Kezia Kinder: Gender equality in the boardroom is a popular policy, but who stands up for struggling women at the bottom?


Kezia Kinder, a politics student at the University of Glasgow and Women for Independence national co-coordinator, argues in a personal capacity that party policy on gender-balanced boards at the top may make good headlines, but asks who is standing up for less privileged women?

LAST week, Scottish Labour announced that the party would ensure that the boards of all public bodies are gender balanced if it wins a majority in next year’s Holyrood elections, while pledging the same for company boards by 2020.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon is also said to be in support of gender quotas on the boards of public and corporate bodies, and last year formed the first gender balanced cabinet in Scottish (and British) history. While these moves are no doubt a step in the right direction, if we are really serious about gender equality in Scotland, then focusing only on women right at the top of society just won’t cut it.

Gender quotas on public and corporate boards are all well and good, but how many women who are still languishing at the bottom of society, working 40 hours a week on minimum wage, shelling out hundreds of pounds a month on childcare, and taking home a pittance in return are going to know or care about 50/50 boards? What about the woman trying to leave an abusive relationship, only to find that since funding has been cut there’s no local Women’s Aid to help her leave, so her only option is to stay?

How many women who are working 40 hours a week on minimum wage and shelling out hundreds of pounds a month on childcare are going to know or care about 50/50 boards?

Or the woman who’s had her benefits sanctioned, and so has to walk three miles to a foodbank for a bag of emergency supplies to feed her and her kids for the next three days before she can make that trip again? Quotas on boards are not sufficient to tackle the impact of austerity on women.

Just last week, West Dunbartonshire council voted to cut all funding to Clydebank Women’s Aid (click here to read more), a decision that could leave thousands of women across the area even more vulnerable. In Scotland, a domestic violence incident is reported to police every 10 minutes, with over 60,000 incidents reported to police in 2012/13. More than a fifth of women in Scotland will experience domestic abuse at some point.

Although domestic abuse can happen to any woman regardless of class, occupation, ethnicity or age, poorer women are much less likely to be able to leave their abusers, and cutting services like Clydebank Women’s Aid only serves to exacerbate that problem.

The politicians who advocate gender equality at the top need to match those commitments for the rest of us. Local services like Women’s Aid need funding, and both Labour and the SNP have to take responsibility for this. It’s two-faced for Labour to back gender equality on public health boards but at the same time cut funding for Women’s Aid at council level.

Similarly, the SNP needs to accept that they have squeezed local councils with the Council Tax Freeze and need to get more money to local services, as council’s shouldn’t have to make a choice between things like domestic abuse services and schools.

The politicians who advocate gender equality at the top need to match those commitments for the rest of us.

Action needs to be taken on work, too. Poorer women suffer disproportionately from low pay, precarious employment and discrimination at work. Last week a Citizen’s Advice Scotland report stated that the organisation has seen many examples in Scotland over the past year of women who are sacked when they fall pregnant, and can’t afford the employment tribunal fees to challenge their bosses.

Politicians need to do something about the “miserable” experience of work, as Citizens Advice described it, for thousands of women in Scotland. One start would be to make sure everyone in the public sector gets the Living Wage, and move faster on creating free childcare, which will save women money, encourage them to take up full-time work and create a high-skilled industry of women workers.

Gender equality is not just about representation. It’s good to show in political parties and in public institutions that women and men are numerically equal as it ensures women’s voices are heard. But that will not guarantee that numerical equality is achieved in the ways that matter most to 99 per cent of women: equality in their home, in their jobs and in their income.

The closure of Clydebank Women’s Aid should be a timely reminder that class still matters when it comes to women’s issues.