There was a lot of excitement in our household last week about World Book Day.
Our eldest dressed up as her favourite character from Harry Potter, while my wife found a dragon costume for our four-year old as he and I share a slight obsession with the How to Train Your Dragon movies.
Of course, there was another notable date last week, with Friday marking International Women’s Day. While the United Nations heralded the event for the first time in 1975, the earliest historical references to the observance of a national women’s day are from New York in 1909. It’s harder to find a timeline around Scotland having a national day in celebration of the fairer sex, although a country that can boast individuals like Mary Queen of Scots, Elsie Inglis, Mary Somerville, Nan Shepherd, Annie Lennox, Liz McColgan, JK Rowling and Nicola Sturgeon has unquestionably built a narrative around pioneering and change-making women.
In my own family tree, women have been the maternal powerhouses that have guided our immediate and extended family through recent generations. From my own mother, to her mother, grandmothers, great-grandmothers, aunts, great-aunts – from the south of Glasgow, Mid Argyll and Sutherland – women from a largely Protestant tradition have seen in decades of shifting social change, political upheaval, two world wars, relatives and friends who went to war and some who never came back. Others emigrated to Canada and America.
On my father’s side were women from Skye, Glasgow and Ireland, including women forced to emigrate to a new and uncertain country over the Irish Sea. When life gets hard, I should really think back to some of their lives and the constant hardships faced. My own mother made my siblings and I feel secure and safe when we relocated to Canada and then the US. My parents chose to follow my dad’s profession to a new continent – it wasn’t as if we were forced to leave Scotland because of an economic downturn, never mind a famine. Still, we had our share of tough times adjusting to a new life and leaving beloved relatives behind. Renowned Chilean author Isabel Allende wrote: “We don’t even know how strong we are until we are forced to bring that hidden strength forward. In times of tragedy, of war, of necessity, people do amazing things.”
I was chatting about some of these things to Anneli Ritari-Stewart over lunch last week and then at an event run by her digital marketing agency, iProspect, themed around International Women’s Day.
Turning to the business world, increasingly, technology businesses realise how advantageous it is to have a workforce that reflects the company’s customer base. If you’ve got a more diverse team, your products stand a much better chance of success.
At the same time, gender parity remains a real issue. A 2017 survey of female students by PwC found, for example and rather alarmingly, that only 3 per cent of respondents said a career in technology was their first choice.
My own experience of advising tech start-ups and scale-ups in Scotland is that there is a healthy number of women in leadership teams and that gender balance is embedded in the hiring approach of many.
However, we do need more female founders and chief executives. As a small nation with a correspondingly easy to navigate tech ecosystem, we have a chance to make real and lasting change.
Next month, the findings of an illuminating survey into the Scottish context are launched at an event at CodeBase in Edinburgh. Purpose HR, Administrate, Modulr and Girl Geeks have sponsored the survey aimed to better understand what qualified science, technology, engineering and mathematic female candidates want from small and medium-sized enterprise employers – what attracts them and what gets in the way.
Nick Freer, founding director of the Freer Consultancy and Full Circle Partners