Angela Constance: spreading the word for a better gender balance

For many women, no matter what their ability, being shut out of high-profile positions because of their gender is still a part of daily working life.

Angela Constance says it is unacceptable for women to be shut out of high-profile positions because of their gender.
Angela Constance says it is unacceptable for women to be shut out of high-profile positions because of their gender.

In the week of International Women’s Day, we need to get the message out that this is unacceptable, and is certainly not part of a fair and prosperous Scotland.

In 2014, when the First Minister unveiled her new ministerial team, she unveiled Scotland’s first ever gender-balanced cabinet.

Sign up to our Politics newsletter

Every member was chosen on merit. But it was also a clear demonstration that this government will work hard in all areas to promote women, create gender equality and send out a strong message that gender balance in public life starts right here in government.

In January this year, we took steps to ensure this message – and practice – goes further. I launched a consultation on our draft Gender Representation on Public Boards (Scotland) Bill – a bill which requires action to redress gender imbalances on public boards, and one which we’ve introduced as part of bringing forward new powers to Scotland.

On the day of launching the consultation, I met members of the Scottish Canals board, at the iconic Falkirk Wheel. The board, made up of three women and three men, was one of the first public boards in Scotland to be gender-balanced.

The members of the board told me that having gender balance had brought great benefits: they had been able to hear different views, more ideas and ultimately deliver maximum value for anyone using Scotland’s impressive canal network. They also told me that, noticing the difference, they now have gender balance on their management team too.

It’s not a co-incidence that companies enjoy benefits from having better balance of men and women on their board.

We know evidence suggests organisations with balanced boards perform better, making best use of all the talents at their fingertips.

It’s the smart decision for organisations to make – appointing women on merit.

Because merit is what this is about – it is this crucial aspect that many people assume is missing when hearing about gender-balanced boards.

We know that to get more women into equal positions on public boards – and in business in general – we need to shape a future where everyone has an equal chance to reach their full potential.

It’s not about picking women over men to sit on boards. It’s about enabling women to reach the same heights as men and taking away the barriers that prevent that.

My mum worked very hard to make ends meet and juggled the demands of family life, often on her own, in the days before childcare was a political priority.

Thanks in large part to my mum’s influence, I was the first in my family to go to university, so I’ve always supported better representation of women at work and in politics.

And that representation needs to start as early as possible. That’s why we are working hard to promote equality and to inspire girls and young women to follow their career of choice – whatever that may be.

We are investing £1.5 million over the next three years to tackle gender stereotyping in science, technology, engineering and maths in school in a programme of equality projects across Scottish colleges and universities.

And in December we established a working group to create guidelines for tackling pregnancy and maternity discrimination in the workplace, looking to improve recruitment, retention and development of workers with young families.

Since we launched the 50/50 by 2020 campaign, which encourages public, private and third sector organisations to sign up to a voluntary commitment for gender balance on their boards by 2020, more than 190 public bodies, third sector organisations and private companies have signed up to improve gender balance on boards.

This is a fantastic achievement so far, and there is a lot more to be achieved. A fair and prosperous Scotland has no ceiling for ambition and talent, and has opportunities for all to flourish – I am excited about the fairer future we can create.

Angela Constance is cabinet secretary for communities, social security and equalities.

This article appears in the SPRING 2017 edition of Vision Scotland.