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Q&A with Nicola Sturgeon on women and equality

Q&A with Nicola Sturgeon on women and equality

Nicola Sturgeon - Image credit: David Anderson/Holyrood

Holyrood: Ironically, with women much to the fore in terms of political leadership, some have seen the last year as almost anti-woman. The murder of Jo Cox, the election of Trump rather than Clinton, the way women politicians are portrayed in the media, are treated on social media and have become the focus of such venom but also more generally the rise of issues like revenge porn, trafficking, domestic violence, FGM and then how women are disproportionately affected by benefit cuts, are overly represented in unemployment figures and take the brunt of cuts to public services and poverty, it all feels a bit grim. Do you think this has been a good year for women?

Nicola Sturgeon: The murder of Jo Cox shocked and horrified the nation. She was a woman doing her job, standing up for what she believed in.

However, we cannot let these acts of hatred define us. Her husband, Brendan Cox, is nothing short of an inspiration. He has campaigned tirelessly to promote Jo’s values and highlight the issues which mattered to her.

I recently heard him speak at the Women in the World conference in New York and it was incredibly touching and humbling to hear him encourage people to come together in the face of adversity and to stand up and speak out for what you believe in.

Hillary Clinton was also speaking at this conference. It’s no secret I was disappointed she didn’t win the presidential election; however, her candidacy is progress.

Women have always felt the weight of stigma and discrimination, but we are making real progress at speaking out against unacceptable behaviour and speaking up for women’s rights.

As a female leader, of course I must lead by example, but we all have a responsibility to tackle the big challenges facing the world be it inequality, hate crime or domestic violence.

Holyrood: What have you done to promote women during the last year?

Nicola Sturgeon: One of my proudest moments from last year was seeing more women than men being appointed to public boards, bringing the number of women on boards to its highest ever level.

There is clear evidence that greater diversity in the boardroom leads to better performance and encourages new and innovative thinking.

Our Gender Representation on Public Boards Bill, due to be introduced to parliament this year, is a significant step forward in ensuring we cement these gains so that women are properly represented in senior and decision-making positions across Scotland.

I’ve also begun work to establish an Advisory Council on Women and Girls that will be chaired by Louise MacDonald of Young Scot and will set out to challenge and change behaviour in the public and private sector to remove barriers for women.

Part of removing those barriers is about ensuring there are strong female role models and I am very excited that I will be mentoring a young woman over the course of a year to help her develop her own leadership potential and I’d encourage women across all sectors to do the same. We all have a part to play.

Holyrood: Does it make it easier dealing with another woman when you are in negotiations with Theresa May, as opposed to David Cameron, because you have some common ground?

Nicola Sturgeon: There was a part of me that thought, following the appointment of Theresa May, that we’d potentially have the ability to tackle key issues differently not because of gender but because she made coming to Scotland a priority to demonstrate the ‘partnership of equals’ her predecessor had spoken about, so it was a promising start.

However, my expectations were short-lived and I think my experience of negotiations to date has shown there is very little common ground.

If you take the JMC process for example, or the triggering of Article 50, it was the Prime Minister who said she wanted an agreed UK-wide approach before issuing the letter.

The process in attempting to reach that agreed approach was nothing more than perfunctory – the Scottish Government sat across the table and outlined our views only to have them cast aside by the UK government.

The issue isn’t gender, it’s that when it comes to key issues for example around Brexit, the current Tory government isn’t prepared to acknowledge that other parts of the UK have a stake in this discussion and that we have our own constituents to represent.

Holyrood: How have you felt about some of the media coverage of you and Theresa May, which was neatly encapsulated by the ‘Legsit’ front page, and do you think Theresa May was right to treat it as a joke?

Nicola Sturgeon: I’ve spoken widely about the fact the coverage was deeply disappointing and I know that women across the country were deeply offended by the sentiment, regardless of their politics. But I’m also keen not to give it the oxygen of publicity.

I disagreed with Theresa May’s response as I think we have a responsibility to lead by example, which is why I also disagreed with her recent comments about ‘boy jobs and girl jobs’. At home my husband is the cook, which is just as well as I am a far cry from being a chef!

These comments may seem flippant, but when young girls see female leaders across the UK, they should see nothing but possibility.

It’s not enough to just be a woman in power - everything we say and do should give girls the confidence to fulfil their potential. We should do all we can to break down stereotypes, not reinforce them.

Holyrood: As a woman in power, do you think you have a responsibility to think about women’s rights when you are thinking through policy?

Nicola Sturgeon: Absolutely – equality and fairness is central to everything this government does and will continue to do. We’ve made great strides in tackling gender discrimination, but we’re a long way from achieving parity in society.

It’s not enough for women just to be in power, we have to think about how we use that power. That’s why I simply cannot understand how Theresa May and Ruth Davidson can impose a policy like the rape clause. 

If you’re a woman in power you have a responsibility to use that power to improve the lives of women, not to humiliate them.

Holyrood: Do you think Brexit could adversely affect women and is there a uniquely ‘women’s issue’ around the deal to be struck?

Nicola Sturgeon: There are a number of areas around Brexit that should be of real concern to women. 

At present much of our employment law and our social protections come from the EU and we should be concerned that the Tories might row back on those commitments when they take the UK out of the EU.

Equally, if we are forced to leave the single market, there will be an impact on jobs that will hurt women and men. These big negotiations in Brussels can seem very far from people’s lives, but they will have a huge impact. 

Holyrood: How difficult is it to stick to your 50/50 gender balance within the ministerial team?

Nicola Sturgeon: It’s not difficult at all. I have always appointed my cabinet on merit.

Opponents and commentators will always criticise cabinet picks and suggest other people should be included, it’s part of the political world, but because I have consciously chosen to make it 50/50 sometimes that becomes the excuse for the criticism.

I’m sure I’d still get criticised if it was 70/30 in either direction.  

Holyrood: Ruth Davidson appears to not show any particular regard for gender balance. Do you think it is now an anathema to see any party with so few women and does that feed into what Mike Russell described as Ruth’s belief that Scotland needs a more ‘muscular Conservatism’, perhaps a more brutish approach to politics?

Nicola Sturgeon: As I’ve said, I think women in politics have a responsibility to think about the example we set for other women, but 50/50 cabinets aren’t restricted to female leaders.  Canada’s male prime minister, Justin Trudeau, appointed a 50/50 cabinet because he recognised it’s the right thing to do.

I do worry at times about the increasingly aggressive and violent language coming from Tory politicians in Scotland and at Westminster. 

Politics can be robust at times and there’s nothing wrong with that, but I think we all have a duty to set the tone of the debate, and that means thinking twice about the use of language.

Holyrood: Do you see the ‘rape clause’ as a uniquely anti-women policy and how did you personally feel about it?

Nicola Sturgeon: This policy is anti-women in its entirety. It is abhorrent and Theresa May, Ruth Davidson and the rest of their Tory party colleagues supporting it should be utterly ashamed that they are forcing rape victims to comply with this ill-thought policy.

How many women will choose to protect their child from ever knowing they were the consequence of rape, is by forfeiting the benefit they could receive.

This policy will lead to financial difficulties for women and children. It shows no respect, no compassion and no understanding for what a woman has already gone through to be in the situation of having a child as a result of rape, and it forces her to revisit the trauma by compelling her to declare the child’s information so she can get benefits she’s entitled to.

Holyrood: Can you imagine anyone in your team coming up with a ‘rape clause’ suggestion as a solution to a policy gap?

Nicola Sturgeon: There would never be such a discussion because it would never happen. This is the sort of policy we have come to expect from a Tory government – not the SNP.

We want Holyrood to have more powers so we can ensure people in Scotland will never have this kind of policy imposed upon them by a UK Tory government.

Holyrood: During the debate on the ‘rape clause’ in the Scottish Parliament, what was going through your head looking at the Tory benches and particularly their refusal to take any interventions?                           

Nicola Sturgeon: I’d like to say I was shocked, but over the wider debate on this issue I have come to expect nothing less. The Tories’ only defence on this matter has been arguing women don’t really need to fill out the form, they only need to ‘tick a box’.

That of course has already proven to be factually incorrect. They cannot bring themselves to have an actual debate because they know this policy is indefensible.

Holyrood: The controversy highlighted some areas where your own government has been slow to act around rape and the report that revealed that some women living in more remote areas of Scotland had been told not to wash for a number of days until they could be forensically examined must have made you shudder.

Nicola Sturgeon: All victims of crime must be treated sensitively, but the need is never more acute than with those who are victims of a sexual offence.

It is absolutely crucial that survivors of sexual assault are able to access appropriate healthcare services and support from the outset, this includes a forensic examination which may be required for evidential purposes later on. 

Notwithstanding the challenges that remote and island locations face, we must do better.  That is why we made it a manifesto commitment to review the way forensic examinations are undertaken across Scotland to ensure that they were done appropriately and sensitively. 

We have commissioned Healthcare Improvement Scotland to develop National Standards for forensic examinations which will improve the consistency of practice across the country and leave Health Boards in no doubt what is expected of them. 

In recent weeks we established The Taskforce for the Improvement of Services for Victims of Rape and Sexual Assault which is being led by the Chief Medical Officer, Dr Catherine Calderwood. The taskforce will be looking at successful models of delivery, such as the service provided in the Western Isles, and seeing where this can be applied in other areas.   

We know it can be done and it is a priority to ensure that victims are offered consistent, quality services when they are needed most.

We are delighted that NHS Shetland has made public its commitment to set up a local service to provide forensic examinations and compassionate medical healthcare for victims. This is very encouraging and we are supporting Shetland to ensure that training needs for staff are met. 

We are in contact with Orkney NHS and have offered similar support. There is a considerable amount to be done including getting more female doctors available to provide these services, but we are determined to put in place appropriate arrangements.

Holyrood: The campaign against period poverty has also gained traction this parliamentary term with some cross party support. It is hard to believe that in 21st century Scotland women are using newspapers stuffed in their pants as sanitary protection.

Nicola Sturgeon: In this day and age no woman or girl should have to go without sanitary products – they are a necessity not a luxury.  Reports such as this cannot go unaddressed. Angela Constance is leading the work in government to explore what we can do to ensure all women and girls on low incomes have access to sanitary products in dignified settings.

Holyrood: Assuming Theresa May does form the next UK government, do you think she will be good or bad for women?

Nicola Sturgeon: I think Theresa May has already shown her true colours here – the Tories, including under her short leadership, have introduced policies which are extremely damaging to women.

Women are disproportionately impacted by cuts to welfare for example. An estimated 20 per cent of women’s income comes from child tax credits and benefits compared to 10 per cent of men’s. 94 per cent of in-work single parents receiving benefits are women. So it’s a fact – women will be worse off by Tory cuts.

Whether it’s the bedroom tax, the fair food fund, the Scottish Welfare Fund or the Independent Living Fund – to name a few – the Scottish Government spends hundreds of millions of pounds ever year to protect the poorest and most vulnerable in our society from the worst excesses of the Tories.

These are resources we would rather be investing in further anti-poverty measures to help lift people out of poverty, not force them into it through policies forced on Scotland by a Tory government.

Theresa May called the general election to wipe out the opposition. Without a strong opposition at Westminster, she has free reign to introduce even more right-wing austerity policies.

More than ever we need to ensure Scotland’s interests are protected and I am clear, the SNP is the only party to stand up for Scotland and give people a voice at Westminster.

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