In many ways, this venue, the Surgeons Hall is an appropriate place for us to be gathering today to talk about this report on gender equality. On your way in here you might have seen, but if you didn’t you can have a look at it on the way out, a plaque on the outer wall. And that plaque is dedicated to the UK’s first female undergraduate students. In 1869 – 150 years ago – the ‘Edinburgh Seven’ – as they became known, enrolled at the University of Edinburgh to study medicine. And perhaps unsurprisingly they were immediately subject to a campaign of hostility and harassment, from staff, students and members of the public.
And that culminated here at the Surgeons Hall, in 1870. The seven women were due to sit an exam in the main building, but when they arrived, they were confronted by hundreds of male students – who hurled abuse and threw rubbish. The women persisted, and were eventually able to enter through the gates.
The Riot of Surgeons Hall attracted huge publicity at the time. It galvanised support for the Edinburgh Seven – and it won over many people – women and men – to their cause. And as such, it stands all these years later, in my view as a landmark in Scotland’s progress towards equal rights for women.
And it is an indication of how far we’ve come. Last year – women accounted for 60% of entrants to undergraduate courses in Scotland. For medical degrees, the figure was slightly higher at 61%.
So we can and I think we should take encouragement from the progress that’s been made since then. That said it’s clear, very clear on a daily basis that Scotland, like so many other countries – still has a long way to go in achieving true gender equality. Across every aspect of our society, endemic and often systemic inequalities persist.
One of the things I pledged when I became First Minister, the first woman to have the privilege of holding this office, was that I’d do everything I could to improve opportunities for women and girls – that’s a commitment that I take seriously that’s extremely close to my hear and it’s what the government that I lead has tried to do. We’ve taken a range of measures to challenge gender stereotypes, help women’s voices to be heard and to tackle violence against women and girls.
However, we know we need to do much more to eradicate persistent inequalities that many women and girls still face in their daily lives.
That is why, inspired by the example of Barack Obama when he was in the White House, took the decision to establish the Advisory Council on Women and Girls. And it’s why I’m so delighted to receive your first year report and recommendations.
As I said earlier on I’m so grateful for everyone who has contributed to this process. Members of the Council, members of the Circle, and all those who participated digitally, or through the Monthly Spotlight events.
The result of all of that work in my view is a report of great insight and huge ambition and I warmly welcome the report and all of the recommendations in it.
The eleven recommendations are thought-provoking, they are also challenging and that is exactly what I hoped they would be.
When I came to the first meeting of the Advisory Council we talked then about the importance of the council not simply being content to tinker around the edges, but being prepared to be bold and to challenge and to really push the envelope and I’m delighted that in this report that that’s exactly what you’ve done.
Now I don’t have time today obviously to talk in detail about each of the recommendations – in any event the Scottish Government will take the time to consider all of them properly and carefully and we will publish a full and considered response in due course. But I do want to give you some of my immediate thoughts on the key recommendations.
One of the things I found very encouraging is that some, not all, of the recommendations broadly align with work that the Scottish Government is doing already and will help us advance and accelerate that work.
For example the report focuses rightly on the central importance of education. We’re already taking significant action to ensure that our education system promotes gender equality. And we will look at how your recommendations can build on those efforts.
Similarly, you’ve proposed improvements to the services we provide to victims of sexual violence. I agree absolutely that that is hugely important. And that also ties in with work that the Chief Medical Officer for Scotland, who is here and is indeed a member of the council, is currently taking forward.
Your proposal to incorporate – into Scots Law – the UN Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women, is one that I particularly welcome and is a recommendation that is particularly timely. You will be aware that in December, another advisory council – the one on human rights - recommended that we embed human rights into a new statutory framework. I strongly support that overall vision and direction of travel and have already announced that we will establish a taskforce, to take that work forward.
So work on your proposal can be taken forward as part of that process.
The report also recommends a further expansion of early years learning and childcare. Again as you know the Scottish Government is currently in the process of almost doubling the funded childcare entitlement – to 1140 hours per year for children. To put that into context in 2007 the funded entitlement was just over 400 hours a year – so that is a significant expansion that is already underway.
And that current expansion obviously has significant logistical and financial implications associated with it. So I’m going to be straight with you on this one, our immediate priority has to be on that commitment. However, as we look to the next parliament, we will carefully consider future investments – whether that’s in after-school care, or a further expansion of childcare. And I can confirm to you today that your recommendation will form a central part of that discussion.
Our policies on childcare of course are just one of the ways in which we’ve tried to support or are trying to support, women in the workplace. That’s another important issue that the report addresses – for example, through your really interesting proposal for a Gender Beacon Collaborative.
The idea of creating such a network – to promote equality in the workplace, and share best practice across sectors – is one that I’m really enthusiastic about and that has real potential. So I can say to you today that the Scottish Government wants to move as quickly as we can to implement that recommendation and will move quickly to explore with partners the best model for achieving that aim and of course the council and the circle will have a role to play advising and informing that work as we take it forward.
Of course, inevitably in a report of this ambition, there are some aspects which we will require to give particularly careful consideration to if we are to do it justice.
For example, I’m hugely sympathetic and indeed hugely supportive of your proposals around electoral candidate quotas, and also around paternity benefits. However, right now the powers needed to deliver these proposals are not yet fully devolved to the Scottish Parliament so we are going to have to give some careful consideration to what we can do within existing powers. And that has to be the starting point, but also, where necessary, make the case for them – including to the UK Government. And there’s no doubt that as we do so the recommendations and analysis of this Advisory Council will add real weight to our efforts.
One of your other proposals is for the creation of a new body to review media output. I have to say my initial view here is that this might not necessarily be an appropriate role for government to undertake. After all, it’s vital that we protect the independence of the media and the freedom of the press.
That said the issue underlying the recommendation is a really important one.
The way in which the media portrays women – and indeed on occasion men – is clearly a big factor in shaping harmful gender stereotypes.
Now, there have been some recent positive signs that the media is starting to take this issue seriously. In December, the Advertising Standards Authority announced a ban on harmful gender stereotyping in advertising. And that’s a good example of the media using self-regulation to respond to public concern. And it demonstrates why – as a society – we need to continue to draw attention to and challenge sexism and misogyny, and harmful gender stereotyping in the media.
So we will consider carefully how we can advise in the spirit of this recommendation while respecting the independence of the media and the freedom of the press.
And I think that illustrates a wider point about all of this.
There’s no doubt that the proposals in this report represent a big challenge to the government – to build on and accelerate the progress we’ve already made. And that’s exactly what I asked the advisory council to do and I’m really grateful that you have seized this challenge and risen to that challenge so well. But I think we all agree that government action by itself can’t bring about the kind of change we need to see.
Each of us – women and men, individually and collectively – have a responsibility to meet the challenge of tackling gender inequalities.
So in setting me a challenge which I absolutely undertake with real enthusiasm, I think it’s important that we set each other a challenge – representatives from across our society, from business, education, the public and third sectors. We need to set everybody the same challenge that this report sets for government. I would ask everybody here and I would ask all of you to encourage all of you in our wider networks, to read the Advisory Council’s recommendations – and consider how you, in the networks and spheres in which you operate, can help to achieve the underlying aims of them.
That could involve pushing and agitating for greater equality – in the organisations that you work in, you study in or you volunteer in. It could mean looking for new ways to support other women – through formal and informal networks. Or it could mean seeking new opportunities to advocate for change – not just here in Scotland but internationally as well.
The events that took place in the Surgeons Hall – 150 years ago – might seem to us today like a historical curiosity.
After all, the rights that these seven pioneers fought for back then are the ones that – in 2019 – the rest of us can largely take for granted because of their courage back then.
But the lesson of that, and there are many other examples that could give the same lesson, is that those rights didn’t just happen by accident. It required action. It required women – and also, crucially, men, and I’m a great believer in resolving gender inequalities cannot just be the responsibility of women – it is the responsibility of men as well as women. It requires brave women and men to show leadership, to take a stand, and to persist, sometimes often, against the odds.
In our different ways, that’s the example all of us have to follow – if we are to make all aspects of gender inequality, before too much longer, a historical curiosity.
So this report that you have produced will help us to do that, there is no doubt in my mind at all. So I want to conclude by thanking all of you once again for the work, the input, the imagination, the creativity that has produced this report and these recommendations. And I want to thank you for your commitment to a cause that matters so much to all of us but matters so much to the kind of society we want to live in today and that we want our daughters our granddaughters and great granddaughters to inherit as well.
So I really look forward to working with all of you in the months and years ahead. You have my personal commitment to take forward these recommendations in a positive spirit and to work together to make sure that they do deliver the kind of change that we want to see and ultimately that they help us to improve the lives of women and girls across Scotland. And in the process of doing that, helping us to create a truly equal country.
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