13 lessons for women in public life from the First Minister

I had the great privilege of being at a breakfast event with the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, in Stornoway yesterday where she gave a talk in An Lanntair on women in politics and public life ahead of International Women’s Day tomorrow (Wednesday, March 8).

The auditorium was packed for what was an inspirational speech and a generous question and answer session. I came out feeling energised and empowered.

I also felt very lucky to have been there. Tickets had booked out within about three seconds (!) so thank you, An Lanntair, for the invitation as I could have so easily missed out.

The Rt Hon Nicola Sturgeon MSP, First Minister of Scotland

The talk also launched An Lanntair’s month-long programme around International Women’s Day, ‘Broad Ways’, which was praised by the First Minister for its diversity (she also described An Lanntair itself as “such a wonderful asset” and the breakfast event as a “fantastic way to the start the week”).

The breakfast event was really piggy-backing on the main reason she was in town, which was to open the Lews Castle Museum and Archive — home to some famous chess pieces – and all the images you see here are official Scottish Government pictures of her visit.

I’m conscious that a lot of my friends would have loved to have been there too, so here are some of my biggest take-aways from the First Minister’s conversation.

1. Women are judged differently to men 

Still true. While the situation has improved a lot over the years — politics is no longer dominated by middle-aged men – the story of ‘shoegate’ illustrates this point.

When the FM first received Theresa May in Edinburgh, they were pictured together on the steps of Bute House. Here was a powerful image to inspire young women to think that anything is possible, yet the first image of it on social media showed them both cut off at the knees.

It was accompanying a tabloid newspaper story about what shoes they were wearing.

The same thing happened again a few months later, when she visited Downing Street, with a tabloid claiming she was trying to “outdo” the PM on the shoe front.

The FM said: “Don’t get me wrong, I like shoes — they’re one of my biggest weaknesses.” But would there have been a similar interest in Alex Salmond’s shoes? No. Although, “having seen Alex Salmond’s shoes up close, I think that’s quite a good thing…”

The bottom line is “women are judged differently and the criteria you are judged by is quite different”.

Now she is inured but recognises that “it’s potentially off-putting to a young woman considering a career in politics or public life — that’s one of the reasons I feel a responsibility to speak up about that kind of treatment of women.”

2. Actively use your influence for good

One of the pledges Sturgeon made to herself on becoming First Minister was “to try to use whatever influence I had to make a difference to the opportunities and chances that other women and girls have now and in the future”.

This was clear to see in An Lanntair as she took the time, after the talk, to speak with the senior girls from the Nicolson Institute who had been so excited about coming to see her.

The FM thinks of her niece, who is 10, and wants to build a society where the battles that we have known have been consigned to history.

3. Gender balance is a no-brainer 

When she took up office, the First Minister created a gender-balanced Cabinet. At the time, it was one of only three — three! — gender-balanced Cabinets in the developed world.

She received a lot of emails and letters, asking how she knew that all the women were there on merit. “I didn’t receive a single letter asking me how I knew all the men were there on merit”.

She stressed her strong belief in meritocracy — “I believe people should succeed on how good they are and how hard they work” — but when women make up more than 50 per cent of the population but are not similarly represented at board level or even in the Scottish Parliament, with 35 per cent of MSPs, then “we don’t have a genuine meritocracy” and there is work to do.

4. Women lead to better decision making

If we don’t have adequate representation of women in our decision-making groups — and that’s certainly true here where only three out of 31 councillors at Comhairle nan Eilean Siar are women — “then the decisions these groups take will be less representative of society as a whole”.

The presence of women leads to better decision making. Fact. This was proven by a massive study carried out by the International Monetary Fund which found that organisations with female representation on their board “are more profitable as a result”.

The FM said: “It actually matters to the bottom line of a company or the decision making of a government that you have diversity where decisions are taken.”

5. We need men to help advance the cause of equality

Her next point reminded me of the United Nations ‘he for she’ solidarity campaign, which was about engaging men in the campaign for women’s rights. Canada now has a gender-balanced Cabinet too and it was created by Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau — a man.

“The fact that a man did that was particularly welcome,” said the FM. “Gender balance is not just the responsibility of women.” It’s the responsibility of everyone and she quoted Trudeau’s reason for shaping his Cabinet this way. “Because it’s 2015.”

6. There can be no standing still

Look at Brexit and the election of Trump  and you will see, said the FM, that “we can’t afford to always take progress for granted. History tells us that progress made is always capable of being reversed if we don’t stand up and fight for it.”

She mentioned the women’s protest marches the day after Trump’s inauguration, calling them “one of the most heartening things”, and stressed: “We do have to stand up and fight for progress. “There’s more to do and we have to make sure that we do it.”

The First Minister and Comhairle convener Norman A Macdonald at the official opening of the museum

7. Attitudes have changed but there are new challenges

Happily, “the idea of women succeeding is much more acceptable than it was when I was a young woman”. However, “one of the things I am so happy that I didn’t have to contend with is social media. That’s one of the biggest worries I have about our whole public life and political discourse.”

It has enabled criticism to be much more personal and precisely targeted.

8. Create networks to support each other

Social media can be a positive as well as a negative because it allows women who may feel remote from each other to remain “much more connected”.

The First Minister also advised: “Find ways of supporting each other. Networks of women, whether small or large, are really, really important to encourage each other, to give each other the role models… to give each other the confidence when things are tough. That’s important in school. It’s important in later life. It’s important in whatever size of community you live in.”

9. Sexism has become more subtle

Sexism had always been, in her experience, “much more implicit than explicit” and taken the form of men talking over her in a room or addressing questions to male colleagues who were her junior.

Second audience of the day — this time in the beautifully restored Lews Castle

“The one thing I would say is… however hard it might seem sometimes, don’t ever let that put you off. Follow what it is that you want to do and be determined that you’re going to do it.”

10. Lead and others will follow

Regarding the lack of women in local government, she said: “It’s a bit trite to say but the only way we will change that is for women to come forward and put themselves up for election. Supporting other women to do that is really important.

“The more we encourage women to come forward, the more we move towards a critical mass… the more these old stereotypes will be left behind. In my experience, women make fantastic local councillors… in terms of their engagement with communities and their understanding of what’s important.”

11. A reading list from the First Minister

Given that this week is International Women’s Day and last week saw World Book Day, did the First Minister have a favourite book to recommend for inspiring women?

“I could talk for a long time about books,” she said — this actually surprised me as I imagined she wouldn’t have time to read — and recommended ‘I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings’ by Maya Angelou. “A story I would recommend to young women everywhere; a story about empowerment and female empowerment in particular.”

Symbols of power: The First Minister surveys the Uig Chessmen

She recommended other authors too, including “anything by” Margaret Atwood (yay!), Doris Lessing, Zadie Smith. She spoke about her creation of the First Minister’s Reading Challenge and described reading as “such a fantastic way to be inspired”, as well as a source of comfort and solace.

12. Tips for coping with the trolls and the critics

Given what she has to contend with on social media and in the traditional media too, how does the First Minister even manage to get out of bed in the morning?

You “develop a thick skin” and “try to ignore it”. Unfortunately social media means you’re now “much more available when people want to send really horrible abuse” and that’s when you need to have “the discipline” not to get dragged down into “the sewer”, as she called it.

Finally, it’s remembering that this will not be representative of most people’s views.

13. A lasting legacy — equal pay

Asked what she hoped her legacy would be, the First Minister said 50/50 equal representation by 2020 and changes to the law around domestic abuse to take in the psychological aspects and coercion.

Also, the Scottish Parliament will try to play its part in ending the gender pay gap.

“The Equal Pay Act was passed in the year I was born. Here we are, 46 years later, and equal pay is still not a reality. That’s an absolute scandal.”


Comments 2

  1. So good to have been able to read this. Your way of writing about it is one of many indicators I’m picking up that suuggests that the island’s younger generation have a sorted view on life and are carrying forward strong values from the past, including (more than many from the outside realise) a strong women’s culture.

    1. Thank you Alastair! I was brought up a granny’s girl.. and she extremely politicised in her own way and so, so tough. She could have run the country from her croft kitchen in Balallan.

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