Nicola Sturgeon is probably the busiest woman in Scotland, yet last month the First Minister ring-fenced time in her diary to mentor a young woman for a year. She was very clear why she was taking such an unprecedented step, saying it was not acceptable in 2017 for women to be under-represented in senior positions, including the boardroom.
She went on to cite her government’s commitment to women’s equality, including a balanced cabinet, legislating for gender balance on public-sector boards and creating a new advisory council on women and girls.
Support for equality cuts across the political divide. Women’s issues are no longer a minority interest.
Conservative Theresa May was appointed the UK’s second woman Prime Minister last year, and Lady Leeona Dorrian made history when she was appointed Lord Justice Clerk, Scotland’s highest judicial post in April 2016.
Despite the success of these high-profile women, progress in achieving gender parity remains stubbornly slow, despite the evidence showing its economic and social benefits.
Research by McKinsey, the international business analyst, has proved the business case for gender balance, whether in developing economies or the G20 countries.
UK government figures show that equalising women’s productivity could add almost £600 billion to the economy, while McKinsey calculates that a gender balanced-workforce would add $28 trillion to the global economy.
And at the 2017 World Economic Forum in Davos in January, business leaders from McKinsey, as well as Barclays, Twitter, Unilever and others, released the inaugural HeforShe Parity report, a UN Women initiative to mobilise men and boys to fight for gender equality.
Speaking at the launch of the report, Dominic Barton, global managing director at McKinsey, said of gender equality “it’s not the moral requirement, it’s the economic opportunity”.
One of the biggest benchmarks of equality is pay. The 1970 Equal Pay Act was supposed to close the UK’s pay gap, yet research by Deloitte suggests it will not be until 2069, nearly a century after the act, that this is achieved.
The Office for National Statistics Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings (2016) shows women working full time in Scotland still earn, on average, 6.2 per cent less than men.
And research published by the Chartered Management Institute (CMI) last August paints an even bleaker picture for managers, particularly for women returning to work after giving birth.
Male managers in Scotland are paid almost £11,000 a year more than women, and according to Petra Wilton, CMI’s director of strategy, the reason for the divide is a “motherhood penalty” which sees fewer women promoted, particularly in construction, financial services and professional services.
So the campaign for equal pay continues. From April, companies which employ more than 250 staff must publish figures showing the number of men and women in each pay range and where the pay gaps are widest.
And the Scottish Parliament’s economy, jobs and fair work committee has launched its own inquiry into equal pay and will produce a report, including policy recommendations, in June.
“Equal pay is still not a reality for many working people in Scotland,” said Gordon Lindhurst MSP, who chairs the committee, when he launched the inquiry three weeks ago.
He went on: “The committee wants to consider the economic value of equal pay and understand the impact of the gender pay gap on the Scottish economy.
“Vital to this inquiry will be the direct experiences of people ‘on the ground’. Their expertise and experiences will guide and lead our work, telling us what still needs to happen to create a level playing field.”
One prominent Scot whose “expertise and experiences” offer a unique perspective is Susan Deacon, appointed the first woman chair of the Institute of Directors (IoD) in Scotland in 2015.
Deacon’s CV ranges across government, academia, the third sector and business. She is a former MSP and government minister, holds several non-executive directorships and board positions, and is assistant principal of external relations at Edinburgh University.
Under her leadership, IoD Scotland is working hard to encourage and support more women in the boardroom, with director development activities and mentoring programmes.
Deacon welcomes the increasing focus on gender balance in the boardroom and points to the Davies Report as one of the catalysts.
In 2011, the then minister for women, Lord Davies, set a target of 25 per cent women in FTSE 100 board positions by 2015. When this was met, he set a new target of 33 per cent female board representation across the FTSE 350 by 2020.
However, it seems Scotland still has a long way to go. A 2016 review, headed by GlaxoSmithKline’s Sir Philip Hampton, revealed only 15 per cent of boardroom seats among the country’s listed companies were held by women.
Personally, Deacon thinks it is important not just to focus on numbers: “The key is to achieve a good mix of skills and perspectives in our boardrooms, to value different types of life and career experiences more and to ensure real diversity – that applies too to the mix of women that are coming through.”
Deacon believes it is time to think afresh about how to achieve gender equality: “I think we can get lulled into a sense of false security because there are a number of high-profile, tremendously accomplished women in senior positions in business, politics and other leadership roles. And that’s great.
“But now, in my 50s, as I reflect with other women of my generation, I think we have to think afresh about where we go from here.
“Yes we’ve come a long way, but I still find myself in too many meetings and events which are, to coin the phrase, very ‘male, pale and stale’. In fact, in some instances I detect less of an effort being made to achieve balance than was the case say ten or 20 years ago.”
Talat Yaqoob is one of the leading voices in the new generation of women fighting for equality.
She is director of Equate Scotland, the body which supports gender balance in the key industries of science, engineering, technology and construction (STEM). Industry estimates suggest women make up only around 8 per cent of engineering jobs, with just one in ten senior posts filled by a woman. Fewer than 3 per cent of chartered civil engineers in Scotland are female.
She welcomes the Scottish Government’s efforts to legislate later this year for a 50-50 split on public bodies as “a great start”, and is pleased the Scottish Funding Council has launched its Gender Action Plan, which aims for colleges and universities to have no more than a 25/75 gender split, in any course, by 2030.
Yaqoob says: “For the first time, there is a national push to have all universities and colleges take bold measures to overcome occupational segregation.”
She is clear what needs to happen if young women are to succeed in what has been, until now, a man’s world: “We need to challenge, and then end gender stereotyping at a young age and we need a national strategy implemented in every school; girls need to be encouraged to pursue science, creativity and construction in the same way we encourage boys.
“At the top we need positive action to get women into STEM roles, making a difference in the industry and becoming the role models for young girls.”
Emma Ritch, executive director of Engender, Scotland’s leading feminist organisation, says she is frustrated by the slow pace of change: “There is undoubtedly some progress being made towards women’s equality, but unfortunately underneath every ‘good news’ story lies the reality that the pace of change is frustratingly slow.
“Increases in women’s employment figures hide the fact that these jobs are often precarious and low-paid.
“The welcome increase in women’s political leadership in Scotland cannot compensate for the fact that the percentage of women MSPs at Holyrood did not shift following the May elections, and has decreased since the first parliament was elected.
“Our recent Sex and Power report makes for dispiriting reading – there are no women heads of major newspapers or FTSE 100 companies based in Scotland, and only a quarter of university principals, local councillors or chief executives of public bodies.”
But despite the slow rate of progress towards equal pay and balanced boardrooms, perhaps the future of work and business is female, as Deacon suggests: “I think we often focus too much attention on FTSE 100 and 250 companies. For example, women are punching well above their weight in start-ups, freelance roles and non-conventional and portfolio careers.
“In my experience, women tend to be far more able to make transitions, to step away from more traditional career paths and to find different ways to do business, earn a living and change the world.
“That is not an inferior career journey, it is just a different one. And in a fast-moving 21st century world I think women’s ability to adapt and to find creative ways to combine work and family bodes well for the future.”