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More than a woman

More than a woman

In my 20s, it wasn’t considered ‘cool’ to say you were a feminist. The term was associated with images of angry women in the 1970s, blaming men for all the ills in the world and burning their bras. As a younger woman, I didn’t spend much time thinking about female equality, I was fortunate enough to come from a family where we didn’t have to be told women were equal to men, it was taken as read. I grew up firm in the belief that I could achieve whatever I set my mind to, regardless of my gender, and rather naively, thought this was the same for everyone – in the UK at least. Fast forward 10 years and while I may not have given the matter much thought in the past, I realise I was then and I am now, a feminist.

But does it all still matter? Do we still need to fight for female equality or has it already been won?

Unfortunately, the answer is yes, it still matters. Even in 2014, in the so-called developed world, the battle rages on. According to Emma Ritch, executive director of Scotland’s feminist organisation Engender, gender inequality is still a serious problem.

She said: “On many of the key indicators, things really haven’t changed over the past few decades. The rhetoric might have changed and that’s to be welcomed but a lot of the details of how women live their lives really haven’t changed at all. Women still experience a lot of gender-based violence, still experience massive workplace inequality, there aren’t any more jobs available on a part-time basis that are good quality and high paid. Women are still struggling to balance work and family life, all of those really key issues haven’t moved at all.

“Scotland is a bit different on the political equality front in terms of the national parliament. Obviously it is doing better than Westminster, but at the local levels, women are almost nowhere in terms of representation on councils and holding the political power in councils.

“There is an unfortunate sense that actually, we did all this in the ‘70s, so why are we still going on about it. Other equality issues, rightfully, have been coming to the fore of the national consciousness. There is an unfortunate sense in some quarters, that the ladies have had their moment, everything is fine now and it’s boring to talk about it.

“A lot of women find themselves more likely to identify as feminists when they get into the workplace and maybe have a child and then think ‘the game is really quite rigged here’. Young women are generally horrified by the idea that they are going to be in the position of making these decisions and things are not going to work out as they hoped.”

Last month, figures released by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) show employment levels are at their highest since records began with 2,575,000 people over 16 now employed in Scotland. The highest employment level record has been met by an increase in employment of 68,000 over the year, driven by an increase of 46,000 in the female employment level. The female rate of employment in Scotland is now 1.8 percentage points above the UK.

While this is to be welcomed, the situation for women in the labour market is far from rosy. In Scotland, the gender pay gap is 13 per cent, when you compare women’s full-time hours with men’s. The Scottish Government has recently launched a consultation on introducing mandatory quotas to ensure at least 40 per cent of public boards are made up of women. The consultation aims to gather views on how Scotland could best use the power to legislate to address this imbalance, if required. Currently this power sits with the UK Government. Cabinet Secretary for Equalities, Shona Robison, said: “Although we have much to celebrate with the advances we have made to recognise and promote women’s issues, it’s clear that even in this day and age, we still have gender inequality on our public boards. A board needs to reflect the people it serves and this in turn will make it better equipped to deal with decision making and improve its performance.

“Our ambition is for Scotland’s public and corporate institutions to properly reflect the communities they serve, which we know will contribute to moving us towards the Scotland we wish to see. The results of the consultation will help make our case to the Westminster Government that Scotland should have responsibility for these issues. It is the right of every woman – whatever her age, whatever stage they are [at] in their lives, that they should be able to fulfil their potential in the labour market and in their wider life.

“Scottish women make up 52 per cent of our population. They clearly have a voice to be heard and we will do all that we can to make sure this happens by driving forward this consultation on legislation.”

In April, First Minister Alex Salmond said the Scottish cabinet would now “practise what we preach” as Shona Robison and Angela Constance joined the Scottish cabinet, meaning women now make up 40 per cent of its members.

He said: “The Scotland we are seeking to build will be an equal Scotland. With these two outstanding ministers in the Scottish cabinet, we practise what we preach. The cabinet is our board as a country, and subject to a parliamentary approval, women will soon make up 40 per cent of the members of the Scottish cabinet.”

However, despite these moves, political representation is another area where women are falling behind, with only 35 per cent of MSPs and 24 per cent of councillors being women. Dr Meryl Kenny is a lecturer in government and politics at the University of Leicester and her research interests bridge the intersection of gender politics, party politics, territorial politics, and institutional approaches to the study of politics.

She told Holyrood: “Thinking back to the lessons of the ‘90s, in the run-up to devolution, the key issue which rallied women was the call for 50/50 representation in the new Scottish Parliament. Women’s political inclusion in both the short and long term is an issue around which women can gather. Again, that’s what’s striking about the current debate compared to the debate of the ‘90s is women’s political representation hasn’t been a high priority. We saw the Scottish Government’s recent announcement that the cabinet will increased in numbers, so there’s 40 per cent women, but this doesn’t address the issue of women’s parliamentary representation which the SNP performed very poorly on. Just over one in four SNP MSPs elected in 2011 were women, Labour was almost at 50/50 so there is a big gap there. It is interesting that much of the debate so far has focused on the potential introduction of corporate gender quotas for public boards but again, this sidesteps the issues of women’s representation in the Scottish Parliament, and in Scottish politics more broadly. Local government is still quite low and it is an issue which needs to be revisited regardless of what the outcome is. If the argument is that independence would facilitate the introduction of corporate quotas, the similar logic applies for constructional parliamentary quotas, so why aren’t we having this debate?”

With the independence referendum moving ever closer, the role of women, both in the debate and post-September has become increasingly more pressing. A recent poll by the Scottish Social Attitudes Survey highlighted a sustained gender gap in voting intentions. For as long as the organisation has asked a question about independence – about 15 years – women have been less keen on voting Yes by a consistent six or seven per cent margin. Combine that with the disproportionate number of women who say they are undecided, and you have a societal grouping that could prove pivotal for September’s outcome.

Kenny added: “The debate has changed over time, it has become better, but the early stages were very male, pale and stale. Especially if you think of the image of the launch of the Yes campaign two years ago, which was pretty much an all male line-up, and also endless panels and commentaries in the media and public referendum events which have been either all male or male dominated. Certainly it has changed, in part because we’ve seen a lot of public backlash and criticism from groups and individuals on both sides. We’ve seen the creation of grassroots groups such as Women for Independence and Women Together. Women’s issues have certainly been on the agenda, especially in the past few weeks, whether that’s partly strategic or not. Still, if you look at the landscape, gender equal panels and events do continue to be the exception rather than the norm. So much so that they require comment when you have an all female panel. It’s a mixed story.

“There has been a consistent gap [in the opinion polls] and there has been this seeping in of the opinions that women are more hesitant and less political than men. There’s no evidence to support these outdated gender stereotypes. The more likely explanation, which is an argument made by people like Fiona Mackay and others, is that it reflects a more pragmatic, wait-and-see approach from women voters.

“It is a rational reaction to the fact that firstly, the initial focus of the independence debate was basically about issues of legality and process, like how would the referendum be carried out. Also, the key thing is the lack of information so far as to what the everyday implications of the different options might be and I think neither side has been all that effective at conveying the benefits of the different constitutional options for women. The recent shift from both sides in addressing women’s issues more explicitly means the argument why independence might or might not be good for women really has only just started to be rehearsed. Also, the debate has been very adversarial so far. Compared to the ‘90s when you had cross-party and cross-sectional alliances, it has been much more adversarial, particularly on the left, which has made it harder to put women’s concerns on the agenda.”

The Scottish Government recently announced its first ever all-women cabinet event would be held on 9 June in Edinburgh to bring together women from organisations across Scotland to discuss all of the issues of importance in the referendum. The Government said it will explore the opportunities to promote and improve gender equality with independence. Issues such as female representation on boards, the improvement of childcare and employment law – as well as the more general issues of the economy and social justice – will be on the agenda. The audience, which will include women from organisations such as Engender, the Scottish Women’s Convention, STUC, Scottish Women’s Aid, Close the Gap and Rape Crisis Scotland, will have the opportunity to ask questions of all of the female ministers in the Scottish Government including Nicola Sturgeon, Fiona Hyslop, Angela Constance and Shona Robison.

Childcare has been another important issue for all the political parties recently. In November, the White Paper said families would save up to an estimated £4,600 per child, per year, under plans to extend childcare to every child from the age of one. The proposed entitlement in an independent Scotland is for 30 hours of childcare each week – the same number of hours as a child in school. The Scottish Government said the move would benefit around 240,000 children, 212,000 families and has the additional benefit of allowing more women to return to work by removing the barrier of childcare costs. If Scotland votes Yes on 18 September, implementation will be phased and the proposal would see the workforce expand in line with the hours, creating up to 35,000 jobs in the childcare sector, mainly for women.

While Engender welcomed the childcare announcement, the organisation believes more could be done to promote female equality overall.

Emma Ritch said: “We thought it was fantastic that childcare has been at the foreground. It has been coming up as a big issue in the women’s sector and was something which was being discussed in all areas. Where we were disappointed was a lack of a sense that the reason for doing this was to advance gender equality. Obviously, we are really interested in the life experiences of children and young people so it is good from that perspective but there wasn’t a strong thread of gender equality running through the White Paper. For instance, they were talking about human rights instruments and how a constitution would incorporate all of those. A number of the instruments were listed but not CEDAW, the International Bill of Rights for Women.

“The recent sense from Labour is that there are a number of things they would commit to in terms of gender equality, which have been helpful. We really welcome the debate and the discussion, it’s a great time to have these chats about where we want to go in Scotland but again, there was some disappointment from us. No one seems to be thinking enormously about gender equality.”

At a grassroots level, both Women for Independence and Women Together have been working hard to engage with women on both sides of the debate. Women for Independence is a network of women who support independence for Scotland and its aims are to ensure women are involved in the democratic process. The organisation believes women should play a central role in achieving independence and some prominent supporters who are involved include Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and actress Elaine C. Smith.

Endorsing the campaign, Smith said: “In any country in the world, the key to real change always lies with the women of that country. They bear the brunt of the impact of any changes in education or healthcare of the young and the old, as well as dealing with general budgeting, lower wages and poverty. It is therefore natural that levels of fear and apprehension over independence are high amongst the female population of Scotland. This referendum will not be won without the support of a large percentage of women here. It is therefore vital that Women for Independence is given the support that it needs and is recognised as vital to the debate that is ongoing and at the heart of the campaign in the run-up to the vote in 2014.”

Women Together campaigner and activist Talat Yaqoob told Holyrood: “Women Together came about a year and a half ago, from women wanting to get involved but not necessarily individually, and wanting a platform to talk to each other about why they were going to vote No and how they can help the Better Together campaign. You can’t talk about women being further away from the independence debate without actually talking about institutionalised inequality. Women are further away from politics full stop because they aren’t talked to, they aren’t given the platform, and we have all male panels talking about politics, even if they are talking about issues which impact on women. There’s a bigger point here about politics becoming more inclusive and more equal for women. If that had been the case, we would have a more equal debate, if it was independence or any issue.

“There has been a concerted effort from both campaigns, Yes and No, to get women involved and I think that is admirable and it is absolutely the right thing to do. When I’m talking to women, they are very eager to talk about why they are voting No and they’re very secure in that position.

“This is a huge decision for Scotland, there’s no coming back from it so it’s really important that as many people as possible vote and take part. This is something that goes further than the independence referendum, I am an activist and campaigner, and I’m a feminist. I look at this and see that this is an illustration of something greater in politics. And that is women are not at the forefront. You look at our Scottish Parliament and it is not equal, it doesn’t look like the people it represents and it is really important for us to talk about that part of this debate as well. It is highlighting that there is a gap in women being involved and it is an illustration of a wider issue in politics.”

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