Speech: Women’s Employment Summit

As the deputy convener of the Equal Opportunities Committee, I am pleased to have the opportunity to comment on the women’s employment summit, which I was fortunate enough to attend last month. I am glad that the role of women in the workplace and in wider society has returned to the chamber for debate, although I am saddened to acknowledge the continuing need for such debates.

We have come very far in a very short space of time, but a lot of work remains to be done and I know that the minister Angela Constance and the Government are determined to take that forward. It is important that we lower—and eventually eliminate—the barriers and ceilings faced by women in the workplace, particularly given the recession’s disproportionate impact on them. After all, according to statistics, women are more likely to work part time and to be more affected by Westminster’s welfare reforms.

As I have done in the past, I draw the chamber’s attention to the Royal Society of Edinburgh’s report “Tapping all our Talents”, which sets out a strategy for increasing the number of women working in STEM areas. Produced by a working group that included the inimitable Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, the report is a searing indictment of the barriers that are faced by women who wish to study and work in those areas and sets out in stark detail just how big a barrier gender can be to entering certain occupations.

On 2 August, “Women’s Hour” on BBC Radio 4 featured a discussion with Christine Ashton, who has been named as the 12th most influential woman in IT in the UK. She advertised service manager posts, hoping to attract applications from women, but did not receive any. The show-stopper was this: when she readvertised the posts, having dropped the salary by £20,000, many more women applied. We can leave a debate on the issue of reverse psychology for another day, but I think that that anecdote indicates the scale of the problem.

I believe that women will go into politics when women encourage other women to become involved. There is no doubt that they have the skills, experience, ability and talent but without the confidence to apply for posts or to get politically involved or involved in communities, women will remain reluctant. Some of those experiences must be factored into the correction strategy, and I hope that women will inform that process.

In response to Margo MacDonald’s point, I note that in the “Women’s Hour” discussion Christine Ashton said that women comprise 17 per cent of the IT workforce in the UK and 18 per cent of that workforce in Europe. It is clear that this is not just a Scottish problem. However, we should share things as widely as we can, and I was pleased to hear the minister say that that was one of her ambitions.

Members across the chamber will agree that actions speak louder than words. As someone who is always happy to speak on equality matters, I am especially heartened by the Scottish Government’s determination to pick up the baton and put in place a strategy that will complement its work in so many key areas. In the 21st century, gender, age, ethnicity and disability should not prevent individuals from fulfilling their potential.

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