IN THE days following the appointment of my first cabinet in November, I received some feedback. Some correspondents were concerned about my ministerial team, worried that the 50:50 gender split I had just announced had seen some women promoted beyond their capability. How can you be sure, some wondered, that the female cabinet secretaries are up to the job?
I am happy to take on board constructive criticism but, interestingly, none of the correspondence asked me whether the men installed in cabinet posts were good enough.
That attitude, which questions the capability of women to do their job; that assumes their elevation is a tick-box exercise, is still far too pervasive in society.
It’s holding women back, and I am absolutely determined to tackle it head on during my tenure as First Minister.
On International Women’s Day we rightly focus on the challenges that remain at home and abroad but we should also celebrate our achievements.
For instance, the fact that – in the Scottish Parliament – the three main parties are represented by women is a significant step forward that Westminster and many other parliaments are yet to take.
Female employment in Scotland is also at a record level and the gap between male and female employment is at its lowest ever. The number of young women taking modern apprentices has increased and there are more women in further and higher education than men – reflecting the fact that women make up more of the population.
However, when you consider the attitudes I mention above, the lack of progress some women experience at the top of their profession and the continuing gender pay gap, progress on gender equality has been painfully slow.
Not all of the feedback I have received has been unenlightened. It has been humbling to speak to women and girls and have them tell me how much it means to them, and their families, to have a woman in the top job in politics in Scotland.
And I’ve been inspired by the number of men who value having positive female role models for their children to look up to.
Some of the brightest and best women in our society are stifled in their ambitions and that is a tragedy, both for the women but also for wider society, because we are not utilising all of the talent we have to make Scotland more prosperous.
I am a believer in meritocracy, and I have no desire to over-promote those not up to the job. However, given the at-times glacial progress in some areas of life in Scotland, it’s clear that the meritocracy is not working.
That’s why I believe the time is right to use targets to achieve gender balance on our public and private boards, and in other key areas of our national life.
At the moment, women are over-represented in lower-paid professions. Fifty-seven per cent of women in work are in lower-paid professions, as opposed to 37 per cent of men. But they are under-represented in the workplace generally – especially in senior positions.
Also, rates of female business ownership in Scotland are lower than in other developed countries. If as many businesses in Scotland were owned by women as are owned by men, it could increase our GDP by as much as 5 per cent.
It’s clear that achieving gender equality in the workplace is one of the most important ways in which we can increase economic growth. It’s an objective of Scottish Government – but it should also be a business priority for every company.
That’s why, as part of wider efforts to reduce economic inequality, I set a challenge to all public, private and third sector bodies to get a 50:50 gender split on boards by 2020.
Yes, that’s a target, and some may call it a quota, but how can anyone criticise efforts that seek to ensure that our public bodies and businesses use all of the talent available to them?
It’s good for society and – crucially – it’s good for the economy. That’s also why a major increase in childcare is at the centre of my government’s economic plans.
That policy, which will see around £880 million a year invested in early learning and childcare by the end of the next parliament, will bring more women back into the jobs market.
My simple message to women across Scotland on International Women’s Day is this: if you are good enough and work hard enough, there is nothing that should hold you back from reaching your full potential and achieving your dreams.
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