Motion: Scotland’s Apprentice of the Year

Motion S4M-04441: Jean Urquhart, Highlands and Islands, Scottish National Party, Date Lodged: 10/10/2012

Scotland’s Apprentice of the Year
That the Parliament congratulates Amy Garrick, who has just completed a four-year apprenticeship as an electrician with Shetland Islands Council, on being named Scottish Apprentice of the Year; understands that the award is co-sponsored by the Scottish Joint Industry Board and Edmundson Electrical; considers Amy’s victory to be of particular relevance, given the low number of female employees in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) sector, as highlighted in the Royal Society of Edinburgh’s report, Tapping all our Talents; acknowledges the potential for Amy’s victory to encourage more women to explore careers in the STEM sector, and wishes Amy and her fellow nominees success for their future careers.

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.

Press Release: Local MSP Welcomes Fall in Homeless Rate (June 26th)

Jean Urquhart MSP welcomed figures released this week indicating that homelessness applications have fallen by 40% in the Highland Council area over the last year.

Figures released by the Scottish Government have revealed that applications for homelessness have decreased in 30 of the 32 local authorities, with Orkney Islands Council, Shetland Islands Council, Argyll and Bute Council and Comhairle nan Eilean Siar all also posting reductions since 2010-11.

Ms Urquhart, SNP MSP for the Highlands and Islands and a former member of Highland Council, said:

“Working to put in place as many safety nets as possible to prevent individuals from becoming homeless has to be one of our top priorities.

“These figures demonstrate the positive impact of the SNP’s Scottish Housing Options Approach Scheme, particularly when it is implemented alongside local authority initiatives as has been the case in the Highlands.

“The SNP is dedicated to ensuring that our target of all unintentionally homeless people are entitled to settled accommodation by the end of 2012.

“When compared to the swingeing and indiscriminate welfare benefit cuts being imposed by Westminster, it is clear that Scotland is best served when decisions are 100% taken by those it elects.”

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.