Let’s Make It Happen – International Women’s Day

Zero ToleranceThis year’s International Women’s Day saw a series of events where women have debated what progress has been made to advance women’s equality.

Over the last fortnight I’ve met with women who are community activists, trade union members, representatives from ethnic minority communities, academics and students and, last week, a conference for young women organised by Zero Tolerance.

Over the last couple of weeks we’ve had events in the Scottish Parliament enabling women from across Scotland and from a range of backgrounds to join us in debating the way forward for women in Scotland and the wider world.

From campaigning for women’s suffrage to equal representation in Parliament, International Women’s Day has enabled a focus on the achievements and campaign for equality for more than 100 years.   I have campaigned for women’s equality throughout my life and know that IWD is a fantastic day both to acknowledge how far we have come but but also reflect on how far we have still got to go.  It’s vital we use the day, as well as every other day, to continue highlighting to policy makers here in Scotland and abroad the importance of gender equality, and the need to put an end to all forms of violence and discrimination to girls and women.

IWD was first marked in 1911 by over a million people – women demanded the right to vote, to hold public office and protested against sex discrimination. The first time it was marked on 8th March was when Sylvia Pankhurst, the British Suffragette leader, was arrested on her way to make a speech in London, and it was finally officially marked by the UN as International Women’s Day in 1977 as a day for “women’s rights and world peace.”

Statistics show that Tory austerity cuts are disproportionately affecting women. One in five women are still paid below minimum wage, countless women have no choice but to give up work because childcare is too expensive, and thousands more women than men are stuck in unfair zero-hours contracts.

It was a Labour Party that enacted the Equal Pay Act more than 40 years ago, but the Tory Government has done nothing to advance the fairer pay agenda with not a single one of Scotland’s top ten companies publicly reporting their pay gap, and only five out of nearly 7,000 companies across the UK doing so.   Labour Party commitments such as affordable child care, action on domestic violence, increased maternity and paternity pay, an end to zero hours contracts and support for a living wage across public sector procurement contracts will improve women’s lives.

Women are still noticeably missing – on company boards, as senior executives and at every level of political representation.  This year’s International Women’s Day theme was Make It Happen.

I am a strong supporter of the 50:50 campaign which is continuing the fight for equality in Parliament, which will certainly not happen on its own. The Labour Party’s longstanding policy of “zipping” – woman, man, woman, man, etc – and regular women-only shortlists has helped pushed up the level of women’s representation in the Scottish Parliament.

Over time however, some complacency has crept in.  There’s not been the same effort to push to attract new women into politics or to support them in the process of selection, which is a costly process both in terms of finance and time.  Being an MSP is a big commitment and, as women still tend to shoulder the main responsibilities for childcare and caring for relatives, even though the parliament has “family friendly” hours for its formal business it’s certainly not family friendly in terms of the long hours most MSPs actually work.  I’ve certainly noticed that whereas men tend to leave politics only when they reach retirement age, female MSP colleagues have disproportionately left the Parliament well before they reach that age and have gone on to other forms of employment.

I think this is an issue worth examining – it may be due to the constant pressure of political life, the breadth of women’s interests which are not confined to politics and maybe the fact that women are less likely to define themselves in terms of their jobs and see life outside Parliament.  So we need to take account of this and make a much greater effort to ensure both in our selection procedures and our training programmes that we work with trade unions, local community organisations and the business community to make sure we support women in coming forward.

What’s clear is that without some form of positive action, parties will not deliver significant numbers of women representatives – never mind equality of representation.  It cannot be left to electoral accident or warm words.

We also need to tackle lack of support for women; we do now have role models but not necessarily the accessibility for new women to come through and gain the confidence to put themselves forward.   That’s not surprising in a world where women still earn less, still suffer from the glass ceiling and are still responsible for the majority of childcare and caring responsibilities.  Women’s networks to support women through the process of selection and support mechanisms at constituency and regional level could have a huge impact on the number of women putting themselves forward for elected positions.

This month’s theme of ‘Make It Happen’ is particularly focussed on calling for further action for advancing and recognising women, ending the violence that affects one in three women worldwide and increasing the global number of female parliamentarians from 22%.

In an inspiring lecture at Edinburgh University titled “Women’s Rights have no Country: Regenerating Feminist Transnationalism” Anne Marie Goetz, Professor at the Centrer for Global Affairs, NYU and Chief Adviser to UN Women, focused on the importance of women in senior leadership positions globally.

She highlighted the lack of women involved in post conflict resolution processes meaning that male dominated military forces determine the next steps.  There are also few women in UK Peacekeeping forces or middle management.  That matters in setting priorities relevant to women, for example the use of violence against women as part of conflicts and the lack of support for women at risk of sexual violence in refugee camps when they have been displaced from their homes.

We need more women at every level of governments – from our local councils to the highest level of UN and EU decision making if the needs and experiences of women are to be properly taken into account.  Anne Marie argued that Transnational feminism meant that we have to develop regional and global solidarity and to support women through resources and support.   In the aftermath of the financial crash, states are being hollowed out making it harder for them to be agents of social justice.

She finished by posing the question – when will we see a woman appointed to be UN General Secretary.   She suggested a #She4SG campaign – a great idea.

At last week’s Zero Tolerance conference for young women I commented that everything we’ve won, we’ve had to fight for.   I also argued that we need to do more to make childcare affordable but that we also had to stand up for carers’ rights and keep up the pressure on decent funding for care for our older people as women are bearing the brunt of economic pressures.

So let’s use the energy of our debates and discussions, and the renewed focus brought by the Women’s 50:50 campaign to celebrate the gains we’ve made for women in the fight for equality so far, and renew our determinations that women’s voices are heard when we debate our future.