Speech: Women and Work (June 20th)

As a member of the Equal Opportunities Committee, I welcome the opportunity to comment on the vital work that is ahead of us to ensure that we remove as many barriers as possible for women seeking to enter their chosen career. I welcome, too, the minister’s announcement of the summit in September, which is perfect timing.

It is not just unemployment among women that should worry us, although that has doubled since early 2008. We should be equally concerned about the type of work that women undertake. Recent figures suggest that just over 40 per cent of employed women are employed part time, compared with roughly 13 per cent of men. In many cases, that is because flexible working policies have not been fully implemented by organisations, forcing those with young families to seek reduced hours in order to balance their work and home lives. That can have a knock-on effect on career progression and family income, which is not healthy for the economy or for society.

Linked to the issue of career progression is career choice. The Royal Society of Edinburgh released a report entitled “Tapping All Our Talents” in April this year, which details a possible future strategy to boost the number of women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, and halt the current situation whereby, unbelievably, 73 per cent of female STEM graduates drop out of the sector, which is an issue that we must investigate. The report also presses women to be more proactive in seeking out opportunities, to take risks and to step outside their comfort zone. I urge all of the members present to read that report and to consider how best to take on board its constructive recommendations for stopping that brain drain.

Equally striking is the disparity between economically inactive men and economically inactive women who have chosen to look after their families. Currently, 31 per cent of economically inactive women fall into that category as opposed to 5 per cent of men—those figures may be due to the continuing discrepancy between maternity and paternity leave, or they may be due to trouble accessing childcare.

As the Minister for Youth Employment mentioned earlier, the Scottish Government is beginning to tackle the issue of childcare by increasing the number of free nursery education hours from 475 to 600. That will make a huge difference to a number of women—certainly in my ken. Putting in place family-friendly structures through the national parenting strategy must continue to be one of our priorities, as must mitigating the disproportionate impact on women of Westminster welfare reform as best we can within the current constitutional parameters.

Women at all levels face challenges. Currently, there is a 10.7 per cent pay gap between men and women in full-time employment across Scotland. That gap is exacerbated by a glass ceiling whereby only 36 per cent of higher-level jobs are held by women. Indeed, only 35 per cent of the members of this Parliament are female. Like my colleague Shona Robison last week, I find it hard to believe that

“there are not equal numbers of … suitable male and female candidates across the parties”,

and even harder to believe

“that the best candidate just happened to be male on so many occasions.”—[Official Report, 14 June 2012; c 10062.]

I encourage all members to give this issue some serious thought. Although society has taken some large strides in the past few decades to level the playing field, as always there is more that can be done.