When I became First Minister, I hoped that my election would send a strong, positive message to all women in Scotland – if you are good enough and if you work hard enough, nothing should hold you back and no glass ceiling should stop you from achieving your dreams.
But I also knew that despite my positive message, my actions while in office would be much more important. That is why I’ve worked hard to lead by example. For example, I appointed a cabinet of five men and five women. According to the United Nations, it was at the time one of only three gender-balanced cabinets in the developed world – though I know Canada has since joined the list.
But this commitment and this action are not just about equality for equality’s sake. Addressing gender inequality is absolutely crucial for Scotland’s businesses and economy.
There’s an increasing recognition – not just in Scotland, but around the world – that barriers to female employment are a significant economic problem as well as a social one. Countries that fail to provide opportunities for women are hampering their ability to grow.
After all, if half of the population is being held back and not allowed to flourish, how can we ensure that Scotland’s businesses are making the most of their talented people?
It is therefore absolutely crucial that we work to remove the barriers that some women face while trying to make their way in the business world. And it’s vital that businesses across Scotland – of all sizes – lead by example and employ women at a senior level.
According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, one of the most important aspects of enhancing economic performance is improving female participation in the labour market.
That is why, at the very centre of the Scottish Government’s Economic Strategy is a commitment to tackling inequality and thereby boosting competitiveness.
As part of our strategy, we have put in place the Scottish Business Pledge that sets out a range of fair work practices that will help businesses to improve productivity and remain at the forefront of their sectors.
This is done by promoting sustainable growth through measures such as the living wage and a focus on investing in youth employment and training.
Our strategy also recognises that employing a diverse and balanced workforce and management team leads to better business decisions and ultimately can boost profitability.
A study of 2,400 companies by the Harvard Law School Forum between 2005 and 2011 found that large capital firms with women directors outperformed by 26 per cent peers with no women directors; and small to medium capital companies with female board members outperformed similar firms with all-male boards by 17 per cent.
Meanwhile, earlier this month, a study by EY and the Peterson Institute for International Economics found that having women in at least 30 per cent of leadership positions added around 6 per cent to company profits.
So it’s essential that we work with businesses to encourage more women into senior roles and to lead by example. By a happy coincidence we launched the Scottish Business Pledge at a company that is doing just that – Heart of Midlothian Football Club.
That organisation, which hasn’t had its financial troubles to seek in recent years, is now led by a woman – Ann Budge – who has masterminded a successful return to the Scottish Premier League and an upsurge in season ticket sales through working with its supporter base to create a new and vibrant club.
While organisations such as Hearts and the other firms that have signed the Business Pledge are leading by example, we as a government need to do more to help women into the workforce to take advantage of the new opportunities.
We know it can be difficult for women to return to work following the birth of a child or after a period out of the labour market bringing up a family. That is why improving childcare and early learning provision is crucial.
The Scottish Government has committed £329 million over two years to expanding early learning and childcare for three and four year-olds to 600 hours (almost 16 hours a week during term time) and to extending this to the 27 per cent most disadvantaged two-year-olds.
This continued investment is having a significant impact in reducing the barriers to women participating in the workforce.
But we also need to do more in our education sector to give young women the confidence that their hard work will achieve results – no matter their gender – and the encouragement to enter sectors that in the past would not have been considered as viable career routes, such as engineering.
As an example, we are investing £125,000 in the CareerWISE initiative, delivered by Equate Scotland, to raise awareness of STEM (science, technology engineering and mathematics) Modern Apprenticeships among girls and their parents; break down barriers to women taking them up and showcase employers taking action to address gender diversity in MAs.
The bottom line is we need to champion female role models in every aspect of business, open pathways into work and debunk the myth that there are jobs specifically for boys or girls.
There is no magic bullet to solve the issue of gender imbalance in the workplace in Scotland, but I believe we are starting to see attitudes change, with respected and successful business leaders championing the benefits of innovative working practises that support all employees.
There is still a long way to go, but let’s build on the progress to date and build a fairer future for women in Scotland.