day and getting on with tasks, meetings, paperwork and email. However, for domestic abuse victims, the days are long and productivity is lost. It is often a hidden issue that must be addressed. Closer to home in the Borders, I am proud of some excellent work that is helping with that, namely the cedar project and Victim Support Scottish Borders. We want more women who are victims of domestic abuse to come forward, and we have seen evidence of that in an increase in the number of reported incidents. However, we cannot be soft on the abusers. I hope that, with the support of those organisations, women can be helped back into the workplace and that assistance will be given to them in their time of need.

The equally safe at work programme aims to be a successful step forward in tackling workplace harassment and violence against women. I look forward to seeing the positive change that the programme will bring and hope that Close the Gap will explore the larger roll-out. Perhaps Scottish Borders Council will join in the pilot, too.

We have come a long way, but there is even further to go if we are to have true equality in the workplace. Let us keep up the momentum. I thank Gail Ross again and thank Close the Gap for its involvement in this very important project.

17:44  

Gillian Martin (Aberdeenshire East) (SNP)

Ridding society of gender-based violence, sexual harassment and sexual discrimination starts with advancing gender equality. A specific accreditation scheme to tackle gender equality is long overdue, and I thank Gail Ross for bringing this debate to the chamber and eloquently drawing the link between workplace discrimination and economic insecurity as a cause behind or exacerbator of gender-based violence. For that reason, I am glad that Close the Gap is the leader in the initiative.

I want to look at some of that inequality. We are just at the pilot stage of the equally safe at work scheme, but I hope that, beyond that point, it can be rolled out to the private sector for employers to take up on a voluntary basis, because my experience has been that the greatest change has to happen there. The precarious work that can leave a woman unable to leave a violent partner because of economic insecurity largely exists in the private sector. That inequality is apparent in the gender pay gap, which is a symptom of a workplace culture born out of stubborn gender stereotypes and systematic inequality.

Career progression should not be dependent on whether a woman has caring responsibilities. I have heard about plenty of women being asked by employers whether they are planning to start a family, but never men. I have told the story before of telling a former boss that I was expecting my first child. His knee-jerk reaction was to say, “I thought you were interested in your career.” Every time I tell that story, I have other women telling me similar stories or worse—women being quietly dropped from management training programmes, projects being given to someone else and opportunities melting away like snow off a dyke, but never blatantly, of course.

After I asked for a pay rise many years ago, the same boss likened me to his wife, who, he told me, also liked “a bit of extra pin money.” I was a producer in corporate video production. I was not asking my man for money for a coat I had seen in the Co-operative, like a 1950s housewife. The boss probably meant no harm by those comments, but I felt angry and humiliated, and they are reflective of a wider culture that diminishes female employees’ status.

Both of those instances were over 20 years ago, but I have seen plenty of women being sidelined since then. Discrimination and offence in the workplace with regard to pregnant workers and mothers is just one part of a suite of harassment and discrimination, and the problem is particularly acute in the private sector. Constructive dismissal of pregnant women is rife. I once witnessed a colleague of mine have her duties and responsibilities reshaped and reassigned to other people as part of a so-called restructure after a company takeover. She resigned due to the upset and stress, which left her with no maternity benefits.

It is estimated that 54,000 women each year lose their jobs as a result of becoming pregnant, but the full picture may be masked by the widespread abuse of non-disclosure agreements in the private sector. Additionally, zero-hours contracts allow employers to simply reject any worker, regardless of circumstances, and we know that women are more likely to have a zero-hours situation. In those cases, if a woman falls pregnant, they can often fall off the rota.

Losing one’s job is perhaps the extreme of discrimination, but being pregnant at work can often lead to comments that the perpetrator thinks are innocent or even friendly but which diminish, disrespect and embarrass the women who are on the receiving end. Inappropriate comments about whether they will come back to work and what arrangements they will make when they return to work or assumptions that they will not be able to continue at the level that they are currently at or do as much work are bandied about pretty much every day. No one ever comments on those things when someone is an expectant father.

All those things might sound harmless, but they are not. They contribute to a view that mothers are not good promotion prospects and are of less value than their male counterparts. Engender has stated:

“despite political leadership on women’s equality at the Scotland level, there is a widespread and systemic failure to grasp the challenge of mainstreaming across public authorities. Women’s equality within the public sector has largely stalled as a result.”

The public sector is just the start. The private sector must be fully involved, too, if we are to make universal, systematic change. I hope that we will get to that point soon.

17:49  

The Minister for Older People and Equalities (Christina McKelvie)

I thank Gail Ross for bringing this very important debate to the chamber on the day when we launched the pilot, and I thank all colleagues across the chamber for their important contributions. I think that I am going to touch on what everybody had to say.

Violence against women and girls cannot and must not be allowed. We have already said that. Such violence pervades every aspect of women’s lives, and the workplace is no exception. We have heard clear examples of that. As we know, such violence comes at a huge cost. It inhibits women and girls from realising their true potential, requires the diversion of resources for crisis and immediate intervention and has a toxic impact on our wider society.

John Finnie rightly commended the work of White Ribbon Scotland in reminding us that men have a key role to play here and that none of us should be bystanders.

The Government, this Parliament and society as a whole have a responsibility to take action to end violence against women and girls. To achieve success, we must work together and leave no one behind. Rona Mackay and John Finnie talked about the cross-party group on men’s violence against women and children, which is a perfect example of politicians across parties working with stakeholders to advance and progress the policies of this place on ending that violence. Jackie Baillie reminded us that progress has been made over the 20 years of this Parliament, and we should all be proud that we have worked together to achieve that.

Our equally safe strategy has been described as

“the best violence against women strategy in Europe.”

It has a decisive focus on prevention, it seeks to strengthen national and local collaborative working to ensure effective interventions for victims and those at risk, and it contains a clear ambition to strengthen the justice response to victims and perpetrators.

Our strategy prioritises primary prevention, and we have already made progress in taking forward many of the actions in our associated delivery plan, particularly in our approach to ensuring that our children have an understanding of important issues such as consent and healthy relationships. Like Rachael Hamilton, I hope that what has been launched today builds that foundation for change. We are already on that road, and I have no doubt that it will do so—I share Rachael Hamilton’s ambitions.

However, although raising awareness and embedding understanding of gender-based violence across our schools, institutions and, indeed, wider society is undoubtedly hugely important, perhaps the bigger challenge is in delivering a societal shift whereby women no longer occupy a subordinate position to men.

Gail Ross and Liam McArthur spoke about the gendered nature of violence against women and girls and how it is borne out by the statistics that we have heard. That is why the work that Close the Gap is undertaking is so important. It will play a vital part in achieving our goal of advancing women’s equality in the workplace.

Jackie Baillie said that the workplace should be a safe haven for women who are being abused. It should also be a place where they feel supported and understood. As John Finnie said, there should be a trusting relationship whereby women can get support with situations that they face.

Our Government and this Parliament have a strong track record in this area. Having a gender-balanced Cabinet, establishing the advisory council on women and girls—which I believe met this morning and was incredibly lively—and introducing legislation to lock in gains on ensuring equal representation on public boards are just a few of the important steps that we have taken.

Nevertheless, as every member who spoke in the debate recognised, there is still much to do to ensure that women are properly represented in our political and public institutions as well as more widely in senior and decision-making positions. Of course, we know that we are not there yet in terms of equal representation. The imperative to get the private sector to adopt the accreditation was passionately articulated by Gillian Martin, but we have work to do here, too. Just over 36 per cent of members of the Scottish Parliament and 32 per cent of MPs at Westminster are women. At the current pace of change, it will take another 25 years for women to make up 50 per cent of local government. We have work to do.

The fact that we still have a gender pay gap is also unacceptable, as is the fact that women continue to be underrepresented in boardrooms and senior management roles and are concentrated in low-paid and undervalued positions, as many members said.

Annie Wells made clear links with the economic impact of equal pay, which she was absolutely right to do, and Gillian Martin told us how inappropriate comments and the loss of opportunity have a huge impact on women’s ability to advance in the workplace. That lack of representation is precisely why women are often disproportionately affected by benefit cuts. They unjustly bear the brunt of austerity and can become cemented in a lifetime of low earnings and underutilised qualifications. If someone is in an abusive relationship, that is another way in which they are cemented into it. If women are not in the room when such policy is being made, we get further entrenched inequality. Gail Ross reminded us that women are twice as likely to be dependent on social security, so there is a piece of work to do there.

That economic inequality serves to reinforce gender inequality across society, because a lack of financial independence can often limit women’s freedom and restrict their life choices. That is why I—and, I believe, many in this place—support changes to the universal credit system to enable split payments to households so that women who are in domestic abuse or coercive controlling situations can maintain financial independence.

It is important to stress that the wider impact of violence can be felt across our society. Violence against women costs the economy an estimated £40 billion each year, so it makes good business sense for employers to realise the part that they have to play not only in designing policies that help to overcome the barriers that women face at work but through their key role in supporting women who experience gender-based violence in the workplace or in their own homes.

The use of workplace resources to continue abuse, to continue stalking and to create an atmosphere of fear, which Rona Mackay and Bill Kidd discussed, is an area in which employers can take clear action and make progress immediately. That is why we are proud to support Close the Gap’s pioneering equally safe at work accreditation programme, which we believe has the potential to create a real step change for women who work in local government. Ruth Boyle and Kelsey Smith are in the public gallery, and, when I met them today, they were full of enthusiasm and looking forward to rolling out their work after the pilot concludes.

The local authorities that are taking part in the pilot have the opportunity to lead the way in tackling gender inequality across local government by instituting appropriate measures to support and ensure the safety of employees who are experiencing gender-based violence, as well as by creating genuinely inclusive work cultures that play a crucial role in preventing such violence. Councillor Mary Donnelly from South Lanarkshire Council, who has dedicated her life to women’s equality, told me that she and her cross-party team of councillors are keen to do the work. I therefore take this opportunity to wish Close the Gap every success as it takes the project into its next phase, and I look forward to watching the pilot develop over the coming months.

Bill Kidd said that there is a moral imperative for employers to tackle the issue, and he is absolutely right. Achieving gender equality and ending violence against women and girls once and for all are shared responsibilities for all of us. I hope that we can continue to work together to build on the success that we have already enjoyed and create a Scotland where everyone feels equally safe.

Meeting closed at 17:56.