Q&A with Scotland's female political leaders

Written by Staff reporter on 8 June 2016 in Inside Politics

Q&A with Nicola Sturgeon, Ruth Davidson and Kezia Dugdale

What parts of the newly delivered package of powers for the Scottish Parliament would you seek to use to promote gender equality and the position of women in Scotland and how?

Nicola Sturgeon: I’ve committed to using the new powers to legislate for gender balanced boards on all public bodies by 2020. In doing so, we will provide a positive example for private companies to follow suit.

Ruth Davidson: The statistics show that women make up three quarters of people receiving Carer’s Allowance who care on a full-time basis – over 35 hours a week. We said last year that we would like to see the allowance increased to the level of Jobseeker’s Allowance, something that will benefit women disproportionately.

Kezia Dugdale: The new powers mean we can legislate for gender balance on public boards. This is something that should be done as soon as possible. Public organisations, paid for by the taxpayer, must reflect the country they serve.


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Very little progress was made in terms of gender representation in the Scottish Parliament in May’s election. Is there now a case for some form of cross-party agreement on quotas or a mechanism of some sort to ensure that half of the parliament is made up of women?

NS: The SNP took clear steps to improve female representation ahead of the 2016 election, and I am proud that 43 per cent of our new group of MSPs are women – a significant step forward. In fact of our 17 new MSPs, 13 of them are women. It is disappointing that the overall gender balance of the parliament has not improved but I hope the SNP’s action on this will serve as an example to those parties which have a very poor record.

RD: I think all parties need to look at the issue of female representation. I speak as someone who comes from a party which supplied Britain with its first and only female prime minister, and has had two female leaders of the Scottish party in succession.

However, it’s quite clear that all parties need to do more to encourage women to get involved in politics and this is something we are actively seeking to do ahead of next year’s council elections.

KD: Cross-party agreement already exists – Labour, Greens, SNP and Lib Dem leaders all back the Women 50:50 campaign which is advocating for legislated candidate quotas. We need this ahead of the next Scottish Parliament election or we will simply have more of the same.

It’s welcome that the SNP has finally followed Labour’s lead after over 20 years by introducing all women shortlists. This is a start but we must move away from voluntary mechanisms left to political whim.

Politicians of both genders have previously highlighted concerns about being targeted by online trolls and the issue of internet abuse continues to be highlighted across the board. What measures would you put in place to tackle the problem?

NS: The level of abuse directed at me online on any given day would make most people’s hair stand on end. I choose to ignore it – but that doesn’t mean that comments which cross the line are acceptable.

I think it’s important that we’re able to have robust debate, but that we have it in a civilised way so people must be able to report unacceptable comments and social media providers must take action where material does cross the line. 

RD: We need to support young people who are subjected to online abuse because we know that, in many cases, online abuse and bullying is damaging their mental health. Schools and educators need to deal with this issue openly and frankly.

KD: There has been a cross-party initiative in Westminster with Yvette Cooper leading for Labour www.reclaimtheinternet.com, there needs to be cross-party solidarity here in Scotland on this too to discuss what these mechanisms could be, with the core principle being that we cannot and will not allow women to be silenced and abused online.

Is the problem harder on women because of the sexual nature of some of the abuse & what advice would you give on how to deal with it?

NS: I’m used to reading things about myself, so in a sense it’s water off a duck’s back and I choose to ignore it and not to engage. Having said that, there’s simply no defence for any abuse towards anyone.

What concerns me is that younger women might read and shy away from aiming high because they fear abuse will come their way. That’s not acceptable. 

It’s important that people know how they can report abuse and that such reports will be taken seriously.

RD: Yes. For my own part, I call out online abuse when I receive it. That’s so that young people who are receiving abuse can see that it’s OK to push back. You don’t have to just sit back and accept it.

KD: The anonymity of social media means that people seem to think they can be abusive without consequences and whilst it does happen to all genders, it happens significantly more to women and often with more sexualised and violent content.

What stands out as the main achievements from the devolution years for women in Scotland?

NS: The parliament has been a great platform for women.

We’ve also seen action under the SNP government to target women’s employment, improving the availability and quality of work, a greater focus on housing and poverty, which often impact more on women’s lives than on men, and real attention paid to issues such as tackling domestic abuse and improving the justice system for women, which I don’t think would have happened without devolution.

RD: We have seen progress on the provision of childcare, something all of the main political parties have supported and makes a huge difference to young mums trying to get back into the workplace.

We would like to see more of those hours going to children aged one and two, particularly those from deprived homes, so that mothers, and especially single mums, can get a foothold back in the workplace.

KD: For me, the rape crisis specific fund that is ring-fenced for violence against women work set up by Margaret Curran is one of the best achievements of devolution for women. This ensures that women experiencing violence always have support in Scotland. This was a proud Labour administration achievement.

Despite having three female party leaders, there is still a perception that many Scottish Parliament debates, particularly First Minister’s Questions, are far too dominated by macho and aggressive behaviour. What would you do to change this in the current parliamentary session?

NS: I don’t actually share that assessment of FMQs. There is obviously a lot of robust – and at times heated – debating, but we all have very strong opinions and believe in what we argue for or against, so that is only natural . That’s not about whether you’re a man or a woman. I try to treat my fellow MSPs as I would like to be treated – and I think that the new parliamentary session has kicked off on the right footing.

RD: Me, Nicola Sturgeon and Kezia Dugdale are all passionately committed to our principles and our beliefs and that means sometimes parliamentary debates and questions can get heated. That’s not ‘macho’ behaviour, it’s human nature. I’m happy carrying on as before.

KD: There is a perception that to be in politics you have to be masculine or aggressive, but we should not assume that women leaders will be or need to be soft and accommodating. What FMQs illustrates is that the women leaders are strong and assertive and are able to hold government to account. That is something we should celebrate. We do, however, need to make parliamentary processes more accessible to everyone – those from BME background and disabled people. I am not sure we can call our processes accessible to all, and that is what needs pressing attention.

What changes would you make to the ongoing constitutional debate about Scotland’s future to make it more attractive to women?

NS: During the independence referendum the Yes campaign led the way in ensuring that women’s voices were heard in the constitutional debate. We saw a high level of engagement from women of all ages and backgrounds, with Women for Independence playing a key role and a number of our new female MSPs became politically active through the referendum.

RD: I think most women – and men – have had quite enough of yet more debates over independence. So maybe ending it would be a good idea.

KD: I think women would much prefer if political leaders in this country stopped obsessing about the constitution and started obsessing about how we can use the powers we have to tackle inequality, to stop the cuts and to invest in our public services.

There are now three female party leaders, but how has the gender balance among special advisers changed during your time in office, and what difference does it make?

NS: As with cabinet appointments, special advisers are appointed based on merit and experience.  Since I took office in 2014, I’m pleased to have doubled the number of women in the special adviser team and to have a female chief of staff. I’ve also appointed the first female permanent secretary of the Scottish government.

RD: It makes no difference, in my experience.

KD: Still heavily dominated by men, particularly those dealing with the press. However, the wider party culture matters more than the gender of one or two individuals. All the senior men that work for me would proudly describe themselves as feminists.

The gender gap between men and women persists in Scotland across most sectors. What would you do about this before the 2021 election?

NS: The gender pay gap and the gender employment gap have decreased, but I want to do more.

We will ensure public authorities gather diversity information and use it to inform employment practices, and we will compel those with more than 20 employees to publish their pay gap every two years and an equal pay statement every four years.

We will also consider a system of penalties for local authorities that haven’t settled outstanding equal pay claims, or are still not paying equal pay by April 2017.

RD: I’m very supportive of the new measures we’re seeing from the UK Government so that the gender pay gap in private and voluntary sector employers is published. I also support the plans to force large employers to publish information about their bonuses for men and women. Let’s also work with businesses to ensure that there are more women on their boards, so we no longer have all-male boards in the big companies.

KD: We need to tackle occupational segregation across sectors, particularly in STEM. Scotland needs 120,000 more engineers in the next five years, but we cannot reach that target with only 12 per cent of women students studying engineering. We need to change the gender stereotyping attached to these jobs and we must work with industry to change their practices to make these industries more accepting of, and attractive, to women, flexible working is key to this.

If you had one hope above all others for women in Scotland over the next decade, what would that be?

NS: I want them to succeed. I want them to aim high and achieve their dreams. I want young girls to grow up in a Scotland where the gender pay gap or underrepresentation or the barriers, like high childcare costs, are not an issue.

RD: That gender is not just a barrier to progress, it’s not even a consideration when it comes to achieving anything in life.

KD: That we address occupational segregation once and for all so as to ensure we don’t lock women out of the jobs of the future and into low paid work.

What women in public life do you consider to be an inspiration to yourself and other women?

NS: The women and girls who inspire me today are all around me. They are in my family – I have a strong role model in my mother, my sister and even my young niece, who is never afraid to give me her opinion on things whether or not I ask for it! I take inspiration from my friends, my colleagues, the women and girls I meet in my duties as first minister.

RD: Lorna Hood, the former moderator of the Church of Scotland. She is a woman of deep integrity, who cares not only about the institution she represents but about wider Scotland too.

Also, as a result of sitting on a charity board together with her, Remembering Srebrenica, I’ve seen she is a real internationalist who is ensuring that people in Scotland don’t forget the atrocities committed in Srebrenica.

KD: Harriet Harman, Mo Mowlam, Shami Chakrabarti, Laura Kuenssberg, Leeann Dempster – women who have broken new ground in their chosen field.

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