It’s an exciting time for feminists in Scotland. As for any community invested in political and social change, the constitutional change debate provides a platform to push priority issues into the public imagination and further up the agenda in Holyrood. Feminist stakeholders, including academics, third and public sector workers, trade unionists, and community and political activists have been coming together in different forums for months, to craft a vision of an equal Scotland, to chew over how best to navigate party politics, and to arrive at a coherent collective agenda on women’s rights and gender equality.
The contemporary debate is squarely framed by the success of the women’s movement prior to devolution, whereby strong mobilisation and campaigning tactics helped to secure commitment to equal opportunities in the structures of the new Scottish Parliament. Sustained engagement from women across civil society and diverse political arenas culminated in the 50:50 campaign for equal representation, ultimately achieving a 37% return on seats for women in the inaugural elections.
Contributions of gender advocates in shaping the new parliament also laid groundwork for future work by feminist groups. The relative accessibility of budgeting processes to external oversight and influence, for instance, has allowed the Scottish Women’s Budget Group to lobby for gendered allocation of public resources with greater success than counterparts elsewhere.
However, it has proved difficult to consolidate these gains within the deeply entrenched patriarchies of Scottish politics and society. Women are still hugely under-represented in local government (24.3% of councillors at present) and party activity at the grassroots, where male-dominated political cultures prevail, and women still report sexist discrimination and bullying in local politics. Whilst women’s political representation is symbolically and independently vital, Engender believes that transformative reform of our political and economic systems, and the cultures which sustain them, is needed to achieve gender equality of outcomes and to tackle endemic gender-based violence.
Modest gendered gains have been made at a policy level since the inception of the Scottish Parliament. For instance, and perhaps most notably, Scotland’s definition of violence against women recognises causal links with gender inequality and includes broad forms of psychological, emotional and sexual abuse. Funding for violence against women services has also been ringfenced. As co-hosts of last year’s ‘summit’ on women’s employment, alongside the STUC, the Scottish Government signalled increased political investment in barriers to women’s labour market participation and the Finance Minister subsequently committed to progressing outcomes in the policy document Working for Growth. Though the critical issue of childcare provision remains entirely inadequate, feminist discourse and framing of ‘childcare as infrastructure’ has begun to seep into policy documents and the thinking of senior politicians.
Nonetheless, progress has been agonisingly slow. Equal Pay legislation was introduced 43 years ago, yet the part time pay gender pay gap still stands at 32% in Scotland; at this rate we will not achieve equal pay for equal work in some sectors until 2109. This year’s Children and Young People Bill stands to increase childcare provision from 475 to 600 hours annually for 3 and 4 year olds; a welcome move, but one which equates to an additional 2.4 hours per week and will not therefore meaningfully alleviate this core gendered barrier to the labour market. Meanwhile Scotland has some of the highest childcare costs in the UK, in turn amongst the highest across Europe, and the female workforce remains fundamentally and monetarily undervalued.
Such policies simply tinker at the edges of a dysfunctional, inherently gender blind system. Meanwhile, as always, women are being disproportionately hit by austerity, welfare reform and the relentless shrinking of the state at the hands of the Coalition Government. Yet the (ever-present) wave of backlash against feminism is particularly strong at present, against a backdrop of pervasive and severe misconceptions regarding gender equality. Securing political will, political support and resources to advance a feminist agenda is therefore a major challenge, not least within a relatively, and nominally, sympathetic establishment such as the Scottish Parliament.
Engender’s work make visible the impacts of sexism on women, men and society, and on our cultural, political and economic development. The constitutional change debate has recharged our thinking about how to arrive at a vision of Scotland where women are safe and free to participate in society as full and equal citizens and how transformed national institutions might tackle the causes of inequality and discrimination. Our approach includes supporting the voices of marginalised groups of women and working with ‘communities of interest’ (such as disabled women, transgender women, carers, and women affected by welfare reform), in a bid to root our policy recommendations in the realities of Scottish women’s lives. Several key feminist principles lie behind this approach, including non-hierarchy and the politicisation of the private sphere.
This notion of non-hierarchy is particularly relevant to discussion of women’s issues and gender since devolution. Although the Scottish Parliament has an Equal Opportunities Committee and various formalised gender advisory groups, these mechanisms do not exist on an equal footing with the ‘real’ engines of governance: the male preserves of finance, capital investment, transport and the like. If defence was within the gift of the Scottish Government, it would certainly be included in this list of policy areas which have and continue to be prioritised over equality and wellbeing imperatives.
This brings us to the crux of the matter. Levers to apply feminist thinking to Scottish policy and decision making contexts do exist, not least because of the accessible scale of our political structures. However, lack of policy coherence across departments is marked, and strategies that aim to address specific aspects of women’s disadvantage are not systemically linked to other gender issues, nor to patriarchal structures, and thereby fall wide of the mark.
For instance, the Scottish Government child poverty strategy recognises that 92% of lone parents are women, that lack of flexible working and accessible childcare are systemic factors in women’s disadvantaged position in the labour market, and that occupational segregation is a key driver of women’s and therefore children’s poverty. However, rather than a comprehensive plan to tackle gender segregation, incorporating education, skills and employability, related policy responses have been piecemeal and largely ineffective. Gender mainstreaming has never been truly understood and implemented in the Scottish Parliament, incumbent governments, or mainstream opposition.
Furthermore, all administrations since devolution have at times evoked big bad Westminster as a smokescreen when politically expedient, despite willingness and ability to manipulate certain terms of the settlement when desired. In terms of gender, this is particularly applicable to social security and equalities issues, where there is a high degree of hybridity between reserved and devolved responsibilities. This means gender and equalities advocates have a key role to ensure that issues that impact on women do not fall between the cracks.
At this crucial political juncture, the time is ripe to demand national economic and political systems that recognise the unpaid work and time poverty of Scottish women, that value caring professions and other female-dominated sectors, that do not valorise counterpart male preserves including financial services, that do not prioritise GDP growth at the expense of gender equality and that ultimately, therefore, no longer tolerate sexist discrimination and gender-based violence. It is long past time for a sea change in public attitude and in political action. We are not interested in ‘patriarchy in a skirt’ or other tartanised versions of the status quo; we are interested in building a Scotland that is the best place in the world to be a woman.