Susan Russell: On a tour of the equality battlefield

IT'S NOT about one day a year, it's about recognition and empowerment, writes Susan Russell

The SNP Cabinet has a 50-50 gender split  others must learn to match, or better, that level. Picture: Neil Hanna

Last week, International Women’s Day (IWD) highlighted a broad range of issues and debates around gender equality. IWD’s founding principles are just as important today as they were when it was established in 1908 – how can we achieve equality between the sexes? It’s an important issue and one that should continue beyond the one day designated for this open conversation.

One of the scariest statistics highlighted last week was that it is estimated that we won’t have equal pay for men and women until 2133. That’s 117 years from now. How can we expedite that date and move forward faster to ensure a fair deal for all? But the debate is beyond fair pay; it’s also about respect and not following stereotypes, with many companies still having much to learn.

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Marketing stunts can either be a big success or can go catastrophically wrong. In celebration of IWD, BIC Pens sent a box of “BIC for her” pink pens to the team at Innocent Drinks. For anyone who follows the Innocent team on social media you’ll know that they like to have fun with their marketing efforts. The results went viral. Staff (men and women) posted a series of sarcastic statements across social media, holding up the offending pink box within each photo. BIC will be remembered for celebrating IWD for years to come, but certainly not in recognition of female empowerment.

When looking closer to home at equality within Scotland, you start to think about the largest employment industries and the impacts that they can have, with one key sector being tourism. Scottish Government data from 2013 shows that more than 211,000 are employed across tourism-related businesses with a study in 2010 highlighting that 60 per cent were female; but with only 6 per cent at senior or board-level positions. Instead of sitting round procrastinating about the factual evidence, last year a group of passionate women who work within the sector came together to see if we could advocate for change. The result was the launch of Women In Tourism (WIT) in January this year, with the first piece of work being the announcement of a survey to industry to seek the sectors thoughts and opinions on topics such as leadership opportunities, career development and remuneration.

The results provide interesting reading, with 57 per cent stating that they work within the sector as they are passionate about tourism. The data shows that the sector recognises the challenges and barriers – small organisations limiting development opportunities and a work-life balance proving difficult for many; but the majority feel that they have the right skills and attributes to succeed and aspire to achieve leadership positions.

With such a passionate, motivated sector, we now need to look at how we can support them to develop and reach their full potential. The creation of a network across Scotland, with a mentoring structure, could be one such solution. We can’t and shouldn’t wait for others to find a solution – working collaboratively we have a powerful voice and can advocate for change which is now endorsed with real fact-based evidence.

When we first started talking about WIT we met key senior colleagues in the sector to find out how we could engage with their networks. Initial feedback was mixed, with some reticent to acknowledge an issue within the industry on gender equality. More recently, during a Six Nations rugby match, I was chatting to a male industry colleague about the recent work by Changing The Chemistry and the introduction of three new female board members to VisitScotland. This gent (who will remain nameless) thought it odd that there had been so much media attention around the announcement and should other minority groups also be represented, such as LGBT. Women are not a minority group – with 60 per cent of those employed within tourism being female, we’re actually a majority group.

Today WIT is hosting its very first event in partnership with Tourism Society Scotland. We’re part of the Signature Programme of the Scottish Tourism Alliance’s annual conference, taking place as part of Scottish Tourism Week. As WIT continues to develop and evolve our initial focus of activity is very much integrated into the Scottish tourism industry. However, we recognise that the challenges and opportunities that we’ve identified are likely similar to those of our international counterparts with their own networks. While our roots are here in Scotland, WIT is quickly growing branches from the seed of an idea and the next phase may be to create other international “Chapters”, using the Scottish framework of collaboration and best practise to develop into an international arena.

In early 2015 First Minister Nicola Sturgeon launched the 50/50 by 20/20 initiative – seeking a greater gender balance across public/private and third sector boards. The work of WIT seeks to inspire motivate, encourage and support women within the sector, but will also align with the long-term strategic ambition to ensure a 50/50 gender balance across Scotland’s sectors.

It can be hard for individuals to find a voice within a large industry – particularly when advocating for change. The power of the collective cannot be underestimated and through WIT the committee seek to empower women across the sector to get involved in the conversation; to have a voice and to drive change. It’s hugely exciting to see what has developed over such a short space of time and we will work closely with industry to support our future tourism leaders in the months and years to come.

• Susan Russell is chair of Women In Tourism