On Friday, I was privileged to accept an invitation to become the official patron of the Scotland Women’s National Football Team.
During a visit by the team to Bute House, I heard about the great strides the women’s game has made over the past few years. It is one of the fastest-growing sports in the world and in Scotland the national side is well placed to qualify for a major tournament for the first time.
But it was clear that, although the profile of players such as Kim Little is improving, women’s football has a distance to travel to be regarded as an equal of the men’s sport.
My meeting with the team was held at a particularly apt time – just a few days before International Women’s Day, a major theme of which is the Pledge For Parity.
That parity does not just relate to women making their way in the sporting world, it concerns women’s progress in education, health, economics and political equality. That pledge has been informed in part by a World Economic Forum report that concluded – if the current level of progress was maintained – women would not achieve full equality across these areas until 2133.
That is a stark reminder of the steps we still need to take towards gender equality and I am determined that I use my privileged position as First Minister to ensure that Scotland leads the way when it comes to tackling this issue.
This can be done in many ways, but in my view the most important step we can take is to address the economic inequality women still face.
That’s not just an imperative for the women who face barriers in the form of pay inequality or lack of representation in the boardroom, it’s basic economic sense. How can any economy perform to its optimum when half of its workers are denied the opportunity to flourish and contribute to their full capacity?
That’s why initiatives such as the Business Pledge (which sees firms sign up to a range of fair work practices, including a balanced workforce) and the 50/50 by 2020 commitment (which recognises the importance of equal female representation on executive boards) are so important.
As well as improving the position of women, these measures will have a clear and lasting benefit for Scotland’s economy, ensuring everybody who is able can make an economic contribution.
Scotland is leading the way in tackling workplace inequality. Even last week, new statistics showed that – for the first time – more women than men were appointed to the boards of regulated public bodies in 2015, with 54 per cent of all appointees being female.
That welcome news comes after the evident progress we are making in the political sphere. It is truly remarkable that Scotland has a parliament in which three of the party leaders and the presiding officer are women.
However, we cannot be complacent – only 36 per cent of MSPs are female and we need to do much more to ensure Holyrood is truly reflective of the people it represents.
The move by the SNP to introduce all-female lists for candidate selections where a male MSP is stepping down and moves by other parties will help, but I hope we continue to make progress towards true equality across the chamber.
Political representation is hugely important, but it’s crucial the issues we debate and the changes we bring about at Holyrood make a difference to the lives of women in Scotland. Not only is this about the economic challenges I have set out, but also about issues such as domestic abuse and violence against women.
Violence against women is both a symptom and a cause of gender inequality and tackling this issue is a priority of mine.
Legislation we have introduced, such as the Abusive Behaviour and Sexual Harm Bill, will ensure domestic abuse is recorded as an aggravating factor in sentencing, as well as create a new offence that will deal with the sharing of private images – or “revenge porn”.
We have provided record levels of funding that will enable domestic abuse cases to come to court more quickly; enhance advocacy services for abuse victims; and improve prevention through schemes that tackle bullying and abusive behaviour in schools.
On several fronts we are taking action and leading by example to help women in Scotland overcome the barriers they face.
Progress has been made on gender inequality in Scotland, but more can be done to accelerate the pace of change. It is incumbent on high- profile women like me to lead by example and do all they can to remove the barriers women face. I’m proud of the work I’ve done so far, but more can – and will – be done in the months and years ahead.