International Women's Day Convention 2022: First Minister's keynote address

Speech given by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon to the International Women’s Day Convention at the Scottish Parliament, Edinburgh, on 5 March 2022.

Thank you very much indeed Presiding Officer. Thank you to all of you.

Agnes – a massive thank you to you and the Scottish Women’s Convention for all the incredible work you do. Not just organising this International Women’s Day event but all the work you do year in year out, day in day out, to advance the cause of women in Scotland and across the world. And to you personally Agnes, thanks for being such a fearless champion for women here at home and across the world.

When the history of this era of feminism in Scotland is written, as it will be one day, there will be a name that shines out from all the others, and that name will be Agnes Tolmie. You really are a true sister Agnes. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

It is so amazing to be here, it is always amazing to be here, but it is just so truly wonderful to be here and to see you all in person. This is always a special occasion but there’s no doubt that it is more special than ever this year because we are getting the opportunity, albeit in reduced numbers, to be here and see each other in the flesh for the first time in two long painful years.

It’s made me think today that the things we took for granted before the pandemic, we really, really, really have to try and not take them for granted ever again. That ability just to see a friend face to face, that ability to give somebody a cuddle, I’m a bit of a cuddler as well Agnes – Agnes and I have had our first cuddle in two years already today, which was amazing. These are things we used to take for granted and not think about, but we’ve been reminded in these past two years just how special they are, how special and precious human interaction, and human contact is and we should never take it for granted ever again.

It's always a privilege for me to share a platform at these events with some inspiring women. Carmen here, Linda. I was thinking this morning actually as I was preparing to come here, and it underlines the point I’ve just made, that I’ve spoken to Linda over the past couple of years   ` probably more than I’ve spoken to members of my own family, and I’ve watched her as everybody has, give us that calm authoritative advice on television that Agnes spoke about. But actually today is the first time I’ve ever met Linda in person, which again underlines just how extraordinary the past couple of years have been, so it is so amazing and so wonderful to be here in person with all of you.

What I’m about to say I say every year at this point so if you’ve been here before and heard me say this before, my apologies for repeating myself, it’s not the first time I’ll repeat myself and it will not be the last.

But every year when I stand here, and remember for me this is a really unusual view of this chamber, I’m usually standing there being grilled from all corners of this chamber, so for me to stand here and look at the chamber from this perspective is quite different and very unusual.

But every year when I stand here and I look out at this chamber full of women I have the same thought and I’m having it again right now. If only more parliaments and more decision making bodies across the world looked more like this every day, the world would be a much, much better place than it is right now.

So let’s dedicate ourselves, as we always do on International Women’s Day, to the work that will ensure that parliaments and governments in future do look a bit more like our parliament looks today.

International Women’s Day is of course an occasion that has a really strong international dimension. Each year, we come together to advance the cause of gender equality in our own country but also to celebrate and show solidarity with women right cross the world.

The 8th of March, International Women’s Day itself is actually marked as a public holiday in many countries, not yet in Scotland and maybe that’s something we should put right in years to come. But one of the countries that does mark International Women’s Day as a public holiday is Ukraine. Last year, thousands of women marched peacefully through the streets of Kyiv to demand action to advance gender equality.

One year later of course, Ukraine’s capital city is a very, very different place. What we are witnessing, each and every day right now on our television screens is horrific, and unfortunately it’s likely to become more horrific as the days unfold.  

But what we are also witnessing is extraordinary courage and bravery from President Zelensky, to every man, woman and child resisting aggression, resisting brutality. So I know as we gather here in Edinburgh today, our thoughts are very much with all of the people of Ukraine – perhaps particularly the women and the girls who are suffering and will suffer so much, but as the Presiding Officer rightly said our thoughts are with women and girls in the frontline of conflict right across the world and it’s important today we send them our solidarity, our love, and our support.

Now, the theme for our event here today of course is ‘celebrating women in Scotland through the pandemic and its recovery’. And actually I was reflecting to Agnes just before we came into the chamber today that this is probably, I can’t remember this absolutely, but I’m pretty certain this is the last in person event I did in 2020 before lockdown changed the world as we know it.

Now it’s important to say because if I don’t say it Linda will remind me later, we’re not out of this pandemic yet, we’ve got to continue to treat it seriously and behave responsibly and cautiously but I really do hope and believe we are on a road now back to living much, much more freely and normally.

But in the past two years our world has changed immeasurably. So it might not – and in some respects it should not – ever go back to exactly the way it was before the pandemic.

So I think it is important this year to acknowledge in person – as we did virtually last year – the invaluable contribution women have made in tackling the pandemic.

Women as we know are more likely to be the main providers of childcare and unpaid care. Women are more likely to be key workers in areas like education and essential retail, which we have relied on so heavily over the course of this pandemic. And of course, women make up the majority of Scotland’s health and social care workers. 

Indeed, throughout the pandemic, tasks which were often predominantly carried out by women – which are undervalued in terms of pay and status and have been for generations– have been shown, not just to be valuable, but absolutely vital. 

And I think that raises a really important point. You have heard a lot of talk, we’ve all heard a lot of talk in the last two years about “building back better” from this pandemic.

I think that’s a term that sometimes, understandably, attracts some scepticism. But it is so important that we hold on to that and dedicate ourselves to making sure that out of the trauma of a pandemic we build a better world, and a better society here at home.

This has been the most profound crisis to affect the country in most of our lifetimes – certainly in my lifetime. It has exposed and in many cases it has exacerbated some of the deep inequalities that already existed.

So the idea of simply returning to the status quo – after so many people have sacrificed so much – cannot be right. We cannot allow that to happen, we must learn lessons from the pandemic, and work together to build a fairer country.

And given the massive contribution women made to tackling the pandemic, the massive contribution women make to our society each and every single day, any attempt to build a better society out of all this, must have gender equality absolutely at its heart.

So today I want to briefly highlight just some of the ways in which the Scottish Government that I’m proud to lead will ensure, or seek to ensure that that happens.

I’ll talk in particular about three issues – firstly misogyny and the important role of our justice system in tackling the misogyny that has bedevilled women here at home and across the world for generations.

I want to talk about the economy and our work to deliver a Just Transition to net-zero and the important role of women in that.

But before I do any of that let me pick up on the theme that the Presiding Officer spoke about – the importance of equal representation in democracy. The importance of ensuring that.

I said at the outset how much better the world would be if decision making chambers look more like this one. Women make up more than half of the world’s population. You know currently only three parliaments in the entire world have 50% female representation. That’s just not good enough and that must change.

As the Presiding Officer said this parliament has come closer, as a result of the election last year – 45% of MSPs are now women and as the Presiding Officer also said we saw the first woman of colour elected in the 23 year history of this institution. But we’ve not yet reached equality. We’re not yet anywhere near close enough and we’re just approaching elections this year for councils where right now less than 30% of  councillors in council chambers across the country are women – that has to change.

Of course, having a gender-equal parliament or council doesn’t guarantee that we achieve gender equality in our wider society. But I do think it makes it significantly more likely.

Because more women puts certain issues higher up the agenda, and as we heard from Agnes in this parliament we’ve produced the first women’s health plan. We have seen period products made free. Issues that I don’t believe would ever have happened, change that would never have come, without the contribution of women leading that change. So it is important, if we are to see the issues that matter to women tackled, that we have more women in decision making positions. 

But it’s also important to recognise that inequality in our political system is a symptom, as well as a cause, of deeper inequalities.

And actually the forthcoming council elections is a case in point. All parties including my own are putting a lot of effort into trying to get more women standing, and more women elected, but I have a real fear about the forthcoming council elections and that is that we’re not going to make strides forward – that we may actually go backwards.

Because I know from my experience that I speak regularly to a number of women in my party, who feel that they don’t want to put themselves forward for elected office, because they perceive politics in the modern age to be somewhere that is toxic, where they will face abuse and harassment. They see the political environment as not being safe for women to participate in. We cannot allow that to be the reality. We must collectively change that and that for me is a priority, as we go through the period of recovery from this pandemic.

And of course the issue of misogyny runs deep and influences what I’ve just spoken about, and that’s the first issue I just want to briefly touch on.

You know I, as I do every year, I chair a session of the Scottish Cabinet where we have a joint cabinet with the Scottish Youth Parliament and Scottish Children’s Parliament, so we put the voice of young people at the heart of cabinet decision making for one day a year but it is probably the most important meeting we have in the course of the year. And on Tuesday, a member of the Scottish Youth Parliament made a really compelling and powerful presentation to the cabinet about the pernicious effect of misogyny on the lives of young women today.

She spoke really passionately about what it was like for young women scared to go out at night, the things that women had to do as a matter of course to try to protect themselves against attack or abuse by men. Now that was heart-breaking to listen to because no young woman should feel like that but what made it even more heart-breaking is that I can remember exactly the same feelings when I was that age. My mother could remember it when she was that age, my grandmother would have been the same when she was that age.

Misogyny goes back generations and centuries to the days when women who spoke out or displayed any spirit or personality used to be branded as witches and murdered for that. We must break the cycle of misogyny and our justice system has a big part to play. Of course, those responsible for misogyny are the perpetrators, but we must have a justice system that treats crimes motivated by misogyny, as seriously as they deserve to be.

So this week we will see Helena Kennedy produce the report the Scottish Government asked her to do on how we better tackle misogyny in our society. I won’t pre-empt that report, I will speak about it when I lead a debate from this chamber on International Women’s Day itself but I hope that will be a real turning point in our battle to ensure that misogyny and all that flows from that is a thing of the past.

So that a generation from now, when a future First Minister, hopefully another female First Minister and there will have been many along the way I hope, will sit with a representative group from the youth parliament and not have to hear again about the experiences of young women. 

The second issue I want to briefly touch on is equality in the workplace. So important as we recover from the pandemic. The inequalities that women experience in the workplace are not just harmful for women although they are, they are harmful for our economy and for our society because they mean we’re not using the talents of everybody across our country and therefore we are holding ourselves back as a whole.

So we are making great strides in trying to tackle some of the causes of that, extending childcare and recognising that women so often have the responsibility for childcare. We’ve made great strides and we’re pushing forward in the course of this parliament too.

Earlier this week we published a new strategy for economic transformation, the role of women absolutely at the centre. You know entrepreneurship rates amongst women, the rate at which women set up businesses in this country are around 40% lower than the rate at which men set up businesses. If we were to equalise that, as we must aim to do, not only would more women have the opportunity to start their own business and succeed in their own business, the GDP of our country would grow as a result. Inequality for women is bad for women but it holds all of us back and that is why we absolutely must tackle it.

And the last issue I want to focus on is climate. You know right now across the world, and we saw this week the latest report telling us in no uncertain terms about the impact already being suffered from climate change, and what happens if as a world we don’t face up to that, and limit global warming to 1.5 degrees.

In Scotland we’ve got ambitious targets to do that and are working hard to achieve them but right now it’s women often on the frontline of dealing with the impacts of climate change right now.

When Glasgow hosted COP just a few months ago I had the privilege there of speaking to some really, really inspiring women. Vanessa Nakate the young activist, Prime Minister Mia Mottley from Barbados, really bringing home the impact of climate change on women but the role we must give women internationally and here at home in finding the solution.

So as we take forward our work to lead by example in tackling climate change, we must make sure that the voices of women, and the skills and expertise of women, are absolutely at the forefront. So all of these issues matter and they are issues that we get the opportunity at this annual event to focus on.

You know it’s hard right now for any of us looking at the horrors around the world, considering the trauma that so many have suffered over the past two years, it can be hard to feel optimistic about the world we live in right now.

But we have a duty, all of us, to the generation of women who come after us to instil a sense of hope about what we can do. And I think that above everything else is the most powerful thing about International Women’s Day. It is about that sense of hope. That sense of determination. That coming to the fore of voices of women in every part of the world.

Voices like Agnes here in Scotland replicated across the world. It says we don’t have to accept things as they are. We have made strides forward – that should motivate us for the work that we have still to do.

The cause of gender equality is as yet an un-won cause, but our generation has a duty to do everything we can to win it, so that the next generation don’t have to fight all of these battles that so many of us spend so much of our lives still fighting right now. None of us can do it alone but together, together I believe we can be unstoppable.

So thank you so much for being here today and let’s go forward from this International Women’s Day with that spirit of solidarity, of support for women here at home and overseas, and let us all renew our determination to make gender inequality a thing of the past and give the next generation that hope that they deserve.

Thank you all so much indeed.

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