There’s lots to celebrate this International Women’s Day. 2018 marked the centenary of women getting the vote and we held a debate in the Scottish Parliament in February to reflect on the hard work it took to achieve it. It has also been the year of ‘me too’ and ‘times up’ and of the women’s rights marches across the States which rippled across the rest of the world.
Yet despite the progress there’s still so much to do. The overall hourly gender pay gap in Scotland still sits at 16%, something unfathomable in the 21st century and almost 50 years on from the passing of the Equal Pay Act. Women are underrepresented in STEM sectors and boardrooms and a tidal wave of sexual harassment has been exposed in the Scottish Parliament.
We need to support women in enterprise, in politics, in employment, in school and in sport.
I was struck by something my colleague Jo Swinson said in her new book, Equal Power. She said “Instead of despairing at the state of the world, let’s roll up our sleeves and change it. If we want a world where every new baby arriving in it has the same opportunity to thrive, then we all need to do what we can to clear the forest paths”.
I am sure that it has not gone unnoticed that I am a white male leader of an all-male parliamentary group. I am impressed by the contribution that my colleagues make to this Parliament, but that does not stop me being determined to use my leadership to change the composition of this parliamentary group for the future.
I’m proud to see the Scottish Liberal Democrats changing their candidate selection rules, so that we can get on with achieving the 50:50 representation we desire.
The first test was last year, at the general election. We increased the number of our members of Parliament, and half of those elected were women. With two more votes in North East Fife, a majority of our group would have been women. It was a modest alteration, but I am determined for it to signal a long-term change.
There will be change for 2021, too. For the next Scottish parliamentary elections, Liberal Democrats will have a number of all-women shortlists. That is action, not just words. We have dedicated funds to help women win and have instituted improved training and support.
The Liberal Democrats have a strong record on gender equality, and have always fought for both liberty and equality. The 1967 Abortion Act was a Private Member’s Bill introduced by David Steel and the party has been instrumental in ensuring that revenge porn is a criminal offence that can incur prison time. We also introduced ‘Shared Parental Leave’ and gender pay gap reporting during the Coalition, and on the horizon we have Wera Hobhouse in Westminster attempting to criminalise upskirting and Christine Jardine seeking a rename of the House of Lords to become the House of Peers.
My ambition is that the Liberal Democrats will more accurately reflect the people whom we seek to represent and that we will remove the barrier to getting good women elected. For a young woman even contemplating a life in Parliament and in politics, I cannot imagine that the thought of being the only woman in a room full of white men for five years is particularly attractive. That is why I want the change. Even if all those men are welcoming, I want it guaranteed that that woman will not be the only woman in the room and that she can sit alongside other quality women who can make a quality contribution to the wellbeing of our society.
That is why we need to guarantee that change, and it is my ambition that we will deliver that change. When I think of the battles of my grandmother’s generation and the sacrifices that they made, I believe that there is a responsibility on all of us—men and women—to change the world for the better.