Progress report: some way to go on women’s rights in Scotland

Written by Jenni Davidson on 11 March 2019 in Inside Politics

There have been some small steps forward for women, but a number of high-profile fails too

Equality statistics - Image credit: Holyrood

What would the Suffragettes have thought if they could have seen Labour MP for Hampstead and Kilburn Tulip Siddiq being wheeled into the House of Commons, heavily pregnant, on the day she was meant to be giving birth by caesarean, to vote against Theresa May’s Brexit deal?

Was this the kind of female empowerment they had campaigned for? It didn’t look very empowering.

And it was probably not what reformer John Bright meant when he referred to “the mother of parliaments”.

There was widespread outrage about the indignity of the situation across both sides of the House, and Theresa May, on the brink of losing a vote of historic significance, reportedly apologised to Siddiq personally for the situation.

In fact, if any company’s maternity provision had been so poor that one of its employees felt obliged to postpone an operation or be at work on her due date, we’d be in the realms of an employment tribunal.

And although Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson’s maternity leave appears to have gone without a hitch in the Scottish Parliament, even there, the pairing to cover that is an unofficial agreement between parties.

But following the Siddiq case and the breaking of the pairing meant to cover Lib Dem MP Jo Swinson’s maternity leave, change is in the air, and the day after Siddiq’s indignity, she became the first MP to get a proxy vote.

Shortly afterwards, a one-year trial of proxy voting in Westminster for maternity leave, paternity leave and adoption leave was announced.

Leader of the House Andrea Leadsom said: “I am delighted to be able to confirm to the House today that a substantive motion on proxy leave in the case of maternity, paternity and adoption has been tabled today for the House’s agreement on Monday 28 January.

“This is a step forward, removing the choice between parliamentary and parental responsibilities, and helping to make parliament a more modern workplace.”

And of course, parental leave and proxy voting also benefits new fathers, allowing each family more flexibility to decide what is right for them in terms of balancing work and childcare.

Women’s political representation and workplace equality were both discussed in the Scottish Human Rights Commission’s (SHRC) recent progress report to the UN’s Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) on where Scotland is in terms of women’s rights.

It paints a picture of some action but many areas where there is significant room for improvement.

In terms of political representation for women, Scotland dropped from fourth place globally in 2003 to 27th place in 2017, and the report notes that all of Scotland’s female MSPs are white and non-disabled. It recommends disaggregation of national data in to show the differences between gender but also, more intersectional data that provides information on other inequality issues such as race or disability.

Meanwhile, action is being taken to ensure a future gender balance on public boards, with only 25 per cent of public bodies headed by women in 2015/16. While 81 per cent of NHS staff are women, 81 per cent on NHS board members are men.

Although legislation now exists to require gender-balanced membership of public boards, the SHRC points out that there are no sanctions for failure to comply.

Likewise, it suggests that the requirement for public bodies in Scotland with over 150 employees to report their gender pay gap is being seen more as a tick-box exercise than a motivation to make change.

Two weeks ago, the First Minister launched a new ‘Future Female Business Leaders’ mentoring programme, backed by £100,000 of funding, to encourage more women into leadership and entrepreneurship.

The programme will be delivered by the Scottish Chambers of Commerce in partnership with the Association of Scottish Businesswomen to tackle the key challenges that face women when it comes to growing their business or advancing their professional careers.

Speaking at the Edinburgh Chamber of Commerce ‘Women in Business’ lunch, Nicola Sturgeon said: “Helping more women to set up and succeed in business is both an economic and a moral imperative.

“By encouraging and supporting women to create and grow businesses, we can create greater equality which in turn builds a stronger and fairer economy.”

But it is not just about reaching the top, breaking through the glass ceiling or being board members and managing directors, but about pay and access to work at all levels.

The SHRC report says that lack of affordable childcare “remains a persistent problem in Scotland”, with childcare costs among the highest in the UK, which itself is among the highest in the world, and 25 per cent of parents living in absolute poverty have given up work, a third have turned down a job, and 25 per cent have not been able to take up education or training because of childcare costs.

Meanwhile, the gender pay gap in Scotland still sits at 14 per cent.

The SHRC points out there is a lack of Scottish-specific research on this, but a 2018 report from Close the Gap, ‘The Gender Penalty’, noted four reasons for it: occupational segregation, company size, bonuses and the ‘gender residual’ – other structural inequalities or prejudice that prevent women entering or progressing in employment.

In terms of occupational segregation, this can be seen in the recently resolved equal pay dispute at Glasgow City Council, but it is also being perpetuated for the future in, for example, the Modern Apprenticeship programme, where 98 per cent of childcare apprentices are female, while 98 per cent of construction apprentices are male.

But even more concerning is the discrimination against some of the most vulnerable members of our society. In his recent report, the UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, noted that the UK Government’s austerity programme was disproportionately affecting women and suggested that if a group of misogynists had sat down to dream up a welfare system, they would have come up with one much like that.

Scotland’s new social security system addresses some of the impacts of Westminster welfare reforms, the SHRC report says, but the body is calling on the Scottish Government to go further in making social security a human right.

While new legislation has recently been introduced in Scotland to widen the definition of domestic violence, the commission highlighted concerns about “prevalent gaps and challenges across Scotland” in providing BME women, particularly refugees, asylum seekers and trafficked women, experiencing domestic violence with specialist support and that women and children with insecure immigration status have been found to be more at risk of suffering destitution due to domestic abuse.

It also highlighted difficulties for LGBT people to access support.

The report also points to the low conviction rates for rape, sexual assault and human trafficking, despite increasing numbers of these being reported, particularly in the wake of high-profile cases after #metoo.

On the other side, Scotland still has one of the highest rates of imprisonment of women in Europe, many of those on remand or locked up for relatively minor offences.

And while it welcomes moves to tackle LGBT bullying in Scottish schools, the SHRC warns that sexist bullying and misogynistic behaviour are “prevalent” and schoolgirls across Scotland are being subjected to “alarming levels of sexual harassment on a daily basis”, while Scotland’s approach to bullying makes “little reference to misogyny or gender-based harassment”.

On the same lines, but not mentioned in the report, are concerns from some women that moves to increase transgender rights may erode some women’s rights. Questions of how to word census questions on gender were recently discussed in the Scottish Parliament.

And even Brexit is not gender neutral, as it is predicted that women will be disproportionately affected. ‘Exploring the Economic Impact of Brexit on Women’, a report by the Women’s Budget Group in March 2018, warned that women could be impacted in a number of ways.

This includes a shrinking of the economy leading to job losses in sectors which have a majority female workforce, the possibility that future trade deals could give overseas companies the power to sue the UK Government if it took actions such as increasing the National Living Wage or bringing privatised services back in-house, and the likelihood of further cuts to government spending on welfare as GDP drops, which will have a disproportionate impact on women, especially the most vulnerable and disadvantaged.

Much of the legislation protecting equality and workplace rights that women benefit from originated in, or was strengthened through, the EU.

Although this is being incorporated into UK law through the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, it is vulnerable to change by a future government.

Chair of the Scottish Human Rights Commission Judith Robertson said: “Our recommendations to government include measures to ensure Brexit has no negative impact on women’s rights; in particular, that our laws are strengthened to make internationally recognised women’s rights enforceable.

“It also recommends action to mitigate the impact of austerity on women’s economic and social rights; and improvements to law and policy to tackle the high prevalence of violence against women.

“Women continue to be underrepresented in public life, and to bear the brunt of austerity policies, with women from black and minority ethnic communities, disabled women and women on low incomes often experiencing a double or triple whammy of disadvantage.

“While the Scottish Government is to be commended for many of its actions to progress gender equality, our latest report to the UN shows that it must now go further, faster, to ensure that all women in Scotland are able to enjoy all of their rights – economic, social, civil and political – on the same terms as their male counterparts.”

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