Last week’s STUC and Scottish Government Women’s Employment Summit was the first of its kind in Scotland. It was a busy and lively event, with consensus across the board on the extent of gender inequality in the employment sphere, the urgent need for action and the scale of the challenge ahead.
Speakers, panels and “commissions” (discussion groups) debated major issues of the day, including:
- occupational segregation
- multiple barriers to employment
- research and analysis, and
- workforce issues.
It was great to see these subjects on the table and getting through at the highest levels of Scottish Government. Alex Salmond, Nicola Sturgeon and Minister for Youth Employment, Angela Constance all participated and gave (mostly) engaging and informed speeches- an apparently unprecedented level of Ministerial engagement at this kind of event.
There was a big emphasis on occupational segregation. Agnes Tolmie, President of the STUC, introduced the day with a reflection on her experiences within the banking industry during the 1980s: at that point women faced not a glass ceiling, but a “steel trapdoor bolted from the other side”. She frequently trained young men, only to see them leapfrogging ahead of her in the RBS hierarchy.
Alex Salmond also picked out the financial sector as an extreme example, defining the crash as a set of “extraordinary macho decisions that ended in catastrophe”. He also spoke of the fundamental bias in “male preserves” of engineering, energy and water, and asserted that women hold the key to Scotland’s ‘energy skills gap’. Let’s hope he repeats that message on private sector platforms… whilst public sector bodies, Scottish Government and the third sector were extremely well represented, employers (or indeed voices of dissent from any corner of the civil society spectrum) were notably absent.
There was also much reference to the parallel loss to families, communities and the economy that both horizontal and vertical gender discrimination entail. To some extent I find the emphasis on women’s wasted “economic” potential a bit wide of the mark (like sticking a fabric plaster on a gaping wound), but if we need to sell gender equality as the means rather than the end, so be it- a utilitarian rather than egalitarian approach, but a decidedly useful tool at policymaking levels.
As ever, childcare emerged as an issue close to the surface for many participants and organisations, including through feedback from the ‘rural’ meetings taking place in Inverness and Dumfries. Nicola Sturgeon provided one of the soundbites for the day, classifying childcare as infrastructure. She made a direct (and compelling) comparison between childcare and transport systems. Without accessible and adequate transport, people would not be able to get to work, and we are culturally programmed to expect central and local government to provide it where needed(author’s extended logic in italics).
Excellent news that Sturgeon is now Cabinet Secretary for Infrastructure! I say we remind her of this in due course. Encouragingly, many others subsequently picked up on the analogy in sessions and the panel discussions.
The hideous double whammy of austerity measures and welfare reform, and the hugely disproportionate impacts on women, were also raised time and again throughout the course of the day. In standard SNP style, Salmond and co. were at pains to point out that this has been inflicted on us by the Coalition government down south, and that fiscal autonomy would mean more money for pricey items like universal childcare.
So the Scottish Government is fully committed to tackling women’s unemployment! Problem solved. But can we ask that the SNP help women living in Scotland to make a fully informed decision about Scottish independence, by making clear how they plan to use fiscal autonomy to redress the effects of austerity measures and welfare reform on women?
Constitutional change or no constitutional change, however, we need to pick up on the SNP’s ready gender justice rhetoric and back them into a corner until we start to see results. We also need to get better at challenging them on what they DO have power to tackle, call them out when they use devolution as a smokescreen and shout louder about the gaps between policy and practice.
All in all, there was a positive focus on potential policy responses at the event- organisers and chairs having avoided the trap of conference-style eulogising and general back-slapping, whilst falling short of the bar in terms of concrete action. (We’ll pass on the substance/ action points that came out of the various “commissions” once the write-up has been disseminated.)
One particular set of issues related to the lack of reliable disaggregated data – in local authorities and other public sector bodies, never mind within private firms. There seems to be wide support for tackling this, as well as clear levers to do so: legislation is currently being contravened when it comes to gendered data collection.
That said, however, there is limited value in applying narrow policy measures to an essentially broken system. There was a surprising lack of commentary on the structural causes of gender inequality within the broad field of employment. That will be the major challenge in achieving government-led change: proper recognition and acceptance that women’s unemployment and underemployment is rooted in systemic and culturally ingrained sexist discrimination.
As Ailsa McKay highlighted, though, at least feminists have a seat at the table here in Scotland (“if you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu”). There are very interesting times ahead, and we’ve got to make sure that we use our seat at the table to ensure that women in Scotland aren’t left with table scraps and the washing up.