Nicola Sturgeon’s speech for International Women’s Day

  • Published on: 7th March 2017
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Nicola Sturgeon at An Lanntair

On Monday 6 March 2017 the Rt Hon Nicola Sturgeon MSP, First Minster opened An Lanntair’s programme in celebration of International Women’s Day. Her message to young women was particularly important:

We have made huge strides in recent years on all of these issues but history tells us that progress made is always capable of being reversed if we don’t stand up and fight for it – Nicola Sturgeon

See below for her full speech.  See An Lanntair’s full programme

What a fantastic way to start the week – a Monday morning speaking to such a brilliant audience full of women.

It is a huge privilege for me to be here with you to launch An Lanntair’s programme for International Women’s Day.

I know the programme lasts, not just a day, not even just a week, but for an entire month and I’ve been hearing lots about it this morning. It’s great in and of itself but it also provides a really good snapshot of the range and quality of events that are organised here right throughout the year. It undoubtedly helps to make this centre such a wonderful asset for Stornoway, Lewis, and the Outer Hebrides more widely. So it is a real pleasure to be here today.

I was looking before I came here at the list of events you’ve put together for International Women’s Day, and one thing which really impressed me was the sheer diversity of it. The programme includes the art exhibition you’re launching later this week, a live concert from the Bevvy sisters, and Gerda Stevenson performing a reading about women – including the film-maker Margaret Tait – whose achievements have very often been overlooked.

I was also struck by some of the films that are being shown.  In particular, I noticed that on Saturday there’s going to be a disco night which includes a showing of one of my favourite films “Desperately Seeking Susan”. It makes me feel quite old though because I was 15 years old when that film first came out. If you’d told me back then, that one day a breakfast discussion with me, would feature on the same programme of events as a disco night with Madonna, I probably wouldn’t have believed you but I’m delighted about it.

Now, I’ve been asked to talk specifically today about how women experience work in politics and public life.  Something I’m probably reasonably qualified to talk about. And for that reason I want to approach this by reflecting on some of my own personal experiences because I’ve been involved in politics since I was a teenager.

When I think back to the days when I was first becoming involved in politics, even more than is the case today, politics and public life in general was very much a male dominated environment. Not just male dominated, but often a middle aged male dominated environment. When I look back at that, as a young woman in politics surrounded by all of these middle aged men, what you find is that you start to behave like some of these middle aged men because you thought that was what was expected.

In politics, that often means behaviour that is quite adversarial or aggressive, because that’s what was considered, and perhaps even now today still considered,  to be necessary to succeed in the world of politics.

But as I look back on that I also find myself reflecting that for women, you don’t really get credit behaving the way you’re expected to. In fact it can often be held against you. Because, in politics and I’m sure it’s true in many other walks of life, what in men is considered an attribute – so in politics, what in a man would be considered to be strong, assertive leadership is often described by the media and others as bossy, strident or unappealing in a woman.

Those prejudices – which are often unwitting, are often unconscious – still exist today. Not quite as much as they did back when I was first involved in politics but undoubtedly they do still exist and they still contribute to politics being perceived as an unfriendly place for women to be. And in addition, certainly in the media, if you’re a woman in politics there’s a much greater focus on how you look, what you wear or what your hair looks like on any given day.

When I was a bit younger in politics, one of the things the media always used to say about me was that I never smiled. Now I don’t think it was true but, as well as it not being true, I don’t think that’s something that would ever have been said about a man. So that is a very small anecdote but one that illustrates the wider point I’m making – women are often judged by completely different standards to men.

I’ve had cause recently to reflect on the fact that although things are infinitely better than they were 20 years ago, that is often still the case.

Last year just after Theresa May became Prime Minister, she came up to meet with me at Bute House in  Edinburgh. I remember thinking that day that regardless of our political differences, the image – of a female First Minister of Scotland meeting with a female Prime Minister of the UK – was quite a powerful one for other women and possibly especially for young girls. It sent a message that anything was possible – there are no areas that any longer should be seen as being off limits for women. I remember vividly coming out of that meeting and looking at what was happening on social media and the first image of Theresa May and I meeting on the steps of Bute House, that I saw when I went onto social media, had cut both of us off at the knees because it was an image illustrating a story about what shoes we’d both been wearing. So here we had two female leaders discussing fairly important things like Brexit and the future of the country but some journalist somewhere had decided the most important thing about that meeting was to compare the shoes we were wearing.

The same actually happened a few months later when I went to visit Theresa May in Downing Street and one newspaper after that meeting illustrated it with a photo of me walking down Downing Street and had the headline “First Minister tries to outdo the Prime Minister on the shoe front” and again there was a picture of me from the knees down.

Now I really like shoes but I think there’s more to women politicians than the shoes they wear and I can’t imagine when Alex Salmond went to meet David Cameron at Downing Street that anyone would have been interested in their shoes.

It is a serious point – women are judged differently and the criteria that you are judged by are very different. Now that focus – on how we look and what we wear – is something that, after more than 20 years in politics, I’ve become personally quite inured by now. It’s not something I pay too much attention to but I do know from discussions with younger women that it is still something that is potentially off putting to a younger woman considering a career in politics or public life.

It’s one of the reasons why – even although I’m inured to it – I feel a responsibility to speak up about that kind of treatment of women. Whether it’s the more light hearted treatment of women or the more serious discrimination or prejudice or holding to different standards that women still often experience. And that’s because one of the things I pledged to myself as well as to other people that I wanted to do as First Minister – as the first woman to hold the office of First Minister in Scotland – is to try to use whatever influence that I had to make a difference to the opportunities and chances that other girls and women have now and in the future.

I vividly remember when I became First Minister, one of the things that really moved me was how many women and girls took the opportunity to write to me or to speak to me to say how much it meant to them personally to see a woman in the highest political job in the country because it did send a message that that was possible – that was something that every young girl could, if she wanted to, aspire to.

So I am determined to try and use my time as First Minister to improve opportunities for women – to try to lead by example when it comes to tackling violence against women, or closing the gender pay gap, or to see more women working in careers that have traditionally been seen as careers for men like engineering. And also do the opposite of that and encourage more men to work in careers that have often been seen as the preserve of women like childcare and teaching. And of course to promote equality when it comes to the decision making bodies of our country, whether that’s the Cabinet of our country or the public and private sector boards that make so many of the decisions that then influence the opportunities that women have in life.

I was very determined when I became First Minister that in ensuring equality of representation, I was going to try to lead by example. One of the first things I did as First Minister was to appoint a cabinet that was gender balanced – 50% men and 50% women. At the time I did that it was one of only three gender balanced cabinets anywhere in the developed world – subsequently we’ve seen Canada have a gender balanced cabinet, and I’m sure there are others now.

And it’s a strange thing. When I did that, in the days that followed that decision, I got quite a lot of letters and e-mails asking me how I could be sure that all the women in the Cabinet were there on merit.

I didn’t get a single letter asking whether all of the men were there on merit. And that’s quite important. I’m a strong believer in meritocracy. I believe that people should succeed based on how good they are and how hard they work but if we had a genuine meritocracy in our country right now then women, who represent more than 50% of the population, would already be equally represented. The fact that we are not says that we don’t have the genuine meritocracy right now. So for me, the question should arise, not when a cabinet or a board is gender balanced, questions about whether people are there on merit or not should arise when these organisations are not gender balanced because that’s when the suggestion is that merit is not the defining factor.

In Scotland of course we are fortunate that we have a politics that I think is much more conducive to the involvement of women than perhaps many other countries. The three main parties in Scotland are now all led by women, a fantastic achievement. But we still have an awful lot to do. Last year, at the Scottish Parliament election, 45 women were elected to the Scottish Parliament, out of the 129 seats – that’s 35% of the total. That’s better than Westminster – where the figure is 30% – but it’s still not nearly good enough. Particularly when you consider that 35% is a lower percentage of women elected to the Scottish Parliament than were elected in 1999 when it was first established.

Both the SNP and Labour did manage to increase the share of women MSPs but the overall proportion was held back by other parties that didn’t, so there’s a lot of work for every political party to do. In my own party we’re working very hard to advance equality – we’ve got a Women’s Academy for the forthcoming council elections. We’ve taken particular steps to have more women selected and hopefully elected. We have a record proportion of female candidates standing. We’re not perfect, but we are making progress.

And we’re not seeking to do this, and I don’t encourage others to do so, just for its own sake, although there would be nothing wrong with doing it for its own sake as women are over 50% of the population so there’s no reason why we shouldn’t be aspiring to equal representation. But it matters for other reasons too.

If we don’t have politics, if we don’t have decision making bodies in other areas of life with a good representation of women and a good representation of other groups of society, ethnic minorities for example, the decisions those bodies will take will be less representative of society as a whole. So equality and diversity are not only good things in their own right, they also lead – and there is a wealth of evidence that demonstrates this – it leads to better decision making.

The IMF carried out a really massive study over the past few years that demonstrated the companies that have good female representation on their boards are more profitable companies as a result. So it’s no longer something we should be arguing for reasons of principle, important as principle is, it actually matters to the bottom line of a company or the decision making of a government that we have diversity where decisions are taken.

If you look at some of the issues that are current across the UK right now, in politics for example, the research that shows women are disproportionately affected by welfare cuts or the length of time it has taken in politics to put childcare right at the top of our agenda. When we look at those kind of issues then it is hard not to wonder whether we would see a different approach if we had more gender balance at the heart of decisions that are being taken.

I said earlier that Canada had become another country to appoint a gender balanced cabinet when the new Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was elected a couple of years ago.  The fact the Prime Minister of Canada – a man – decided that gender balancing his cabinet was important illustrated another point that gender balance is not just the responsibility of women. It’s the responsibility of everybody to ensure diversity.

When Justin Trudeau was asked why he had appointed a balanced cabinet, I loved the reply he gave. His answer was “Because it’s 2015”.

That, I think, was the perfect answer. In some ways it’s frustrating that gender equality is even still an issue for debate in 2015, or now in 2017. But it is really important that we continue to make sure that it is firmly on the agenda.

Over the past year we’ve seen some political developments that have been unwelcome certainly to some of us. Brexit I think has raised a whole host of issues, not least the fact that many of the protections, social and employment protections – like paid holiday entitlement or maternity and paternity leave – are actually protections that are enshrined in European law and we’ve got to be very careful that we don’t lose or allow future governments to compromise or diminish those protections.

Also of course, we’ve seen across the Atlantic the election of a new president and been reminded that whether it’s women’s rights or the rights of other minorities, we can’t afford to always take progress for granted. We have made huge strides in recent years on all of these issues but history tells us that progress made is always capable of being reversed if we don’t stand up and fight for it. So one of the most heartening things in the few days after the inauguration of the new president, was seeing women demonstrating in cities across the globe – standing up for rights and for progress. And that, I think, is a good reminder to all of us that we do have to stand up and be counted and to fight for progress.

As First Minister  I am determined to try to do that – to try to lead by example. The day I became First Minister I made a speech in parliament and I used my then eight year old niece as the illustration of my motivation here. I desperately want to live in a country that, by the time she’s a young adult, I want to live in a country where the battles that all of us have known all too well – for equal pay, the battles against violence against women, for equal representation where the big decisions are made – I would love to think that she and her generation won’t have to worry about these battles because we will have won them and consigned many of these issues to history.

We are making progress but we have to keep going to make sure that progress is not reversed and that we complete the journey.

And that is why International Women’s Day and all of the programmes and events that go round International Women’s Day is so important. It reminds us of all there is to celebrate. It gives us the opportunity to celebrate, as some of the programme here will be doing. Women whose achievements have not been celebrated enough down the years but it also serves as a call to action – a reminder that there’s still more to do. And we have to make sure we do it so that one day, hopefully in the not too distant future, true gender equality in every walk of our economy, society and life is not something we aspire to but something that is a reality.

So thank you very much for giving me the opportunity to share some of these thoughts with you on a Monday morning. I hope you enjoy the event here but I hope you have the opportunity to enjoy some of what the International Women’s Month programme offers here. Thank you very much for giving me the chance to kick it off and be part of it.