International Women’s Day: Beatrice Wishart on gender balance going backwards at Holyrood

Today is International Women’s Day. And if you are one of those people who find it necessary to ask if there’s an International Men’s Day, it’s 19th November.

So today, I’ll be making the occasional intervention on Mark’s day to report on what senior Liberal Democrats are saying about International Women’s Day.

Beatrice Wishart, Lib Dem MSP for Shetland got in early with her speech in the Holyrood International Women’s Day event last Thursday. She highlighted the problems women were facing juggling work and caring responsibilities during the pandemic. She also spoke about the exodus of young women MSPs who  have found it too difficult to combine raising a family with their parliamentary duties. One of the women stepping down is Gail Ross, the SNP MSP for Caithness, Sutherland and Ross. If the Parliament had got its act together on hybrid proceedings before the pandemic, maybe she and others might have felt able to stay. Happy International Women’s Day, everyone!

Equality is one of the four founding principles of the Scottish Parliament.

It should be at the core of everything we do here.

And yet, 20 years into this Parliament, so many challenges remain. We undoubtedly still have work to do.

In November we spoke about problems around violence against women. The life ruining crimes. The hideous harassment. Problems that just have to be addressed, globally and closer to home.

Of course, those are not the only challenges women face.

Many have said that the pandemic “turned back the clock” on gender equality.

It is certainly true that negative impacts have fallen disproportionately on women.

Job losses and income reductions have been widespread. An International Monetary Fund report highlighted how women are more likely than men to work in social sectors including retail, tourism, and hospitality where lockdown has been most widely felt.

The true value of care has come into the limelight, both professionally and domestically. 

And the responsibility to manage home schooling all hit women harder, without question.

Many people found themselves between a rock and a hard place, juggling impossible burdens and expectations. 

These problems are not new. There is nothing unfamiliar in what I’ve just described.

The relationship between women and work has always been fragile.

Often this is because of where caring responsibilities “naturally fall”.

As we have seen during the course of the pandemic, these extra expectations are just supposed to be absorbed. 

But the working world is full of rigid expectations.

According to a TUC survey published in January, more than seven in 10 women who applied for furlough after the latest school closures had their requests turned down.

Too often, that forces women to sacrifice pursuing progression. Evidence bears that out.

Research by Engender found that representation in positions of power are still dominated by men.

Women make up 52% of the Scottish population.

Yet we only account for 36% of public body chief executives. 13% of senior police officers. 6% of major newspaper editors.

There are 0 women as CEOs of Scottish-based FTSE 100 and 250 companies.

Politics sees much of the same. In fact, there are concerns – and I feel they are valid concerns – that gender balance in politics may 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 loose commitment to avoiding formal business running on into the evenings, and a crèche on site for staff.

And this 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 the Parliament. 

This is where we make laws and set examples.

Taking inspiration from this year’s International Women’s Day theme, I think we can choose to challenge the parliament to be better than that.

Learn the lessons from the last 12 months. 

Make hybrid operation a long-term reality that lets women in rural and non-central belt communities take part and balance family life. 

Take the opportunity to make things better for the future. This is a moment to change things and we should grasp it. 


* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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  • Brad Barrows 8th Mar '21 - 1:06pm

    Lack of progress in getting a more representative proportion of women into the Scottish Parliament is all down to the Conservatives. Labour and SNP use schemes to ensure greater representation for women, and both parties have over 40% female MSPs. Unfortunately, the Conservatives made gains in 2016 and have just 19% female MSPs. With the SNP looking likely to make gains in May, there is a good chance that the proportion of female MSPs will rise again and may even surpass the previous high point of 2003.

  • 19 May for Agender and 14 July for Non-binary people’s day, which I think completes the set. The people who immediately ask about November 19th rarely seem to go on to enquire about those though.

  • @ Brad Burrow, “Lack of progress in getting a more representative proportion of women into the Scottish Parliament is all down to the Conservatives….the Conservatives made gains in 2016 and have just 19% female MSPs.

    Quite right, Brad. The Lib Dems can console themselves by being 1% better than the Tories (who are about to replace Ms Davidson with the unimpressive Douglas Ross). Beatrice Wishart accounts for 20% of the Lib Dem MSPs in Holyrood.

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