07 March 2017

S5M-04440 International Women’s Day

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Linda Fabiani): The next item of business is a debate on motion S5M-04440, in the name of Angela Constance, on international women’s day.

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Stewart Stevenson (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP):

It is a great pleasure to have the opportunity to talk about international women’s day. I will say a few words about legislative issues.

We currently have the Great Reform Bill before the Parliament at Westminster. We might remind ourselves that the previous Great Reform Bill, in 1832, removed the right of women to vote. The electorate in those days was very small and there was a property qualification, but women who met that qualification and who were not married or were head of household could vote. That danger exists with the Great Reform Bill today, as it potentially takes away rights and equalities for a wide range of people.

The year 1893 was important in legislative terms. New Zealand, which was the first jurisdiction in the world to allow equal voting for men and women, led the way. In the UK, some progress, but not very much, was made with the passage of the Married Women’s Property Act 1893—the fifth such act since 1870—which, for the first time, allowed women to own property in their own right, rather than it being the property of their husbands.

In 1917—in particular, 100 years ago tomorrow—there was a strike and a protest by the women of Russia. The bread and peace strike and protest led, only four days later, to the fall of the czar and then the white Russian revolution, which later in the year led to the red Russian revolution. Women have influenced politics for a long time.

The cabinet secretary referred to Ban Ki-moon. The United Nations Charter, which was adopted in 1945, was the first international agreement that included within it the fundamental principle of equality between men and women. The United Nations is to be commended for its early action on the subject.

On 1 January 1975, the Equal Pay Act came into operation. My wife rejoiced, because that was the first time in her career that she had been able to enter her company’s pension plan. She was in the plan right to the point of her retirement, but the problem of her entering it late affected her pension; it is some 20 per cent lower than it might have been. Even something that happened in 1975 continues to have effects to this day.

My wife, who worked in the finance industry, was pretty much on her own, because there was only one other woman at senior level. She specialised in investment trusts and used to go to the Association of Investment Companies annual dinners, where she was one of only two women among the 300 or 400 people there. She was fortunate that Joe Gormley, then the general secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers, who was one of the biggest investors as the chair of the miners’ pension fund, insisted that my wife always sat next to him—and he always bought the drink. He was a sexist, but that sometimes worked in some people’s favour.

I am slightly surprised that members are saying that there are no serious businesspeople, because my wife was a mentor to Audrey Baxter, who is the executive chairman of Baxters Food Group. There are, exceptionally, some women at senior levels in some businesses in Scotland.

On a personal level, I point to my Aunt Daisy, who worked in a munitions factory in the first world war, where she lost one of her fingers in an industrial accident—she was one of very many who did so. Curiously enough, when my mother first voted, she had two votes because she was a university graduate and they got an additional vote.

There are some female heroes whom it is worth having a wee think about. My professional career, which started in the 1960s, was in computers. Ada Lovelace, who was Charles Babbage’s programmer in the 1860s and 1870s, was the person who invented—look it up—the algorithmic approach to programming, which underpins the way in which we do things today. However, Rear Admiral Grace Hopper, who programmed the Harvard mark 1 computer in the United States in 1944, was the real founder of the way in which we do programming today. It was because of the bug—that is the American word for a moth—that she found in the computer that, to this day, we use that word for an error in a computer programme.

Tomorrow is daffodil day, and the Marie Curie nurses will have a stand in the Parliament. Marie Curie was the first and only person to win two Nobel prizes in two different scientific disciplines. Is she not a hero to aspire to?

An example of how things were not so good is Steve Shirley, the founder and chief executive of a consultancy company called FI Group in the 1970s. We might think that Steve is a man’s name, and she intended that we think it so, although she is actually called Stephanie. She used the name Steve so that, until she eventually appeared before her clients, they did not know that she was a woman, and she was very successful indeed.

Today, on climate justice—which is a real women’s issue—Mary Robinson, the former president of Ireland, is leading the way in ensuring that we do the right things.

Fairness for women in no way diminishes men; rather, it rewards all of us in society, because equality for all is a necessary prerequisite of fairness for all.


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