A mountain to climb: gender equality in Scotland

Written by Kate Shannon on 24 May 2017 in Inside Politics

Inequality still affects almost every aspect of women's lives

In April, the Holyrood chamber saw a rare show of unity. For one debate, differing politics were put aside and the SNP, Labour, Lib Dems and Greens came together to condemn the so-called rape clause, part of the Welfare Reform and Work Act 2016. 

Sections 13 and 14 of the Act limit entitlement to the child element of Child Tax Credit and Universal Credit to a maximum of two children per household, this is known as the family cap.  

Exceptions were introduced by the UK Government in 2017 which state that social security for a third or subsequent child would be provided if the child was born as a result of ‘non-consensual conception’ (i.e. rape), sibling adoption, kinship carers or multiple births.


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In order for a woman to apply for this exception in the case of rape, she would have to fill out an eight-page form, which includes naming the child who was conceived, as well as providing the 

Department of Work and Pensions with evidence the rape took place, such as a conviction in which they were the victim or testimony from a professional such as a doctor or the police, and confirming she is not living with the child’s father.

Inevitably, this has caused a massive outcry and Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson has come under pressure for repeatedly defending it. 

Earlier this month, she told STV’s Scotland Tonight: “If there are better ways of doing that we should always look at them.

“The system which is in place does not require some of the things that people have said it does.

“It does not require women to fill out a multi-page form; it is about making sure a third party does it for them.

“All they have got to do is tick a box and put their name on it.”

However, Scotland’s other political parties have remained staunchly against the clause.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said: “No woman anywhere should have to prove that she has been raped in order to get tax credits for her child. I cannot believe that, in 2017, I am having to make that argument in the Scottish Parliament.

“The policy is not just immoral, although it definitely is; it is also unworkable in practice. The proposal for third-party verification puts an unacceptable burden on health workers and rape crisis centres, as well as on officials from the Department for Work and Pensions. 

“Rape Crisis Scotland, Scottish Women’s Aid, NHS Scotland and many others have, quite rightly, refused to collude with the rape clause. That is one of the reasons why, although it has now passed into law, no one in the UK Government is able to explain how it will work in practice. 

“Many basic questions are still completely unanswered. What burden of proof is required? How will the claim be verified and recorded? How can the process possibly take place without the woman fearing that it will be hugely stigmatising for her and her child?”

A statement for Scottish Women’s Aid said the rape clause was just one part of the “broad range of harm the two-child policy inflicts”.

It continued: “Any policy that actively and knowingly pushes women and children into poverty has no place in our society, and it is not something that we can support.”

Economic inequality

Sadly, this particular piece of legislation, while shocking, is the tip of the iceberg. Austerity and welfare changes are having a serious effect on the day to day lives of women. According to analysis by the House of Commons library (which includes measures announced in the 2016 budget cumulatively), 86 per cent of savings from 2010 to 2020 will have come from women’s pockets. 

The analysis is based on tax and benefit changes since 2010, with the losses apportioned to whichever individual within a household receives the payments.

In total, the analysis estimates that the cuts will have cost women a total of £79bn since 2010, against £13bn for men. It shows that, by 2020, men will have borne just 14 per cent of the total burden of welfare cuts, compared with 86 per cent for women.

Emma Ritch, executive director of Engender Scotland, said austerity continues to be a “grumbling” issue underlying so much of women’s inequality.

Speaking to Holyrood, she said: “These figures represent a huge change in women’s relative economic equality and these decisions being made at Westminster are going to have a profound effect. 

“Everything is interrelated, for example, we know that women’s economic inequality is one of the causes of violence against women and it prevents women taking part in political and community activity. 

“Austerity is going to have a huge impact on women’s lives and we are already seeing it at the sharp end, affecting the poorest groups of women.”

Meanwhile, women are twice as dependent on social security as men and according to the 2011 census, 62 per cent of unpaid carers are women. 

According to Engender, the undervaluation of caring work is a perennial issue.

Ritch said: “Women essentially prop up the so-called ‘real economy’ with unpaid care work that remains largely invisible to policymakers. Without it, the entire economy would collapse.

“There is still the presumption that women are keeping the home fires burning and men are in the public space, in leadership roles.

“There has been a powerful economic argument made for women with small children who are usually at peak career, or could be, going back to work. There is a business case argument that if we can crack childcare, it would have a huge economic benefit. However, women who are caring for older people tend to be older themselves and there’s less of an attempt to make an economic argument for them.”

The pay gap

According to Close the Gap, the charity which works in Scotland on women’s participation in the labour market, in 2016, provisional results indicated that the mean gender pay gap in Scotland was 14.9 per cent when comparing men and women’s overall average hourly earnings. On average, Close the Gap said women in Scotland earn £182.90 per week less than men.
Women account for 49 per cent of the labour market and are 76 per cent of all part-time workers in Scotland. Close the Gap also found that women working in Scotland are clustered in a small number of jobs and sectors. For example, women’s employment is concentrated in the public sector, with 48 per cent of working women represented in public administration, education and health industries. Women represent over half of workers in only six of the 20 Standard Industry Classifications (the UK standard industrial classification of economic activities) whereas men tend to be more evenly spread across industry groups.

Last month it was announced businesses with over 250 employees must publish data on the pay gap between their male and female employees within the next year, after a new UK law came into effect.

Around 9,000 employers across the UK will be required to publish the data under a scheme designed to narrow the gap between what men and women are paid in the UK.

If employers fail to publish their median and mean gender pay gap figures by the April 2018 deadline, they will be contacted by the Equalities and Human Rights Commission.

Employers will also have to publish data on the proportion of male and female employees respectively that received a bonus during the year.

UK Minister for Women and Equalities, Justine Greening, said: “Helping women to reach their full potential isn’t only the right thing to do, it makes good economic sense and is good for British business. I am proud that the UK is championing gender equality and now those employers that are leading the way will clearly stand out with these requirements.”

The Scottish Parliament’s Economy, Jobs and Fair Work Committee is undertook an inquiry with the remit to explore the effect of the gender pay gap on the Scottish economy.

Committee member, SNP MSP Gillian Martin told Holyrood that there is still a “steep hill” to climb.

She said: “I pushed hard for this to be added to the work programme for the committee because I think it’s a huge economic issue. We’re trying to reach Scotland’s full potential and we could add millions to the economy if women were paid in line with men, if women’s careers were as successful as men in terms of progression and if things were in place to allow women to reach their potential.

“Evidence heard by the committee shows women continue to be underrepresented in senior management and leadership roles.

“Fewer women also work in industries such as engineering, IT and technology. One of the misconceptions is between the gender pay gap and equal pay.

“Unequal pay for the same job has been against the law since 1970. The gender pay gap is more complex. This is because it is about a woman’s progression and earning power in comparison to her male colleagues as well as equality of opportunity in the workplace.”

Violence against women

It is estimated that one in five women suffers domestic abuse, while every 13 minutes, a woman experiences violence. 

Figures released by Scottish Women’s Aid in December showed that in one day, 66 women and 20 children reached out to their local Women’s Aid branch for the first time. The charity said this figure equates to over 17,000 new cases per year and it warns this is likely to be a “conservative” estimate, with the true figure potentially significantly higher.

Dr Marsha Scott, chief executive of Scottish Women’s Aid, added: “As Scotland heads into a further period of economic instability with cuts to social security and local services, the presence of a stable, robust, and properly funded Women’s Aid service is what stands between so many women and children experiencing domestic abuse and homelessness, destitution and powerlessness.

“The work of local Women’s Aid groups and the specialist services they provide offer early intervention, accurate advice and advocacy, and the conviction that women and children are not alone.

The expertise and dedication of Women’s Aid workers changes lives, and Scotland would be significantly poorer without them.”

Emma Ritch said Scotland is still seeing “epidemic” levels of violence against women.

“Violence against women tends to adapt to the medium which is in front of it so online harassment is the latest space into which violence against women has moved,” she said. 

“However, more familiar domestic abuse, such as rape and sexual assault continue apace.”

She welcomed the new Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Bill which was introduced to the Scottish Parliament in March, saying it is a “bold and forward looking step for Scotland”.

The bill aims to strengthen the laws against those who psychologically abuse their partners using coercive and controlling behaviour.

Nicola Sturgeon said: “I am proud that, as a society, we’ve come a long way from believing that domestic abuse is only a physical act. 
“The truth is that the psychological scars left by emotional abuse can have devastating effects on victims, and this government will work hard to make sure perpetrators face the justice they deserve.

“This bill will help our police and prosecutors hold abusers to account, but importantly, it also shows those who have suffered abuse that we stand with them and will take the steps needed to help them.”

The representation gap

In Scotland, political representation is an area which has stagnated. 2016’s Holyrood elections saw 45 women MSPs elected (34.9 per cent), exactly the same proportion as 2011. The highest ever number of women in the Scottish Parliament peaked in 2003 at 39.5 per cent.

The general election in 2015 returned 191 women across the whole country, which is 29 per cent of all MPs and was a record high. Twenty-six per cent of the House of Lords is made up of women, and following the 2014 European Parliament election, 40 per cent of UK MEPs were women.

Also lagging behind is Scottish local government. While the number of woman councillors rose from 24 per cent in 2012 to 29 per cent in 2017, this still falls short of the 50:50 aspirations of many of the political parties. 

Less than one in three Scottish councillors is a woman and no council achieved equal representation overall. Meanwhile, 103 wards have no women representing them at all. 

Prior to the election, the Women 50:50 campaign revealed only 775 out of 2,550 local government election candidates are women and no political party achieved 50 per cent women candidates.

The Scottish Greens fielded 45 per cent women, the SNP 41 per cent, the Scottish Liberal Democrats 33 per cent and Scottish Labour, 32 per cent.

Politics lecturer at the University of Edinburgh, Dr Meryl Kenny, said: “Levels of women’s representation in Scottish local government have flat-lined for decades. 

“In 2017, we see the same patterns: some parties taking the issue seriously, while others like the Scottish Conservatives continue to lag well behind. 

“It’s time to follow the evidence and take tough action through gender quotas to ensure 50:50 representation in our councils and parliament.”.

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