The Scottish Parliament – both debating chamber and gallery – was full of women on Saturday 5th March. It was quite a spectacle.
I was delighted to be allocated a place (only 350 places were available with 900 people applying) to go along to the Scottish Women’s Convention conference and listen and meet some inspiring ladies. I usually go to events related to women in technology, and this was far more focused on women in society; it was rather interesting to think about the gender gap from a different perspective.
First up was Agnes Tolmie, SWC Chair, and after welcoming us made a point that those of us who are fans of social media should not forget: the power of social media is influencing young women to conform to unrealistic standards. I wonder if we can do something to systematically help share role models instead.
Our First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, was up next. I smiled when she said that her happiest day in the chambers, every year, is this day, the day of the SWC conference. She also added that she believed that if more parliaments looked more like this all of the time the world would be a better place. I don’t think she was saying that all parliaments should be all-female. Indeed, evidence proves that diverse organisations have better performance so all female may not be any better than all male. But we definitely need more women in parliament, more to represent what society actually looks like. As if she had read my mind she did then add that until at least half of the seats in the chamber are female we’ll be under-represented.
The FM (am I allowed to call her that?) talked about International Women’s Day’s “Pledge for Parity” and the fact that if we continue at our current rate, it will take until 2133 before we achieve equality globally – according to the World Economic Forum’s report in 2015. From an education and health perspective in the UK we’re doing pretty well, but economically and politically we still have a way to go.
Ms Sturgeon (that’s probably more acceptable) also mentioned that on the day she was sworn into Parliament she made a pledge to her 5 year old niece that she would win the outstanding battles in our generation so she doesn’t have to. Definitely a pledge worth making, perhaps not so easy to achieve.
One rather pleasing statistic about the Scottish Parliament is that when it was installed in 1999 there were more women MSPs then than the total of female MPs combined in Westminster, ever.
She also talked about the need for councils to work on the proportion of female Councillors, and suggested that women need to be encouraged to step forward for local elections. Ms Sturgeon indicated that evidence proves that they are as likely to succeed as their male counterparts, if only they would step forward.
Ms Sturgeon talked about some of the achievements that the Scottish Parliament has made, such as new criminal charges to help prevent and eradicate all forms of violence against women, including revenge porn. As a country we have also made good progress regarding apprenticeships: in 2008 1 in 4 apprentices were taken by women, last year (2015) it was 4 in 10.
One last point (there were many) is that only one quarter of private boards in Scotland have women, but 50% of those appointed to public sector boards, last year, were women, so “government” is making progress that the other sectors should be or could be imitating.
Another of our speakers was Kirstie Steele, actor from Waterloo Road. She talked about women we see on TV and in film. Far too many are in reality TV and programmes such as “Snog, Marry, Avoid”, that don’t necessarily represent women in the most flattering way.
I liked her saying “not all TV is the same”. Her character in Waterloo Road was intelligent, hardworking, represented the school. In Glasgow Girls she played Jennifer who stood up for her friends, and the programme received a Scottish Bafta and an award from the Royal TV Society. But then she mentioned how she was then portrayed out of the show. She was interviewed by teen mags such as TeenNow and instead of them tackling the challenges of a deaf female student in school they put Kirstie in the fashion and beauty sections. Rather than focus on the serious issues that other teens may be facing they asked Kirstie for her make-up tips. What a missed opportunity.
Kirstie also talked about her exposure to the negativity that can be found online. She has been the victim of trolling and although she said she got used to it, supported by friends and family to help brush it off, this doesn’t make it acceptable.
But she did then focus on the much stronger and positive side to the internet and media and gave the BBC3 programme, Girls Can Code, as an example. Apparently Kirstie volunteers with CoderDojo Scotland (who would have thought?) and she’s been using SonicPi to code her own version of a Taylor Swift song. Those of us fighting for the “women in IT” cause should definitely be “watching this space” when it comes to Kirstie.
Lastly, Kirstie returned to positive role models in television, suggesting Sarah Lancashire’s character in Happy Valley and Olivia Coleman’s policeman in Broadchurch, amongst others.
Her plea to us was to stop watching the shows that portray women badly, to switch to shows with a strong female character, and also to tell the producers and the broadcasters what we want to see – and what we don’t want to see. Personally, I haven’t made my mind up on “strong female” characters yet, I’m not sure they always need be strong, but I do want more positive female lead roles.
She made one more ask: be the positive role model you want to see on screen in real life.
Our penultimate speaker was Jane McKay, Former Secretary of the Glasgow Trade Union, and she talked about the impact women can have when they work together. Her stories were of difficult times when Chile was ruled by Pinochet, and the efforts made by women (and men) in Scotland to welcome refugees and to comfort prisoners of war. She told us that the action of sending postcards of support to people in prison in Chile resulted in torture being stopped for some.
She reminded us that sometimes in the press we hear terrible stories about refugees as if they weren’t men, women, children and babies, as if they weren’t human. She urged us not to forget.
Lastly, Dr. Marsha Scott, Chief Executive of Scottish Women’s Aid, talked of 40 years of Scotland’s Women’s Aid movement. It all started with women like us who were tired of seeing the discrimination, violence and abuse that their friends and family were receiving and no-one cared about. Those women opened their homes. But tragically there were too many in need to find enough homes. We’ve got where we have because women like us complained and marched and didn’t give up to make sure it was noticed.
Yet 40 years later – i.e. 2015 – there were 70,000 police reports of domestic abuse.
There’s still a long way to go.
Dr. Scott talked about the cross-party consensus reached in Scotland so that we can all be “equally safe”. The problem being, that when we’re not viewed as equals we are more likely to be abused, and if we are abused we are less likely to be seen as equals.
There are some real political hurdles that make addressing this tough. Most Women’s Aid groups have no more than 1 year of funding, and cuts from local authorities is having an impact. Scotland’s housing and homeless policy means that women at the local level who need help need to make themselves homeless before they will get it. This wasn’t an intentional result, but has happened as a result of a policy decision made in silo from other social challenges. Forcing women and children from their homes is traumatic. Another complication is that free legal advice is means tested. A woman who leaves an abusive home will have the value of her assets assessed, but just because she has a house in theory that does not mean she has access to any of its value.
Another tragic fact is that abused people are most likely to be murdered when they try to leave.
I can’t imagine how horrendous it must be to be in that situation. Dr. Scott pointed out that being an exile, a refugee, a sufferer from domestic abuse is not a choice, but we, society, can choose how we act.
It’s sobering. But then I’m reminded of the change that can be made when we all work together. Think of what happened at Dagenham in 1968 for example.
And at least once a year we know the Scottish Parliament will be full of women.