International Women’s Day

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament on 8th March 2018.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Gail Ross Gail Ross Scottish National Party

Today is international women’s day. Someone, who will remain nameless, asked me earlier, “When is international men’s day?” That reminded me of when I was younger, and on mothers’ day rather petulantly asking my mum, “When’s daughters’ day?” Her response was this: “Every day is daughters’ day.”

International women’s day is a celebration that is held across the world to mark the economic, political and social achievements of women past, present and future. In 1908, 15,000 women marched through the streets of New York demanding better pay and working hours and the right to vote. In 1910, at the international conference of working women in Copenhagen, a proposal was voted on and passed, that in every country, on the same day, a national day of women would be held to highlight inequality wherever it could be found, whether in the home or at work, and to press for change.

In 1911, the day was held in a number of European countries on 19 March, but it was not until 1913 that a date of 8 March was agreed internationally. By that time, millions of women around the globe had become aware of the need to highlight terrible working conditions, of the complete absence of any legislative employment protections and of the need to provide a platform for social justice. In 1975, the United Nations announced an international women’s year. Before 1975, most married women could get financial credit only if a man guaranteed their loan, girls were not allowed to play rugby or football at school, and many schools taught boys and girls different subjects. That was only two years before I was born.

In 1999, the Scottish Trades Union Congress put forward a women’s agenda for the Scottish Parliament. It included championing of family-friendly policies and equal pay; tackling bullying and harassment; extending the provision of flexible, accessible and affordable childcare; embracing the principles of lifelong learning; and ensuring that women are properly represented in Parliament at all levels in policy and decision making.

How far we have come. We have already passed in this parliamentary session ground-breaking legislation that will undoubtedly help women. However, it is not only the legislation that we pass in this Parliament that has an effect on how women are seen and treated. Although we have come far, we still have much to do.

Some of the attitudes that still exist in society today find an outlet in the remarks, insults and sometimes even threats that are aimed at female politicians. Everyday correspondence to my office can and does include language and comments that would never be included in correspondence to a man. I know that, because I used to work for a male MSP. We see much worse online, with comments on everything from appearance to sexuality, and people typing whatever comes into their head, without consideration of the consequences. It is not true that once we become elected we become political robots—we are still human beings with feelings and with families. Moreover, we cannot pretend that the results from the recent sexual harassment survey that was conducted here in Parliament are anything but highly alarming.

It is international women’s day, however, so I will take a minute to talk about one inspirational woman from international politics. Any female politician or, to be honest, any woman who has not read Hillary Clinton’s book “What Happened” should do so immediately. Whether we agree with her politics or not, she gives a great insight into the way she was treated during the presidential election campaign. I was struck by a paragraph in which she talks about some advice that she received about being a female politician:

“Women are seen favourably when they advocate for others, but unfavourably when they advocate for themselves. For example, there’s virtually no downside to asking for a raise if you’re a man. You’ll either get it or you won’t but you won’t be penalized for trying. A woman who does the same is more likely to pay a price. Even if she gets a salary bump, she’ll lose a measure of goodwill. The exception is when a woman asks for a raise on someone else’s behalf. Then she’s seen as generous and a team player. You have a steep mountain to climb. They will have no empathy for you.”

Moving on to science, we all know the name Marie Curie—the first person to win two Nobel prizes—but how many people know that she was prevented from joining France’s Academy of sciences because she was a woman? Rosalind Franklin played a huge part in decoding the structure of DNA, but three men claimed the Nobel prize for the discovery. Astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell Burnell discovered pulsars, but her male supervisor claimed the Nobel prize. Lise Meitner was pivotal in the discovery of nuclear fission, but not only did she not get the Nobel prize, she was not even allowed on the floors where the male scientists worked. Again, we have come so far, but we still have more to do.

We see so much lip service being paid to women’s rights, including warm words on social media and good intentions being outlined in press releases, but words are no substitute for deeds. Action is required—not just a crowd-pleasing, box-ticking exercise. We need to adopt a zero-tolerance approach to sexual harassment and abuse, gender-based violence, female genital mutilation, belittling sexist and misogynist language, judging women on their appearance, and saying that 50:50 quotas prevent women from taking positions on merit. Women have the merit; quotas merely give them the opportunities. We need a zero-tolerance approach to being treated like second-class citizens and as if we should still be chained to the sink, barefoot and pregnant.

This year will prove to be pivotal in the fight for women’s rights, equality and respect. We will not settle for being paid less than men or for being asked in an interview whether we plan to start a family. We are here to contribute, challenge and compete. So, let us celebrate women—all women. I will celebrate my mum, my sisters, my aunties, my nieces, my cousins, my friends and my sisters in this chamber and around the world, and I will bring up my son to celebrate and respect women. Women are looking for us here to set not just laws but an example. Let us make sure, first and foremost, that this Parliament can be held up as a place where women feel safe, valued and appreciated. Let us make sure that every day is women’s day.