Why Nicola Sturgeon is wrong to say Scotland is ‘feminist’ nation – Susan Dalgety
It’s official. Scotland is a “feminist” nation. Speaking to a student newspaper recently, the First Minister boasted about our nation’s positive transformation from a “macho, aggressive country” to a “feminist place to be”.
She cited her gender-balanced Cabinet, more women directors on public boards and free sanitary products for students as proof positive that Scotland was now nirvana for women and girls.
Stop marching, ladies. Close down your Twitter account. Quit writing books about the gender divide. The revolution has been won. Scotland is a feminist nation, where sex no longer matters, women can expect to earn the same as their male peers throughout their working life, and there are absolutely no barriers in the way of a woman fulfilling her full potential in life.
And then I woke up. Scotland has made progress in the last 40 years towards gender equality. The pay gap is narrowing, but research shows that women are still likely to earn £70,000 less over their lifetime than men. We may have a woman First Minister, but men continue to dominate our council chambers – the place where everyday issues are decided, and there are nearly 60,000 recorded incidents of domestic abuse each year, with most of the victims women.
Like the astute politician she is, the First Minister was presenting modest progress as significant success, and at the same time meticulously burnishing her reputation as an advocate for women’s rights.
She was doing what all corporate or political leaders do, staking out her next move before she falls off the glass cliff of Scottish politics. And “leader of a feminist nation” is one helluva line on anyone’s CV.
But claiming the battle of the sexes has been won is not only cynical, it is simply wrong, as the evidence so clearly shows.
Earlier this week, around 80 female students gathered in Edinburgh at an event organised by Equate Scotland, the national organisation that supports women in science, engineering and technology (STEM).
These “steminists” are the women who will help design and build our future. They will discover the gene therapies that will cure cancer. They will create the artificial intelligence tools to predict natural disasters. Their IT skills will transform the workplace, and they will build homes that are truly energy-efficient. They are humanity’s best hope.
But the young women who attended Equate Scotland’s student conference are rare specimens. Scotland’s STEM sector is not yet a feminist place to be.
Less than one fifth of computer, engineering and technology students are women, and of that small proportion, only 27 per cent will remain in their chosen industry after graduation, which is why only 11 per cent of Scotland’s engineers, and 18 per cent of IT professionals, are female.
It is men who will, largely, control how our future looks, what diseases to cure, how best to tackle climate change, who will work, and who will not. As AI advances, it is scientists and engineers who will shape our world, not politicians. And in Scotland, the future is male.
Talat Yaqoob, the director of Equate Scotland, firmly believes that the reason there are so few girls pursuing STEM careers is because of “institutionalised inequality”.
“It’s across our society, in so many arenas of our life,” she told me, but she believes that there is one simple way to make a substantial difference, and that is to take gender stereotypes out of our classrooms and careers advice.
I had naively assumed that the days when teachers gently guided girls towards ‘women’s work’, such as nursing, hairdressing and primary school teaching, had long gone, but apparently not. For whatever stubborn complex social and economic reasons, not nearly enough girls are being encouraged to consider a career in construction or IT.
“Let’s support schools to tackle gender inequality and build relationships with industry, so teachers can feel confident to talk about the latest opportunities emerging in engineering and technology,” says Talat.
And while we are about it, someone should have a word with Nasa, America’s space agency, about the facts of life.
Yesterday should have been a historic day for space exploration when the first all-female spacewalk was to take place. But one of the astronauts, Anne McClain, had to pull out of the mission, because her space suit – designed to fit a man – was too big for her.
“Make another suit,” tweeted Hillary Clinton impatiently, who has clearly got fed up waiting for the feminist revolution to be won.
The inescapable, and at times unpalatable, truth is that it will take a few more generations before Scotland, or any country for that matter, can be described as an authentic feminist nation.
Inequality is so entrenched, so much part of our social, economic and cultural fabric, that progress towards equality is frustratingly slow. No one knows that better than Dame Stephanie Shirley, who has just had a lecture theatre at Edinburgh University named after her.
Dame Shirley is one of Britain’s most successful tech pioneers. When she set up her (nearly) all-female software company in 1962, she had to sign her letters as “Steve” to convince funders to support her enterprise.
“You’d think nowadays, that would be well in the past,” she said in an interview last weekend. “Fifty years ago, women were paid about half what men were. Now it’s still lagging, but it should be right in about 400 years,” she quipped.
Her prediction may have been made with her tongue gently prodding her cheek, but her pessimism is, like all the best science, based on empirical evidence.
Scotland may be the first country in the world to put free tampons in schools and colleges – thanks in large part to the campaign waged by Labour MSP Monica Lennon – but it is not yet a feminist nation.
Nicola Sturgeon should be lauded for her contribution to women’s rights, not least because she offers young girls a positive role model; even those who don’t buy her central political tenet, nationalism, look to her for inspiration.
And her Government has chipped away at inequality through a small number of practical measures such as balanced public boards. But, First Minister, the Scotland outside the Holyrood bubble is not yet a feminist nation.
Give us another 400 years and it might just be.