In the Chamber: International Womens Day

Rhoda Grant (Highlands and Islands) (Lab):
We will be celebrating international women’s day this weekend, and I am pleased to speak in support of the Government motion. This year’s theme of #BalanceforBetter is about ensuring gender balance in all areas, equal representation at every level and equal pay in every occupation.
I am especially proud that the Scottish Labour Party has taken positive action to back up our commitment to having 50:50 representation; indeed, we have achieved that a number of times in the Scottish Parliament. However, if we have learned anything, it is that positive action is needed and that no achievement can be taken for granted. If we let down our guard, things slip back. Unfortunately, in other areas such as the councils and the UK Parliament, we are still struggling and have yet to achieve 50:50, and I ask other parties to join us in taking positive action to increase women’s representation both in this Parliament and at every level of government.
People argue that representatives should be selected and elected on merit alone, and I agree with them. I so look forward to the day when women get elected on their own merit, because it certainly does not happen today. Men are much more likely to be selected and elected not on merit but simply because they are men. Until women can compete on merit alone, we need to take steps to deal with the gendered discrimination that favours men. We all know people who argue that the system works on merit now, but what they are actually saying is that women have less merit than men. Such people discriminate against women, are sexist and need to address their behaviour.
We have seen men favoured throughout society. We have seen it in politics, on boards in the public and private sectors and in our legal system, and we must act to stop it. Given that the Scottish Government appoints public boards, it must ensure that women’s voices are heard on them. More important, their voices must be heard on the appointment boards. After all, like recruits like, and we need women in those positions to ensure that they can recruit other women.
Although all women face an uphill struggle, women from ethnic minority groups face even greater discrimination not just on the basis of gender but on the basis of race. I therefore pay tribute to the work of Talat Yaqoob, a founder member of the Women 50:50 campaign, who has worked for the cause of women both personally and professionally. With her measured but absolutely uncompromising approach, she is an inspiration to all women.
Equality is not an end in itself—it is not simply a numbers game. We all lose out if we do not hear women’s voices. We have seen the difference that women make when empowered; their knowledge and personal experience add to the debate, and decisions are made on a broader base with a diversity of views. That is why we must strive for councils, Parliaments, boards and the like to reflect society with regard to gender, ethnicity, disability and sexuality.
Gillian Martin:
Rhoda Grant talked about public boards. Does she agree that there is an awful lot more to do in the private sector and that having 50:50 representation offers great potential for the private sector?
Rhoda Grant:
I agree absolutely, not just because of the numbers game but because diversity leads to better decision making and reflects the views of all the people who are represented in society. For instance, would we have the laws that we have now on violence against women without women in the Parliament? Would we have a campaign against period poverty without women in the Parliament? I think not.
Equality does not stop with representation—it must go further. Equal pay has been law for decades and yet, even in public organisations, we have not achieved it. Equality applies not just to pay for the job but to promoted posts. In professions where women dominate, such as primary school teaching and nursing, men still dominate the promoted posts. Why is that? Is it because women are being forced to choose between family and career? Is it because we as a society expect women to take on the caring roles? In Scandinavian countries, maternity leave is shared and both parents can take career breaks to look after children. To get equality, we need to have equality at home as well as at work.
Governments are also contributing to inequality. Austerity has had a disproportionate impact on women. Women make up the majority of single-parent households and they have been particularly badly hit. Philip Alston, the UN’s special rapporteur on extreme poverty, said that the UK welfare system is so sexist that it could have been compiled by
“a group of misogynists in a room”.
What an indictment that is. Is sexism so entrenched in our society that even our welfare system reflects it?
That is why we in the Scottish Labour Party have targeted poverty. Our budget asks were to increase child support and remove the two-child cap. We sought adoption of those focused policies to mitigate negative aspects of welfare policy that target women.
Sadly, violence against women continues to increase. Domestic abuse levels continue to grow even though, given the actions of the Parliament since its inception, we would have hoped to see a decline. Back in the first parliamentary session, my colleague Maureen Macmillan piloted the first committee bill through the Parliament, which provided protection against domestic abuse. Since then, every Government and every Parliament has continued in that vein, yet we appear to have had little impact on the overall situation.
We need to teach boys respect. We need to stop their access to violent pornography, which forms their sex education and warps their understanding of relationships. It is for all of us—not just parents—to do that. We need to look at how we regulate online pornography. The digital platforms have had long enough to put their house in order; they must now be forced to take action to protect future generations.
We must protect children from abusive parents. No parent has a right of access to their children. When a parent abuses their partner, they also abuse their children, which means that they must lose access to their children. However, too often, that does not happen and access is used to continue abuse. That needs to stop.
We all know that a child’s life chances, health, wealth and education are directly linked to those of their mother. We cannot tackle child poverty without tackling mothers’ poverty. We cannot build a child’s self-esteem while leaving them subject to domestic abuse. On international women’s day, we need to redouble our efforts to tackle those issues and to create a truly equal society for our children to inherit.