International Women’s Day 2021

– in the Scottish Parliament on 4th March 2021.

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Photo of Kenneth Macintosh Kenneth Macintosh Labour

We are running quite early on business, but we will move to the next item, which is a debate on international women’s day 2021 #ChooseToChallenge. I invite all members who wish to contribute to the debate to press their request-to-speak buttons.

Photo of Shirley-Anne Somerville Shirley-Anne Somerville Scottish National Party

In a year when we have had precious little to celebrate, I am delighted to have the opportunity to recognise the amazing achievements of women across Scotland.

We all owe an incredible debt of gratitude to our health and social care workforce, the majority of whom are women. They have been on the front line in our battle against Covid-19, and they are leading our recovery, administering the first dose of the vaccine to 1,688,808 people as of today. They have worked tirelessly and under intense pressure to provide the best possible care. Their efforts are nothing short of heroic.

That is why we have allocated £5 million to enhance wellbeing support services for health and social care staff, and we have also provided a thank you payment of £500 to health and social care staff to recognise their extraordinary work.

I want to express my appreciation of the women across Scotland who have had to juggle childcare commitments with other responsibilities, as schools and childcare settings were shut to control the spread of the virus. That is not to say that men have not had to do that too, but we know that caring roles still predominantly fall to women. According to research from the Institute for Fiscal Studies, in different gender couples women do considerably more childcare than their partners. During the first lockdown, mums were doing childcare for more than 10 hours each day, on average, along with four hours of housework.

I have heard from women about the guilt they felt as they struggled with home schooling, maintaining a happy healthy family and holding down paid work, when possible. In fact, that probably sums up my experience of much of the past year.

Our mental health is just as important as our physical health, and we all have to be kind to ourselves and others regarding what we can do in these extraordinary times, although I admit that I am not that great at following that advice myself.

From one mother to many other mums across the chamber and beyond, I want to say thank you and tell you that what you have been doing is amazing, but hard. We are dealing with unprecedented circumstances, but we hope that those times will soon come to an end.

While I extend my sincere thanks to women across Scotland for their essential efforts, I want to recognise the inherent unfairness of the fact that women have had to bear the majority of the impacts. The pandemic has shone a harsh light on existing gender inequality in our country and on how deep-rooted gender biases restrict opportunities for women.

The extra caring responsibilities that women are undertaking are having a profound impact on their ability to take on paid work. When combined with the pandemic’s impact on areas of the economy with a mainly female workforce, such as tourism and hospitality, Covid-19 threatens to undo much of the progress that we have made towards women’s workplace equality. We must take action to mitigate that, as we are. We have prioritised the reopening of early learning and childcare, because of the crucial role that it plays in supporting children and families. We remain committed to the roll-out of 1,140 hours of free, high-quality childcare for all three and four-year-olds and have provided councils with £567 million of additional funding in the draft budget to support that.

We are reviewing the actions within our “A Fairer Scotland for Women: Gender Pay Gap Action Plan” to ensure that they remain fit for purpose and support women through the economic recovery from Covid-19. In November last year, we launched a new women returners programme and an updated workplace equality fund. The women returners programme will support women who have had a career break back into work, and the workplace equality fund will encourage employers to invest in advancing their diversity and inclusion practices.

The Cabinet Secretary for Communities and Local Government and I established the social renewal advisory board to consider how we can emerge from the pandemic a fairer and more prosperous Scotland. The board brought together equality experts, third sector stakeholders and local government to provide advice to the Scottish Government on putting equality and human rights at the heart of our recovery.

That work is essential to ensure that when we emerge from the pandemic we have not lost any of the gains that we have made. We need to do more to end the inequality that caused the problems to exist in the first place. I thank the members of the board for all their hard work. We are considering their recommendations carefully and Ms Campbell and I will respond to the report in due course.

Photo of Neil Findlay Neil Findlay Labour

The cabinet secretary passed too quickly on health, before I could make an intervention, so forgive me. An excellent thing that the Government could do in the week of international women’s day is to announce that it will fund mesh-injured women to travel to the US to have full mesh removal. Will the cabinet secretary advocate for that in cabinet, within the budget, so that women who need that service and cannot get it in Scotland can have that paid for by the national health service?

Photo of Shirley-Anne Somerville Shirley-Anne Somerville Scottish National Party

I recognise the work that Neil Findlay has done on that issue over many years. As he knows, the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport is looking at that closely. She wants to be able to work with the women and across the chamber, as she has done, to bring those events to a satisfactory resolution. I am sure that she will continue to work with Mr Findlay and the women and deliver that as she—or her successor; whoever will be the health secretary after the election—goes forward.

The pandemic is not impacting just women’s ability to take on paid work. During the pandemic, referrals to services for women and girls experiencing violence and abuse rose. I am deeply concerned by that and make it very clear that violence against women and girls will not be tolerated. We are working to ensure that front-line services continue to support adults and children who are experiencing gender-based violence. That is why, last year, we allocated an additional £5.75 million to organisations including Scottish Women’s Aid and Rape Crisis Scotland to ensure that services could meet increased demand.

Those are just a few of the ways in which women have been particularly impacted by the pandemic. More impacts are emerging and we are working closely with stakeholders to identify and mitigate them as quickly as possible. We cannot be content with simply mitigating inequality. This year’s international women’s day theme is choose to challenge gender inequality. We must challenge the systems and biases that enable gender inequality to persist.

Photo of Elaine Smith Elaine Smith Labour

I hope that the cabinet secretary agrees that that should include challenging the systems in this Parliament, because we can see that younger women and, in particular, women with families feel that it is not as family friendly a workplace as it set out to be in 1999.

Photo of Shirley-Anne Somerville Shirley-Anne Somerville Scottish National Party

As someone who did not get any maternity leave when I had my two children, I absolutely take on board that point. We have probably hyped up how family friendly we were right at the start, and we are now finding out that the Parliament set-up does not live up to the hype. That is our responsibility and for us all to work on.

I recognise that some aspects have moved on since I had my children, but there are still a number of ways in which we could do better as a Parliament. The whole Parliament can reflect on that in the next parliamentary session.

We have taken action across Government to choose to challenge gender inequality at its very core. Last year, a United Nations study indicated that 90 per cent of people hold at least one bias against women in relation to politics, economics, education, violence or reproductive rights. As part of our choosing to challenge harmful attitudes towards gender equality in Scotland, we commissioned Zero Tolerance to develop a model for a what works gender institute. I am delighted that Zero Tolerance will publish its results on 8 March, and I look forward to moving into the next phase of work soon.

We are choosing to challenge gender inequality in education through the work of the gender equality task force in education and learning, which is chaired by the Deputy First Minister. The task force is developing key interventions and actions to further embed gender equality in all aspects of our education system.

We are choosing to challenge gender stereotypes in the media, too, through funding for Gender Equal Media Scotland to research sexism and gender inequality in the media and to make recommendations on what future work could be undertaken.

Much of that work has stemmed from the recommendations of the First Minister’s national advisory council on women and girls over the past three years. I highly commend and thank the advisory council members for all their work.

As the international women’s day theme states, we must choose to challenge gender inequality, and we must choose to challenge ourselves to do more. The First Minister established the national advisory council on women and girls to do just that—to be a critical friend to the Scottish Government and to challenge us to be bolder in our actions to progress gender equality.

In its 2019 report on policy coherence, the advisory council made recommendations on how the Scottish Government can better ensure that gender equality is considered in the design of every policy, the calculation of every budget and the implementation of every service that we provide. I am delighted that, in December last year, as part of our response, we established the directorate for equality, inclusion and human rights to bring increased status to equality and human rights in the Scottish Government. One of the priorities for the new directorate is the development of a renewed and ambitious mainstreaming strategy, which will incorporate the recommendations made by the national advisory council on women and girls as part of wider work to weave equality and human rights into all that the Scottish Government does.

I thank some of the women who will leave Parliament at the end of the parliamentary session and, in particular, my Cabinet sisters. Roseanna Cunningham has dedicated herself to public service over many years in the Scottish Parliament and at Westminster. Jeane Freeman might have served for only one session, but what an impact she has had through the establishment of Social Security Scotland and during the Covid crisis. We can all reflect on the thoughtfulness, kindness and compassion that my friend and colleague Aileen Campbell shows when she determines her politics. We should have more of that in politics, rather than less, and I am sad to see her go.

On that sad but reflective note, I thank all the women who have contributed to this past session of the Scottish Parliament and congratulate them on everything that they have achieved. I look forward to hearing from them today.

Photo of Christine Grahame Christine Grahame Scottish National Party

Members should note that the minute and second display on the clocks will start working now—not that it was a problem for you, cabinet secretary. It is to assist members. There is some time in hand, although I know that members get anxious if they do not know how much time they have used.

That will not affect Rachael Hamilton, however, as she is at home. I call Ms Hamilton to open for the Conservatives.

Photo of Rachael Hamilton Rachael Hamilton Conservative

I am delighted to open for the Scottish Conservatives in this international women’s day debate. Like others in the chamber, I am committed to ensuring that harassment, sexism, misogyny and discrimination against women are rooted out. Instead of paying lip service, we should be delivering meaningful change.

This year’s theme of #ChooseToChallenge is more important than ever. Today, I choose to challenge inequality, ending domestic violence and calling out gender bias. This past year has been more challenging than ever for women and girls, and pressures involving employment, caring responsibilities, education and finances have all disproportionately affected women, with Covid exacerbating what are already deeply engrained inequalities.

As Dr Sara Reis, the head of research and policy at the Women’s Budget Group, highlighted,

“Women started this crisis from a position of economic disadvantage.”

Furthermore, women tend to be more exposed to the risk of catching Covid through the sectors in which they work. In particular, 77 per cent of front-line workers are women, and that poses significant risks.

Engender and other women’s organisations have highlighted the multitude of ways in which Covid-19 threatens to roll back women’s equality. It has been estimated by the UN that women’s equality is due to be set back by some 25 years. Looking at the employment picture, we can see why that is the case. A woman in Scotland is twice as likely to be made redundant as a result of Covid as a man, because of the structural differences in their life circumstances.

Statistics from Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs show that, in most countries and regions of the United Kingdom, more women than men were furloughed as at 31 July 2020, when the first wave of unemployment occurred. I welcome the announcement in the budget to extend furlough until the end of September. Yesterday, the Chancellor of the Exchequer also extended the self-employment scheme to a further 600,000 people who were previously excluded from claiming it. That is important for women because, since 2008, 58 per cent of newly self-employed people have been women.

As we turn to recovery, for young women, for the first time employees aged 23 and 24 will be able to earn a national living wage of £8.20. We must remain committed to a clear and concise plan for recovery to protect jobs in key sectors, particularly for women.

Moving on to the subject of domestic abuse, an integral message of international women’s day is to end all forms of violence against women and girls. It remains a distressing fact that, in today’s society, domestic abuse persists across the world. Worryingly, domestic abuse is on the rise in Scotland. The latest domestic abuse statistics for Scotland show that the number of incidents recorded by Police Scotland has been rising over the past three years.

We know that domestic abuse is not always physical violence; it can also manifest as coercive and controlling behaviour. Financial abuse remains a huge issue that can be unnoticeable to the friends and family of the victim. Women’s Aid published its report on “The Economics of Abuse” in 2019. It found that nearly a third of respondents said that their access to money during their relationship was controlled by the perpetrator. Further to that, more than two fifths of all respondents felt that the abuse had negatively impacted on their long-term employment prospects.

Having spoken to Border Women’s Aid, my fantastic local women’s support charity, I can see the great work that it is doing to provide support, advice and a safe space for women. If I am lucky enough to be re-elected, I want to help it to access longer-term funding, with a view to increasing access to more single-person accommodation.

In summing up, perhaps the cabinet secretary could address what the Scottish Government is doing to assess the impact of lockdown on domestic abuse and to consider funding allocations that will improve local services and fund refuges in future.

Lastly, I want to touch briefly on the work of the United Kingdom Government, which is improving equality. Let us take women’s pay and employment: the UK Conservative Government has overseen a record low in the gender pay gap pre-pandemic. In 2019, the UK’s gender pay gap for all employees fell to 17.3 per cent from 27.5 per cent when the survey first began in 1997. We introduced regulations that mean that all large employers must now report their own gender pay gap data.

The Conservative Government also introduced shared parental leave. From April 2015, both parents in the UK have been able to have parental leave following the birth or adoption of a child, which allows up to 50 weeks of leave with 37 weeks of statutory pay between them in place of maternity leave and pay. There is undoubtedly more work to do and, as we emerge from Covid, we have to ensure that we accelerate the narrowing of the pay gap and do more to place women at the heart of our Covid recovery.

I close with some words from Ms Anderson—the founder of the Cova Project in Australia, which helps girls who are experiencing poverty and disadvantage due to a lack of financial resources and access to basic necessities—who says that

“Feminism isn’t about making women stronger, women are already strong, it’s about changing the way the world perceives that strength.”

With this year’s theme of #ChooseToChallenge in mind, let us challenge damaging and negative perceptions about women in order to change and show that very strength.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

I call Elaine Smith to open for Labour. This is Ms Smith’s last speech in the chamber. I never thought that I would be saying that, Ms Smith.

Photo of Elaine Smith Elaine Smith Labour

Thank you very much, Presiding Officer. I refer members to my entry in the register of members’ interests, with regard to my Breastfeeding etc (Scotland) Bill and trade unions.

The theme for international women’s day this year is, as we know, #ChooseToChallenge—to celebrate women’s achievements, raise awareness of bias and take action for equality. Action is still needed, as we have not achieved sex equality in society, banished misogyny or elected a 50:50 chamber here.

I will reflect on that point as I open for Scottish Labour in my last speech after 22 years of service as an MSP and as one of the 99ers. I am pleased that my sisters Johann Lamont and Pauline McNeill will also speak in the debate.

More than two decades ago, Labour achieved significant women’s representation in the new Scottish Parliament by taking radical positive action in our selection procedures. In my original candidate interview, I noted that,

“In 1918 the suffragettes won votes for women, 80 years later, 82% of MPs are men.”

The number has improved a bit, but it is clear what difference having a critical mass of women representatives makes in tackling sex-based inequality and delivering legislation that would not be a priority for men, on issues such as breastfeeding, period poverty, childcare, domestic abuse and the whole spectrum of violence against women, including trafficking, prostitution and pornography.

Recent controversies around decisions on funding for Women’s Aid refuges and services remind us that women fought long and hard for specialist services for women and children who suffer from abuse at the hands of violent men. Sadly, those services are needed even more during this pandemic.

Violence and the threat of it continue at home and abroad, in war zones with brutal sexual violence against women who dare to defend their sex-based rights—such as the shocking hanging of an effigy of the Spanish Deputy Prime Minister and feminist Carmen Calvo—and online through threats and name calling, which feminists across all parties in the chamber experience. We must choose to challenge all of that.

On action for employment equality, I first saw what sex discrimination at work looked like as a young woman, when I was an equality trade union rep working for a council. At that time, the vast majority of women were employed in the low-paid clerical and admin grades, and there was an all-male cast of chief officers. I realised then what many feminist Labour and trade union women already knew—that women would have to fight relentlessly for every advance in their jobs, wages and conditions and to keep the sex-based rights that they had already achieved. It is an age-old story.

Coatbridge poet Janet Hamilton, a working-class woman who was born in 1795, did not learn to write until she was 50, and then she let rip. Here is an extract from her poem, “A Lay of the Tambour Frame”, on women’s work:

“Why quail, my sisters, why,

As ye were abjects vile,

When begging some haughty brother of earth

‘To give you leave to toil?’

It is tambour you must,

Naught else you have to do,

Though paupers’ dole be of higher amount

Than pay oft earned by you.”

Over the past year, much of the public engagement in this building, including bringing in community groups, supporting third sector projects, learning about campaigns, meeting trade unions and working with cross-party groups—which engagement has enriched our experience as MSPs and informed our decisions—has gone. The Scottish Parliament must get that engagement back.

At the women’s dinners that I have hosted in Parliament over many years, we have heard from a diverse range of women campaigners, including the young women who successfully tackled discrimination over bra size prices. We have also heard about the serious issue of the importance of women-only spaces, which was recently discussed with ex-Cornton Vale governor Rhona Hotchkiss. Women MSPs have attended the events on a cross-party basis, and I hope that my good friend from way back before we were MSPs, Rhoda Grant, will host the dinners in the future and might consider taking forward my right to food (Scotland) bill, if she is re-elected. No pressure.

Public services, on which women depend both as workers and service users, have been lost along with a collapsing community infrastructure. Building back better must mean fair work, including sustainable, flexible working policies and packages and meaningful equality impact assessments. In addition, as the cabinet secretary said, academic and statistical evidence confirms that women in Scotland have faced a disproportionate impact from Covid-19 in areas such as home schooling, unpaid caring, job losses and food insecurity, to name but a few.

We know that women remain underrepresented in public life, are paid less than men, endure violence at the hands of men and suffer disproportionately from the effects of poverty and the unequal distribution of wealth and power. However, we also know that women will come up with solutions, as we have always had to do.

The pandemic has imposed great challenges on our next generation, with UN Women estimating that the pandemic will set women’s equality back 25 years. Young women, including my niece Olivia and my son’s partner, Charlie, who are both nurses working at the front line, my niece Emilie, who is a young graduate adjusting to home working, and my wee goddaughter Kassi, who is in primary 7 and is being commended for her online school work, are Scotland’s future. It is important that they and our next generation of women know of the women who went before them, paving the way forward by fighting for women’s rights for equality and against sex discrimination. Those rights were hard won and must not be given up. Do we choose to challenge? We do not have a choice and nor does the next generation, because, if we do not challenge, our rights will disappear.

It is traditional in a last speech to place on record some thanks, so I will do so before I close. I will start by thanking all the people who work in the Parliament—in particular, the staff who supported me when I was Deputy Presiding Officer. I thank Adele Black and the staff who have been working with me recently as Labour’s business manager, my election agent Barbara Diamond, my local party, and all my own staff members and volunteers over the years. I thank my current staff, Chris Costello, Callum Jamieson and Katrina Faccenda. Katrina is the chair of the Campaign for Socialism, of which I was convener for many years. I also thank Ann Henderson, who has worked in the Scottish Parliament on and off since 1999. She challenged gender stereotypes as a young woman train driver and, more recently, was the second ever female rector of the University of Edinburgh. Lesley Dobbin must be one of the longest-serving MSP staff members, having worked with me for more than two decades and having supported me as a friend and colleague. Lesley deserves my thanks on the record for that.

Photo of Elaine Smith Elaine Smith Labour

Presiding Officer, can I take an intervention, or do you wish me to finish?

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

I was going to say that I thought members knew that it is protocol, although not the law, that we try to let members who are making their last speech go uninterrupted.

Photo of Fulton MacGregor Fulton MacGregor Scottish National Party

I did not know that, Presiding Officer.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

I know that you did not. Elaine Smith is such a lady, she will take your intervention.

Photo of Fulton MacGregor Fulton MacGregor Scottish National Party

Presiding Officer, I think that you might now realise why I wanted to get to my feet before Elaine Smith finishes. Elaine and I are, so far, the only two people in this Parliament to have represented Coatbridge and Chryston, which we both agree is the best constituency. While she is thanking people, I want to put on record my thanks to her.

I have always respected Elaine Smith for the work that she has done in the constituency, but I have come to really respect her over the past five years for the work that she has done. It is fitting that her final speech should be such a powerful one about women, as she is always fighting. As the current MSP for Coatbridge and Chryston, I thank her for all that she has done for Coatbridge and Chryston since the inception of the Parliament, in 1999.

Presiding Officer, I hope that you understand why I sought to intervene.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

You have redeemed yourself, Mr MacGregor.

Photo of Elaine Smith Elaine Smith Labour

I am very glad that I took that intervention.

Finally, I offer a special thank you to my mum, Moira, my sister, Siobhan, and my mother-in-law, Rita, for all their help, particularly with essential and much-valued childcare, which made it possible for me to be part of the Scottish Parliament in the beginning.?Last, but far from least, I thank my very supportive husband, Vann, and my son, Vann.

It has been an honour and a privilege—as well as a challenge, at times—to represent my home area of Coatbridge and Chryston, and, latterly, Central Scotland, as a Scottish Labour MSP since 1999. I wish our new leader, Anas Sarwar, my MSP comrades and sisters, and all the MSPs who are standing down—particularly the class of ’99—all the best for the future.

I will finish with the words of Clara Zetkin, who, at the international conference of working women in 1910, proposed the famous motion to celebrate women annually on an international basis:

“The vote for women will unite our strength in the struggle for socialism.”

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

If all interventions are like that, I see no problem in members taking them.

Photo of Alison Johnstone Alison Johnstone Green

The theme of this year’s international women’s day,


, is thought provoking and motivating. Those of us who are privileged enough to be in Parliament have a duty to challenge. There is a real responsibility on those of us with the privilege of choice to use it, but, of course, even in 2021, fewer than 25 per cent of parliamentarians around the world are women. In the face of such glacial progress, we must choose to challenge any and all systems that perpetuate such underrepresentation.

Trump may be gone, but his disgusting macho politics is not. His misogynistic language was common knowledge before he became President, and the same applies to Brazil’s President Bolsonaro. When so-called leaders normalise misogynistic language and behaviour, there is no choice—we must challenge it.

Let us choose to challenge a system that means that women in Venezuela and around the globe cannot afford contraception. That is a system that makes it very hard for women to choose to challenge. It is a system that deprives women of agency and choice.

We must choose to challenge a system that sees too many women’s sports receive a fraction of the media coverage that those of their male counterparts receive and therefore a fraction of the opportunities to earn through endorsements and advertising. When he was hosting the London Olympic games as mayor, Boris Johnson said:

“there are semi-naked women playing beach volleyball ... glistening like wet otters”.

Women’s athleticism, ability, skill and success are often totally overlooked, and the focus on how women look, rather than on what they do, persists.

Let us choose to challenge the invisibility of women’s achievements, past and present. Let us choose to challenge the proliferation of statues of male slave owners and the lack of acclaim and acknowledgement of women who have excelled in many humanitarian endeavours, such as Elsie Inglis, Frances Melville and Flora Murray.

Photo of Elaine Smith Elaine Smith Labour

Members probably thought that I had spoken my last word.

On the way down the hill today, I noticed that almost all the quotes on the Parliament’s wall are from men. There is only one quote from a woman. Perhaps the Parliament should consider that.

Photo of Alison Johnstone Alison Johnstone Green

Thank you. That point is well made, and I agree whole-heartedly.

As the cabinet secretary said, in many ways, it has taken a pandemic for us to recognise the brilliant women in our midst. Nurses make up 42 per cent of the national health service workforce, and almost 80 per cent of nurses are women. About 85 per cent of the social care workforce is women. Those incredible women have played a major part in Scotland’s efforts to challenge Covid-19. Their work, day in and day out, since long before the pandemic is always challenging health inequality and ensuring that each patient and person with whom they work receives the best care. We need to value them and pay them properly. Professor Linda Bauld and Professor Devi Sridhar have become household names. They have been the voices of calm expertise and reason on which we have all come to rely.

Let us choose to challenge the fact that this Parliament has a long way to go, and work to do, to properly represent the people of Scotland; challenge the lack of women here and in local government across the country; challenge the way that things are done when it means that women who have been involved in politics feel that they have to leave because they cannot spend enough time with their children and loved ones; challenge the timing of meetings when it means that those with caring duties, who are overwhelmingly women, cannot attend; challenge the fact that single parents, of whom 92 per cent are women, cannot go to the pub to do the networking that makes promotion or political selection more likely; challenge the shameful fact that we live in a country in which proof of rape is required for a woman to receive child tax credits for a third child; and challenge the discrimination, bullying and harassment that women of colour, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer women, disabled women and refugee women face in the workplace as well as the multiple barriers that prevent them from entering the labour market in the first place.

In many instances, women are taking on unpaid work on top of their paid employment, but too often that is not recognised, appreciated or even noticed because that type of work is not valued—it is not even viewed as work, despite the huge contribution that women’s unpaid labour makes to the economy. The term “second shift” was invented by sociologist Arlie Hochschild in the 1970s to describe the household and childcare duties that follow a day’s work for women. Forty years later, we are still trying to tackle the persistent gender imbalance that sees women taking on the majority of domestic and care work. Let us choose to challenge that inequality so that we can improve the lives of the women who experience it today and prevent future generations having to fight the same battles.

I, too, thank those women who will not be standing for election again, and I wish them all the very best in all that they go on to do. I know that they will continue to make a difference wherever they are.

Photo of Beatrice Wishart Beatrice Wishart Liberal Democrat

Equality is one of the four founding principles of the Scottish Parliament and it should be at the core of everything that we do here, yet more than 20 years into the Parliament, many challenges remain. We undoubtedly still have work to do.

In November, we spoke about problems around violence against women and life-ruining crimes and hideous harassment, which are problems that must be addressed globally and closer to home. I choose to challenge domestic abuse and gender-based violence against women and girls, and I do so frequently.

Of course, those are not the only challenges that women face. Many have said that the pandemic has turned back the clock on gender equality. It is true that negative impacts have fallen disproportionately on women. Job losses and income reductions have been widespread. An International Monetary Fund report highlighted that women are more likely than men to work in social sectors, including retail, tourism and hospitality, where lockdown has been most acutely felt.

The true value of care has come into the limelight, professionally and domestically, and the responsibility to manage schooling at home has, without question, hit women harder. Many people found themselves between a rock and a hard place, juggling impossible burdens and unrealistic expectations. These problems are not new; there is nothing unfamiliar in what I have described. The relationship between women and work has always been fragile, often because of where caring responsibilities naturally fall.

As we have just seen during the course of the pandemic, those extra expectations are just supposed to be absorbed, but the working world is full of rigid expectations and counter-productive policies such as those being fought by the women against state pension inequality.

According to a Trades Union Congress survey that was published in January, more than seven in 10 women who applied for furlough after the latest school closures had their requests turned down. That forces women to sacrifice pursuing progression—evidence bears that out. Research by Engender found that representation in positions of power is still dominated by men. Women make up 52 per cent of the Scottish population, but we account for only 36 per cent of public body chief executives, 13 per cent of senior police officers and 6 per cent of major newspaper editors, and there are no women as chief executive officers of Scotland-based FTSE 100 or 250 companies.

Politics sees much of the same. There are concerns, which I feel are valid, that the gender balance in politics might be going in the wrong direction. Too many women have made the decision to step down, explicitly because sitting in Holyrood is incompatible with family life and attracts undue and insufferable abuse. Before the pandemic, a family-friendly Parliament amounted to a commitment to avoiding formal business running on into the evenings and to having a crèche on site for staff. That follows an exodus of women from public office in the run-up to the 2019 general election, which was largely motivated by disgraceful online vitriol that reinforced the clear and urgent need for more to be done to tackle misogynistic harassment.

Perhaps this week more than most, it seems as though the political world is not doing enough to ensure that a woman’s place is in Parliament. This is where we make laws and set examples. Taking inspiration from this year’s international women’s day theme, we can choose to challenge the Parliament to be better than that: to learn the lessons of the past 12 months; make hybrid operation a long-term reality, which lets women in rural and non-central-belt communities take part and balance family life; and take the opportunity to make things better for the future. This is a moment to change things and we should grasp it.

Finally, as others have done, to all the members who are standing down, I express my good wishes for whatever the future holds for them.

Photo of Ruth Maguire Ruth Maguire Scottish National Party

#ChooseToChallenge is the theme for this year’s international women’s day. Challenge is healthy, helpful and, when constructive and persistent, it is ultimately what gets things done. From challenge comes change, and challenge always helps us to make better decisions.

Challenge is necessary. I get the appeal of consensus, compliance, conformity and not making a fuss, because consensus is comfortable. However, make no mistake—consensus is most valuable when it is arrived at after debate, discussion and, yes, challenge. When that happens, it is worth substantially more than the warm, cosy feeling that comes from being surrounded only by those of the same mind as our own.

Therefore, let me salute challenging women—in particular, those who are leaving our Parliament. They are the women who persistently speak out for women and girls, even when doing so is difficult, uncomfortable and comes at a cost because, in doing so, they are accused of not caring about others or, worse, of harming others.

I commend women who have different beliefs, political or philosophical positions, but come together and respectfully and honestly work for a shared goal.

I acknowledge women who centre women and girls in the work that they do, as well as women who campaign and fight against the injustices that women face in this stubbornly and persistently patriarchal society, such as the undervaluing of care—paid and unpaid, which is predominantly carried out by women—pregnancy and maternity discrimination, the gender pay gap and limiting sexist stereotypes.

I acknowledge and applaud women who campaign to end male violence against women in all its forms: sexual harassment, domestic abuse, female genital mutilation, so-called honour crimes, sexual assault, rape, trafficking, stalking and prostitution.

I thank women such as Elaine Smith, who understand that women’s liberation is not complete, and that the world right now is not as safe as it should be for women and girls and is certainly not equal.

I particularly acknowledge older women, who have spent decades fighting and to whom we owe a huge debt of gratitude for all that they achieved in securing women's rights and freedoms, which many of us now take for granted and perhaps sometimes forget had to be fought for.

To women who have shared their personal trauma publicly in order to illustrate the need to uphold women’s rights, and have been shamefully accused of weaponising their trauma, I say that I understand the toll that it takes. I am sorry that that happened to you; thank you for your strength.

I celebrate the women in our communities, in our council chambers, in our Parliaments and in our Government who put their heads above the parapet in the face of patronising dismissal, ridicule, sexism, hostility and, in some cases, violent misogynistic abuse and threats of physical harm. I say to them: keep going, keep speaking out; keep taking action; I see you all; you make a difference; solidarity—and thank you, sisters.

Photo of Jeremy Balfour Jeremy Balfour Conservative

I am pleased that I am able to participate in what is an important debate to mark international women’s day. As the father of twin girls, Keziah and Ellie, I want them as they grow up to live on an equal footing with men. I therefore welcome this year’s theme of #ChooseToChallenge because, if we all choose to call out gender bias and inequality and to celebrate women’s achievements, we can help to create an inclusive world.

The role of women in Scottish society has changed more during the 20th century than at any other time in recorded history, as women have become fully enfranchised members of society. Today, women contribute significantly across many sectors of Scottish life.

This week, I am pleased to support a motion congratulating Debora Kayembe, resident of Scotland since 2011 and human rights lawyer, on starting her role as rector of the University of Edinburgh, which is one of the UK’s most prestigious institutions. She is the first black woman, the first African immigrant and the third woman since 1858 to be named rector. I was delighted to read that her focus while she is rector will be to challenge inequalities. I hope that such role models can help to instil confidence and encourage girls to be aspirational and to consider themselves capable of becoming a lawyer, an engineer, an athlete or even a politician.

However, there is still no room for complacency. According to the World Economic Forum, sadly none of us will see gender parity in our lifetime; nor, likely, will many of our children. Many inequalities between men and women are well established. We know that women are more likely than men to be out of employment due to caring responsibilities and more likely to move into part-time employment after having a child. Other research on barriers to maternal employment has cited a lack of suitable jobs, childcare issues, a preference for caring for children, a lack of qualifications and experience, and issues in organising transport. Mothers are more likely than fathers to sacrifice employment, for a variety of reasons—including the fact that fathers often receive a higher salary, as well as social expectations around gender roles. Research has shown that mothers who do return to employment often shift to lower-paid jobs and that, even if they continue in the same job, they are less likely to gain promotion.

We also know that the pandemic has made inequalities even greater. As has already been mentioned by a number of speakers, women are more likely to be impacted by job disruption and furlough, due to working in sectors such as hospitality and retail. According to the Office for National Statistics, women did two thirds of additional childcare duties and spent more time on unpaid work and less time on paid work than men did during lockdown 1. The ONS has also shown that women did more?cooking and washing than men did, and were more likely to be unpaid carers. Certainly, from my own experience, I know that that is true—not only in my household but in those of many of the other parents to whom I talk in the school playground. Such problems are even more acute for?single parents, of whom 90 per cent are women.

That is why the Scottish Conservatives support the roll-out of 1,140 hours of free childcare, and are concerned that that has not been implemented properly by the Government. An Audit Scotland report published in March 2020 highlighted that, with just five months remaining, the Government still had to recruit half the required staff, and a significant amount of the building infrastructure was still to be completed.

We also know that in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, women are often left behind.

We also need to look at the way that we work—not only in Parliament but in society generally. I support Equate Scotland’s call on Government, employers and trade unions to capitalise on the benefits, the lessons and the many sacrifices that have been made through Covid-19 by offering—and actively promoting to all staff—more rounded, sustainable and flexible working policies and practices.

Many issues that affect women’s equality still need to be challenged, and the Conservatives are committed to achieving equality of opportunity for women in all aspects of life. We will continue to work with key stakeholders to ensure that any sexism and discrimination against women is rooted out.

Finally, I say a fond farewell to the women MSPs who have been part of the Parliament for many years. It has been a privilege for me to get to know some of them and to work closely with others. Those who are leaving, across the various parties, will be missed, and I wish them all well in whatever happens next in their lives.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

I call Gail Ross. I understand that this is Ms Ross’s final speech.

Photo of Gail Ross Gail Ross Scottish National Party

As we have heard, the subject of international women’s day this year is #ChooseToChallenge, and challenge I will. In fact, I have been quite challenging all my life, as I am sure many people who know me would agree.

Presiding Officer, as you know, politics is a gey coorse game, and it seems to be especially challenging for women. Whatever we do, we have to work twice as hard to be seen as being even half as good. We have to balance having a thick skin with caring; giving ourselves up to the public with maintaining our privacy; staying loyal to our party with having good friends from other parties; and being a person with still being seen as an object. Being a councillor was a hard job, but being a member of Parliament is a different thing altogether. It is a tough role and a demanding role, but it is a rewarding role.

I have challenged and been challenged in return, but the biggest challenge for me—and, indeed, for some others, as we have heard and as we will hear—has been in trying to influence or, at least, to educate people on the difficulties of being present in the Scottish Parliament building for so many days every week.

In that sense, the Parliament has to have a long hard look at how it encourages people—especially women—to become elected members. There has to be more flexibility in work practices, and remote and virtual working—which I was told was not possible only a month before we were forced into that way of working by the pandemic—must become the norm. Otherwise, more people like me and others who will speak in the chamber and remotely will be forced into making a decision either to leave or not to stand at all. That is not good for our democracy.

This parliamentary session—the past five years—has been a rich tapestry of experiences. From speaking at the Presiding Officer’s Burns supper to writing poems in the style of Julie Andrews for a


Magazine event, such experiences have been made all the richer by the people who have surrounded me.

It would not be a final speech without a copious amount of thank yous. With your indulgence, Presiding Officer, I would like to address those thanks personally. I should say that, in addition to the women on the list, there are quite a few men who could be mentioned—just not today.

First, I thank my colleague and friend Rona Mackay for giving up her spot in the debate so that I could make this speech—my final speech—today.

I thank the people in my parliamentary team, who have been there to support me throughout the good times and the bad. They have enabled me to do the job. I owe them all—past and present members of the team—a huge debt of gratitude. Carrie, who had never worked for an MSP before, is now going on to be a trained counsellor. I am so proud of her. Kirsteen has not had an easy few years, but she has got me to the end, so I thank her. I say to Wee Kyla—you fair cheered up the office since you started, and you are never far from my thoughts.

I thank Christina McKelvie—a champion of equalities and human rights—for believing in me. Christina, I am thinking of you just now.

I thank Jeane Freeman, who has been mentioned already, for all that she has done. Quite simply, thank you.

To Emma Harper, I say that we did a good job of bookending the country at every event, agricultural show and meeting. We would tell people how we were working, north and south, at squeezing the central belt. We had some success and some very positive feedback.

Our First Minister and my boss, Nicola Sturgeon has been an inspiration to me for a lot of years—ever since a chance meeting in Glasgow Queen Street station in the 1990s. She asked me to open her event at Eden Court theatre in Inverness; I misunderstood her text, so I had to write a speech the night before it. It still went down well, though. Being her parliamentary liaison officer and attending First Minister’s question time preparation was an honour that will never be equalled for me. I never did manage to drop in a question about bus strikes in France, but I still reckon that she can take me out for that lunch. During the past year, in particular, her commitment and dedication to steering Scotland through the pandemic has been nothing less than superhuman. I have no doubt that the First Minister will lead Scotland to her independence. Thank you, First Minister.

I have more fond words for my two very special friends—the members of my coven—but I have been advised that the sort of language that I would use is not appropriate in the chamber, and we already know that it is offensive on Twitter, so I will stop there. Those friends are Jenny Gilruth and Mairi Gougeon. It is a special thing to get to this stage of life and make friends that you wish you had known years ago. I will miss our gatherings and making our spells. I have laughed more times with them in the past five years than the number of bottles of prosecco we have shared. As you might be aware, Presiding Officer, that is a lot of laughs.

I thank the security staff, especially Audrey, who helped me to clean my dress on the day of the kirking of Parliament, and I thank Nejra, for always stopping for a chat, and the rest of the people in the hospitality and events teams.

My thanks go to every single person who sent me a message of support when I announced that I was standing down, and to all my friends and colleagues and every member of staff.

I cannot conclude this part of my life without thanking the women in my family. They have been there to pop over with dinners, to send Max to school, to pick him up, to get him to after school clubs or to be there with support, so Max says, “Thank you, Granny Mo, Granny Ru, Ruthie and Jacquelyn.”

I have a confession to make: when I have sat in the chamber, I have written poems that were relevant to the subject that had been debated, then left them in the desk. I hope that when members have found them some made them smile and some made them think. This is the one that I would leave today, if I were in the chamber:

“No more will you see me

But you’ll know that I’m still there

Sat with you in Margo’s

Or passing on the stairs

Coffee in the Garden Lobby

Just won’t be the same

But remember this is not goodbye

It’s Til We Meet Again!”

The question remains: where is a woman’s place? A woman’s place is in the Scottish Parliament.

I wish the best of luck to everyone, for whatever the future may bring.

Photo of Johann Lamont Johann Lamont Labour

I am not sure how I can follow that, but I thank Gail Ross and Elaine Smith. Both of whom, in their different ways, have played important parts in my parliamentary life—Gail, recently, as the deputy convener of the Public Petitions Committee. She is the good cop, most of the time, and is an excellent parliamentarian. How can I beat that? Her speech, as a backdrop, was fantastic.

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in the debate to mark international women’s day. As I near the end of my time in Parliament, I am mindful of the privilege that I have had, as an MSP, to speak up and speak out for women. I celebrate the women across our communities who do that day in and day out.

Today is an opportunity to reflect on women’s lives and the challenges that women here and globally face because of our sex. That does not happen because of how we look or how we dress, but because of who we are. Across the world, girls face forced marriage, child marriage, female genital mutilation, sex selection and rape in war. They are denied education and independence of action because of their sex.

I am here as a Labour elected member. Labour is a party that has understood, from the beginning of this Parliament, that women have been underrepresented in politics and that that underrepresentation is a consequence of sex discrimination. Therefore, I did not, and do not, take my job lightly.

I am proud that since the Parliament’s inception women have taken their work seriously—none more so than the persistent and focused Elaine Smith, who spoke up so eloquently for women and those who are disadvantaged earlier, as she always has.

We need to understand fully how being a woman impacts on our health. Mesh has been mentioned, but mesh highlights other issues

in which the experience of women has simply not been believed. It is a feature of women’s health that the health system has not understood their experiences.

We need to understand how being a woman impacts on our life chances—how segregation in jobs, education and training have lifetime consequences for women. We need to understand women’s vulnerability to male violence, and that fear of male violence is an ever-present companion from our youth. We are anxious while walking home, alert while running in the park and aware, too, of what behaviour must be “managed” in the workplace.

We also need to understand that the realities of domestic abuse, sexual violence, coercive control and femicide dominate the lives of all too many women across the country. They frame the capacity of women to escape, and they underline the need for single-sex spaces where women might heal and learn.

Women’s lives tell us why we need to invest in public services that see women’s needs, as well as the many goals that women have in holding families and communities together. There are women who are carers, either paid or unpaid, and women who manage care for elderly parents and for their children. Now, in the teeth of a pandemic, and given what is to come, we must test all our budgets in order that we understand how women are disadvantaged and how women’s inequality must be addressed in the coming period.

There has been progress, but there is a long way to go. We all have a responsibility to choose to challenge. My generation chose to challenge the notions that women were absent from positions of power because they were just not good enough; that if a woman just tried hard enough, she would get on; that women were uniquely suited to caring and to women’s work; and that somehow women deserved what happened to them when they were the victims of male violence.

My generation also chose to challenge a definition of politics that excluded the experience of women’s lives. It did not talk about childcare issues, it really did not talk about low pay, and it certainly did not talk about abuse and neglect and the systemic denial of women’s rights. Those issues are now seen as mainstream in political life and as necessary to consider in anything that addresses inequality.

I will finish with two things. When I got involved in politics; when in this Parliament we spoke of women’s rights; when my dear, departed sister Trish Godman spoke up about abuse of women through prostitution and trafficking—a system that is driven by the needs of men and that benefits men, by exploiting and not liberating the most vulnerable of women; when my dear friend Maria Fyfe spoke up about women’s right to choose and about the need for, and importance of, women controlling their fertility; and when women have spoken up about women’s inequality, it was because we wanted to change women’s lives. I never imagined that I would be fighting at this stage in my life, in Parliament, not just to change women’s lives but to change what the very word “woman” means.

I choose to challenge. Women across the world know what sex discrimination is, and what it is to be a woman. The men who discriminate against and abuse women know what it is, too. There is a new generation of young women who know that. They feel silenced, perhaps not by arguments about what women’s traditional roles were—against which we railed—but by men who not only tell them that they are wrong about their own lived experience, but that they, as men, know better. However, I am confident that there is a generation of young women who will choose to challenge the shifting sands on which all too many women, and particularly young women, now stand.

On international women’s day, I and many of my sisters will support them every step of the way, as they challenge and demand their rights as young women, as we have done in the past. On international women’s day, we celebrate all that women have done, and we celebrate the optimism about what is yet to happen for women.

Photo of Gillian Martin Gillian Martin Scottish National Party

As many of us have said, the theme of this year’s international women’s day is “choose to challenge”. It is good to see so many challenging women speaking today. They are women who speak truth to power, and women who say what needs to be said, even when it is uncomfortable—in fact, sometimes especially because it is uncomfortable.

There are those who would rather that we challenging women sat down and shut up. There have been folk like that throughout the ages, and they exist today: “Don’t make a fuss”, “Stop banging on”, “Be nice”, “Where’s your smile?” and so on. There are people who demand that women apologise for men’s bad behaviour, and men who promote only those in their likeness. There are people who turn a blind eye to inequality because they think that it does not affect them. Of course women’s inequality affects them: it stymies the prosperity and wellbeing of every society that it stubbornly persists in.

I will use my short time in the debate to supply some challenges; I promise that, if we meet them, it will be good for all of us, men and women alike.

I challenge this country to do everything that it can to close the gender pay gap. I challenge everyone in this country to share caring and housework responsibilities equally between the sexes—not least you, John Martin. I challenge this country to end female sexual exploitation and violence against women in all its forms. I challenge this country to reduce gender segregation in jobs in sectors such as care, technology, engineering and science. I challenge every party in the chamber to return 50 per cent men and 50 per cent women representatives in May. I challenge our Covid recovery to prioritise redressing the imbalance of the adverse effect on women and to commit to erasing the inequalities that have widened during the pandemic. I challenge us to put respect and consent at the core of everything that we teach our children about relationships. I challenge everyone to check their misogyny and, while they are at it, to challenge everyone else’s misogyny. Finally, I challenge everyone to stop abusing women online and to take oxygen away from those who do.

If we meet those challenges, our economy will thrive. More women will pay more tax, which will be good for public spending. Our wellbeing index will soar, our health outcomes will be better, and better policy decisions will be made that will make life for everyone better. If it takes being labelled as a difficult or challenging woman to achieve those things, that suits me just fine.

Our society is all the better because of so-called difficult or challenging women throughout history. Challenging women have certainly made life better for women in Scotland. This Parliament is set to lose some of the most excellent of their number in three weeks’ time—women in my party who have inspired and supported so many, including me: Ms Cunningham, Ms Watt, Ms Freeman, Ms Ross, Ms White, Ms Fabiani and Ms Campbell, who is in the chamber today. We will also lose women speaking today who represent other parties—women whom I have not always agreed with but who I greatly admire and respect: Ms Lamont and Ms Smith.

Happy international women’s day. Here’s to women who challenge. Where on earth would we be without you?

Photo of Maurice Corry Maurice Corry Conservative

It is a privilege, as a father of three daughters, for me to join in this debate and celebrate the important, upcoming event of international women’s day next week. It is indeed fortuitous that this is also fairtrade fortnight, given that women are a large part of the workforce in the developing world and, indeed, the British Commonwealth, in which I have an interest through the Scottish Parliament’s branch of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association.

This year’s international women’s day campaign theme speaks of the responsibility that each of us shares to celebrate women’s achievements by doing all that we can to promote greater visibility and opportunity, and by choosing not only to recognise but to challenge the stereotypes and limitations that we see in society. International women’s day is a collective drive, resting on all our shoulders, to call for greater inclusion. Not only should we challenge others in highlighting women’s equality, but we should also prepare to be challenged ourselves—whether at home, in the workplace, in public or in private—to tackle gender bias and inequality, no matter how subtle or small.

Although progress has been made, it is clear that there is still a long way to go. According to Close the Gap, most low-paid work, which is often also precarious, tends to be taken up by women, many of whom need to balance earning and caring responsibilities. Instances of racism, prejudice and discrimination remain worryingly common and continue to disproportionately impact women.

Internationally, we continue to hear appalling reports of young schoolgirls being kidnapped in northern Nigeria. We hear about the issues facing women in other parts of the world, such as countries in the Arabian peninsula. In my time spent working overseas in countries recovering from civil war, such as Bosnia, Croatia, Kosovo and Afghanistan, I have seen on the ground, for real, the hardship that women have endured simply to keep their families together, fed and watered. In Afghanistan in particular, women were denied education in past years.

At home, the impact of Covid-19 has been far reaching, but we cannot ignore its effect on women. Disruption to work has been widespread, and has affected women more keenly. The vast majority of front-line workers are women, who face greater risk to their physical and mental wellbeing as they continue to deliver essential services in the most challenging of circumstances.

The sectors that tend to be dominated by female workers, such as the retail, tourism and hospitality sectors, have suffered heavy losses that have resulted in damaging knock-on effects for women. Through the many months of home schooling and increased childcare responsibilities, the pressure on women to reduce their work hours has been more pronounced.

It is vital that the gains that have been made in furthering gender equality are not reversed. Global data from UN Women contains the warning that the pandemic could be responsible for wiping out 25 years of progress.

I believe that there is a renewed urgency to this year’s international women’s day. We need to challenge the barriers that women face and answer those calls with real, significant and lasting action. The pandemic has spotlighted the real risk in undervaluing women and the obligation on all of us—whether policy makers or not—to ensure that ground that has been gained is not lost.

Finally, I wish all our lady members who are leaving Parliament well. We shall miss their style, flair, good humour and intellect. Put simply, we shall miss them all.

Photo of Emma Harper Emma Harper Scottish National Party

I welcome the opportunity to mark international women’s day on 8 March.

As colleagues have said, this year’s theme is “Choose to challenge”. The pandemic has certainly caused many challenges for women in Scotland and across the world. I appreciate the impact that Covid has had on women. That impact has been highlighted across the chamber in some pretty awesome contributions from the sisters—and the brothers, tae.

A challenged world is an alert world. From challenge comes change. Let us all choose to challenge, to support rights and freedoms, and to tackle misogyny. As the United Nations has noted:

“Individually, we’re all responsible for our own thoughts and actions—all day, every day.”

Everyone has the choice to challenge stereotypes. We can choose to challenge and fight bias. We can broaden perceptions, improve situations and celebrate the achievements of women, including many in the Parliament today. It is important for us all to work to enable that to happen and to strive for empowerment and equality.

Members may recall that, in January last year, I brought a debate on United Nations resolution 1325, on women, peace and security. Resolution 1325 was passed unanimously by the United Nations Security Council. It was the first resolution of its kind, with the aim of specifically addressing the impact of war on women and the value of women in conflict resolution as conflict resolvers and women who choose to challenge conflict, hatred and discrimination.

In the Scottish Government’s equally safe policy is the principle that all women and girls, regardless of background, race, religion or sexual orientation, should feel safe in their communities and empowered to take any opportunities, and to call out and challenge discrimination or hatred. Indeed, internationally, Scotland, working in partnership with the UN, has pledged practical and financial support for women and girls to achieve that goal and to learn peace-building and conflict-resolution skills. In so doing, women and girls will feel confident in challenging war and intolerance.

The Scottish Government and UN programme runs over three days and consists of talks, seminars and lessons. During the programme, women and girls have access to international peacekeeping experts and female role models in positions of power and the opportunity to learn from one another. That includes learning about the fundamentals of peacekeeping, of challenging intolerance and of building consensus. The programme has been proved to have a lasting and positive impact on the individuals who take part and on the future of many war-affected areas of the world—it has hugely benefited Syria.

Our First Minister was the first world leader to address the UN General Assembly to discuss the importance of women playing our part, both at home and internationally. She spoke of the importance of societies and countries focusing on welfare and peace promotion and having an environment in which women can challenge stereotypes and promote tolerance.

There are many other ways in which the Scottish Government is promoting gender equality and women’s empowerment. We have a gender-balanced Cabinet and equal representation on our public boards. All residents of Scotland have the right to vote in Scottish elections, including women who have leave to remain. Women in Scotland can stand for this Parliament, and it is important to note that Scotland has a dedicated minister for equalities and a commitment to upholding women’s rights.

I again pay tribute to the work that the Scottish Government is undertaking through its introduction of legislation and polices, and through its wellbeing approach to government, to tackle gender inequality and empower women to challenge stereotypes and be the best that they can be.

Through challenge comes change: #ChooseToChallenge.

Photo of Pauline McNeill Pauline McNeill Labour

Today is a sad day in many ways. Women’s equality has been considerably rolled back by the pandemic. Women are reverting to caring roles and taking the brunt of home schooling and of childcare.

I endorse what Shirley-Anne Somerville said in her opening speech and thank all the women who have taken on those roles in all our lives, including in my own family. I worry about girls, whom I think will be further disadvantaged by the lack of time at school. That is a challenge for us all.

A recent Mumsnet survey of more than 1,500 women found that 79 per cent agreed that the responsibility for home schooling fell largely on them. The vast majority agreed that it was impossible to work uninterrupted when schools closed.

Women must be more strident and stronger than ever. Challenge is not a choice: it is a necessity because of the pandemic. Almost three quarters of working mothers who applied for furlough following the latest school closures had their requests turned down. Our working environments are not family friendly. The primary challenge for women legislators is to recognise that and to act on it in the next Parliament.

Sadly, as we have heard today, a number of incredible women MSPs from all parties are standing down, some because they have served very long shifts, others because the job of an MSP can compromise family life.

I want to talk about my Labour sister, Jenny Marra, who has made a huge contribution. She is a young talent and a radical voice for Dundee and her standing down is a loss to our party and to Parliament.

The wonderful Gail Ross is a bright, funny, easy-going person. We have heard from her over recent months about a possible revision to family-friendly policies. Aileen Campbell is a great minister who has earned the respect of all parties. She is standing down before her time and I wish her well in the future.

I am thinking of our early days in this place. I came in 1999, although I later had some time out. Many women struggled with young families as they tried to find their feet. Childcare was an issue then too. My dear friend Karen Gillon had her three children while in office. She had the office next to mine. We loved the fact that there was always a baby in a pram. Johann Lamont loved to come and visit because she liked to attend to the baby.

Shirley-Anne Somerville is right. We might have hyped up just how family friendly our Parliament was. Perhaps we have lost our way. I got married in 1999, the year when I was first elected. I was a Glasgow MSP and my husband was shocked by the long hours that I spent away from home. I have no children and can only imagine what it is like to try to bring up a young family as an MSP—I am sure that it is difficult for fathers too. I am surmising that it is no wonder that many women MSPs do not want to come to Parliament, and why the percentage of women MSPs has dropped to 34 per cent.

Another Labour sister, Johann Lamont, has just spoken in the way that she always does: with absolute fierceness and belief. I remember when Johann was a minister and she told me that she would sit with her red box at 6am at the pool side with her son, a champion swimmer, so that she could make sure that he did not lose out. She brought her feminism to her ministerial posts, and she is as funny as she is feisty, continually arguing for sex-based rights for women. What a difference Johann Lamont has made to the Parliament.

We have also heard from the wonderful Elaine Smith, who is not frightened of anyone or anything. She has a huge amount of integrity. I know that if Elaine raises a point of order, it will be very thorough and pointed. She championed the Breastfeeding etc (Scotland) Bill and, more recently, the proposed food justice bill in Parliament. She has been a really strong voice in this place and she will be missed.

I have a huge amount of respect for the work that Mary Fee, who is not here, has done on justice and equality. When I met Mary in my first days here, she had the most folders of any MSP I had ever seen because of the many committees on which she served.

I also want to pay tribute to Roseanna Cunningham, Jeane Freeman, Maureen Watt, Linda Fabiani, Margaret Mitchell and Ruth Davidson, who are all leaving this place.

Finally, I want to talk about Sandra White, and how funny life is. We competed for Glasgow Kelvin, where I served for the first three sessions and she has served the past two. Never did I think that she and I would share a berth on a boat on the Mediterranean for a 14-hour journey to break the siege of Gaza. I will never forget when I said to her, “I feel so seasick, Sandra. If I do not come back in 15 minutes, would you make sure that there is not a by-election?” It is funny how life turns out, and I am sure that there is more to be written about that.

To be serious, when Emma Ritch wrote in Engender’s publication “Gender Matters” that

“It’s a very exciting time to be a feminist” and asked us to imagine a

“2030 where all women in Scotland have more access to power, to resources, and to safety” little did she know, and little did we know, that there would be an intervention—a national pandemic that would halt our plans to reach that target.

I think that I might have to wind up, Presiding Officer. I did not realise that my closing remarks would take so long.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

You can continue. I am enjoying this.

Photo of Pauline McNeill Pauline McNeill Labour

It is important to recognise that we have lost some time and work that we might have done had there not been a national pandemic. It is incumbent on whoever is returned to Parliament and whatever Government is returned to make sure that women’s rights and family-friendly policies are at the very heart of the work of Parliament during its next session.

We know and all agree that women make up the vast majority of the workers in the care sector. It is time to call out such ingrained sex discrimination. We can start by paying those workers £15 an hour and letting them know that that is only the beginning.

Women’s equality is a global issue and it is depressing to learn that violence against women by men is still a global problem. I have followed closely the rape and murder of women such as Libby Squire in Sheffield. By his own admission, the perpetrator was looking for a woman to have easy sex with and he preyed on her as she made her way home. That demonstrates that such violence is a sex-based crime. Women’s safety is as live an issue as it was 40 or 50 years ago.

I conclude by paying tribute to all the women who have served in the Parliament, and to the wonderful speeches that have been made on international women’s day. We have never been let down by Gillian Martin and Ruth Maguire in these debates. As women, we must make sure that we have strong voices, and that we will catch up on the rolling back of our achievements and rights during the next parliamentary session.

I wish you all well on international women’s day.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

I now call Alison Harris to speak for the Conservatives. I believe that this is also your final speech, Ms Harris.

Photo of Alison Harris Alison Harris Conservative

It is a privilege to be closing today for the Conservatives. It is quite fitting that my final speech in the chamber will be to mark international women’s day, particularly because of this year’s theme, #ChooseToChallenge, which urges people to call out and challenge the gender bias and inequality that women face. A challenged world is an alert world, and from challenge comes change.

Individually, we are all responsible for our own thoughts and actions, all day, every day. This is the first time in my time in the Scottish Parliament that I have heard anyone use the word “responsible” or allude to personal responsibility. In the Parliament we are used to hearing about the rights of individuals, yet, if we all balanced our rights with responsibilities, perhaps, along with more work, the gender bias and inequality that surrounds us through all walks of life would become less prevalent.

We have heard some fantastic speeches this afternoon and it is safe to say that we all agree on the importance of achieving equality and making Scotland a world leader when it comes to women’s rights. It is a year since I last took part in a debate on international women’s day, and since that day so much has changed in the world—more than any of us could have ever imagined. However, the core challenges faced by women at home and abroad remain much the same and, because of the Covid-19 pandemic, in some cases the challenges have even intensified.

Progress has been made, of that there is no doubt. The gender balance in the workplace is improving all the time, the pay gaps between men and women are narrowing and females are feeling more empowered to speak out about the issues that they face, but there is still so much work to do. Perhaps the founders of this important movement would be disappointed to learn that there is still a need to have such conversations, more than a century on from its creation. When I look back at early contributions on the issue, from when the meetings and marches started more than 100 years ago, I often wonder what those brave and trailblazing women would make of the situation that we have today. Looking around the chamber on occasions when it is full, we can see that there is more work to do. We have become very good at talking about the issue, but perhaps less good at ensuring that change actually happens.

Where do we start? Perhaps we need to go back to when our children are young. How often do we hear from parents and teachers that girls develop quicker, mature faster and perform better in the early years of school? At what point does that change, and why? Why does that advantage peel away and go into reverse by the time it comes to getting into the workplace? That underlines that we need to do more than address issues in the workplace; we need to start ensuring that equality becomes the norm from a far earlier stage.

This year, the theme of international women’s day is challenging—not just challenging women to do the best they can, but challenging men to act and call out discrimination when they see it happening. #ChooseToChallenge is a great theme to have and I think that it should be an everyday theme, not just the theme for 2021.

Many inspirational quotes have been shared as we lead up to international women’s day. I read one this week from pioneering sportswoman and leading voice of the feminist movement, Billie Jean King. It said:

“I have long said that women have been conditioned to want less. Women are supposed to be happy with the crumbs, but we deserve the cake, the icing, and the cherry on top.”

Let us all use that as motivation to work together and ensure that by the next time this debate is held in Parliament there will be much to celebrate. I thank all those members who have taken part in this year’s debate, across the chamber and virtually. I will not be involved in next year’s debate. However, this afternoon, let us celebrate females from across the globe.

This session of the Scottish Parliament has been exceptionally interesting and a very challenging time to be involved in politics. On a more personal level, over the past five years, #ChooseToChallenge has certainly featured in my daily parliamentary life. Over my time in Parliament, there have been many highlights that will always remain with me. It has been a privilege and honour to serve the people of Central Scotland region as a Scottish Conservative, especially those in my home town of Falkirk.

I put on record my thanks to all the committee clerks and to staff throughout the building who work so tirelessly to make life as easy as possible. I also thank my staff members; in particular, a special thanks goes to the other “A” in my office—namely, Aris. She has been my right-hand woman throughout this journey. I also thank my family and friends, because without their love and support I would not have been able to rise to this challenge.

I close by raising my hand high to show that I am committed to #ChooseToChallenge.

Photo of Aileen Campbell Aileen Campbell Scottish National Party

It is with mixed emotions that I rise to close the debate for the Government. I am pleased and proud to conclude a debate that has shown the Parliament at its best. We have heard powerful, thoughtful, considered and passionate speeches from women who have contributed a great deal to the betterment of our country. By their very presence here as MSPs, those women, regardless of their party, have chosen to challenge gender inequality because, despite more than 100 years of the franchise and many equality acts, women continue to be underrepresented in Parliaments around the world, including this one.

As well as feeling pleased and proud, I am sad, because this represents one of my final speeches in a Government debate as an MSP and a Government minister, and the end to my 14 years as an MSP representing Clydesdale and the south of Scotland draws ever closer.

I will use my time to reflect on achievements that have been delivered by this Government and Parliament and by female parliamentarians, and to think about the future. We must lay foundations for the next set of MSPs to build on, and empower the next generation of female parliamentarians to realise that a woman’s place is most definitely in the Parliament.

A debate like this—coming just before the end of a parliamentary session and before an election—gives us the chance to look back at and reflect on what has been achieved. I hope that we can feel that, collectively, we have chosen to challenge enough to ensure that the Parliament that we leave behind for the next generation of MSPs has made the positive difference that our country deserves.

However, I do not want the debate to be a moment when we pat one other on the back. This afternoon, we have heard that too much is still to be achieved, too much still needs to be challenged and too much work is still required for us to think that we can sit back and relax. International women’s day demands that we, as women in privileged roles of leadership, relentlessly pursue equality, agitate for change and make a difference.

There have been plenty of positive changes during this parliamentary session. In March last year, the Scottish Parliament unanimously passed the Female Genital Mutilation (Protection and Guidance) (Scotland) Act 2020; the Scottish Government is implementing the ambitious recommendations of the First Minister’s national advisory council on women and girls; the Gender Representation on Public Boards (Scotland) Act 2018 was passed, setting a “gender representation objective” for public boards that 50 per cent of non-executive members are women; the Scottish Government continues to have equal numbers of women and men in its Cabinet; and our 2020-21 programme for government reaffirmed our commitment to women’s health and the development of a women’s health plan.

In my portfolio, I worked with Monica Lennon to lock in the world-leading progress that we have made on tackling period dignity, and we supported her bill through the Parliament. We had already rolled out free period products nationally for those on low incomes, implemented free period products in education establishments around the country and enabled local authorities to ensure that products were available in communities. Further, we sought to tackle the stigma of and embarrassment about periods. Monica Lennon’s Period Products (Free Provision) (Scotland) Act 2021 gives our approach legislative underpinning.

I have outlined a range of policies and new laws that are designed to protect and improve women’s position in society, along with initiatives that guide us to do more. That list has been largely delivered by female parliamentarians, illustrating how important it is that women need to be in this institution and in political institutions around the world to shape decision making and make it more representative.

Although there is a lot to be proud of, we are not quite yet able to say, “Job done”. During the past year, the pandemic has exposed the deeply entrenched and systemic inequalities that exist and persist in our society, despite best efforts. The impact of the pandemic has touched us all, but not equally. In the introduction to the social renewal advisory board’s report, it noted:

“We may all be in the same storm, but we are all in different boats … and even then, too many of us are with no boat at all.”

Disabled people, minority ethnic communities, people on low incomes, older people, younger people and women are among those who have experienced disproportionate impacts, with multiple disadvantages making things even harder for many.

Staying at home has been fine for people who have a safe, secure and warm home; it has been easier for those with a garden and plenty of space. Working from home has been fine for people with a white-collar job that enables them to do so; it has been less easy for people who work in a factory or whose job depends on them being there in person. Home schooling has been more manageable for people who can rely on the support of a partner; it has been less straightforward for single parents, who have to shoulder all the work, care and educational responsibilities.

Domestic abuse, job uncertainty and shouldering a disproportionate burden of care are just some of the ways in which women the world over have been impacted by the restrictions that were so necessary to deal with the pandemic. That is why we have sought to ensure that our approach in Scotland has recognised that uncomfortable truth, whether through providing support and funding to organisations tackling domestic abuse or through prioritising the reopening of early learning and childcare settings to children and progressing our commitment to provide 1,140 hours of free childcare, in the knowledge that that will essentially, albeit not exclusively, support women in their caring roles. That is also why we have provided additional support during the pandemic for unpaid carers, around 60 per cent of whom we know are women, who are a fundamental part of our social care system. We have set out in the budget the ways in which we intend to go further. That includes examining the structure of how care is provided, and how it is valued by us as a society, through the review of social care.

As we emerge from the pandemic, it is important that we do not allow its impact to set back women’s rights, and there should not be any regression in those rights. It does not need to be like that. Therefore, we face a choice: do we revert to a pre-pandemic normality, a normality that has failed too many for too long, or do we choose something different? Do we choose to challenge the assumption that gender bias is to be tolerated and instead work even harder to reform what we do and renew what we are? If it is the latter, that will require us to work in a different way and in a collective way, and to disregard the hostile politics, or the “gey coorse” politics, as Gail Ross described it, that has so dominated this past session, in the chamber and online.

Women, or indeed anyone, looking at how brutal and aggressive politics has become would be forgiven for wanting to give it a wide berth. The result of that will be the continuation of a poorer politics and an unnecessary limit placed on the voices that we have in the chamber, who would otherwise have helped shape the future path for our country. We need to challenge that, and the country will need politicians who are able and willing to work together. The country’s recovery will be determined on it.

We have a good starting point. The social renewal advisory board, which Shirley-Anne Somerville and I established to guide and advise the Government on how to navigate a recovery path for Scotland that leads us towards equality and fairness, has provided us with ideas and possible solutions to tackle the entrenched and systemic inequality that the country faces. The board’s calls for action aim to ensure that, as we emerge from the pandemic, we could do so in a way that allows us to rebuild and renew, with social justice, equality and human rights at the heart of that.

While some colleagues will not be here after the election to continue to drive forward that work, that does not mean that we stop caring or that we somehow turn off our aspirations for our country. The work to create a better Scotland does not begin and end in this chamber; it requires the engagement and involvement of the people and communities we are all privileged to represent.

The recent citizens assemblies and the inspiring community response to the pandemic show the assets and skills that we have across our country, and we are wise to remember that, while people are currently no longer able to gather in the public gallery to look over and judge our work in the chamber, they remain sovereign, and they are able to judge us on our conduct. They want their parliamentarians working together, scrutinising and robustly holding the Government to account, but respectful of difference. It is a pity that the collaborative work that is done in the Parliament often goes on unnoticed, because it does not drive the headlines or get thousands of likes on Twitter. That narrative is one of the things that I would like to challenge this international women’s day—a narrative that somehow assumes that politics needs to be aggressive, that it means playing the woman or man and not the ball, and that, to be a good politician, you need to be bullish, bordering on rude.

Of course you need a thick skin—we enter this game with our eyes wide open—but we risk losing the very essence of what the Parliament was set up to do: to bring democracy closer to our people, driven by compassion and by kindness. In large part, today’s debate has shown what is achievable when debate is respectful and searching and the right space is created for free-flowing exchanges of ideas.

I will miss so many of those who have taken part today, along with the immediate colleagues of my own party, and I pay tribute to them all for what they have contributed, what they have achieved and how they have advanced women’s representation in Scotland’s body politic.

My advice to whoever the new female parliamentarians might be, who will sit in this chamber in just a few months’ time, is for them to choose to do their politics how they want to, to not feel that they need to ape or copy the worst examples of adversarial debate and instead to know that one of the best ways in which we can attract a diversity of voices in the chamber and tackle the persistent imbalance with regard to female parliamentarians is to make it a place that people want to be part of—not somewhere they will feel threatened.

Kindness in politics has never mattered more, and I have been blessed to have served alongside kind, committed parliamentarians—so many of whom are here today. I thank everyone who has made my privileged time in the Parliament so enjoyable and memorable. I send my best wishes to all my fellow MSPs who are not seeking re-election this May. Although I know that we are stepping back from front-line politics, I know that we will not step back from continuing to choose to challenge.

The Presiding Officer:

That concludes our debate on international women’s day 2021.