Women are suffering disproportionately from government cuts. Has Alex Salmond even noticed? asks ANN McKECHIN

 

Until recently, it was taken for granted that each generation of women in Scotland would enjoy more opportunities and greater equality than the last. I myself have been fortunate to experience university, to own property and, before entering politics, helping to run a successful business. These were opportunities that were simply not readily available to my mother and most of her peers.

However, in recent months, we have seen a series of reports from across civic Scotland that have indicated a disturbing regression in gender equality in Scotland that must be addressed.

Just last week, the Fawcett Society reported that single mothers are the section of society worst hit by the cuts introduced by the UK Tory-led Government, estimating that single mums will lose an average 8.5 per cent of their income after tax by 2015.

House of Commons research already indicated earlier in the year that George Osborne’s tax and benefit changes are hitting women hardest, showing that men on average lose £4.20 a week, while women on average lose £8.80 a week. This is despite the fact that women still earn and own less than men. Cuts to child tax credit, child care tax credit, child benefit, housing benefit, attendance allowance as well as the recent public sector pension reforms are all hitting Scottish women harder.

In the workplace, it is clear that there is still much progression needed in Scotland’s boardrooms. A survey by the Herald revealed that Scotland’s 30 largest listed companies have just 29 female board directors between them. And 10 have absolutely no women at the top table. Even at those firms with female representation, the survey showed that women tended to have a solitary boardroom position, which means they hold only around one in 10 of the 254 directorships offered by the country’s leading firms. The figures put Scotland disappointingly below the UK average.

Elsewhere in the labour market, the STUC has released figures pointing to an increasingly bleak picture of more and more women seeking employment in Scotland. The number of women JSA claimants increased by 18 per cent in the year to April 2011; over the same period, the number of men claiming JSA fell by four per cent.

The number of women claiming JSA for more than six months increased by 17.2 per cent in the year to April 2011. But in the same period the number of long-term male JSA claimants fell by 7.6 per cent. The situation for Scotland’s young women makes equally grim reading: the number of young women claiming JSA increased by 9.9 per cent in the year to April 2011; in the same period the number of young men claiming JSA fell marginally.

At a time when as many as 31 claimants are chasing a single vacancy in some parts of Scotland, any decrease in the number of Scots on JSA is to be welcomed. However, both the Tory-led Government and the Scottish Government need to beware of complacency. There is a clear need for immediate and targeted action to help prevent an entire generation of Scottish women being condemned to the unemployment scrap heap.

While the figures themselves paint a grim picture of unemployment for women in Scotland, there are further concerns that they mask a much bigger problem. We know that underemployment is a huge issue in Scotland – there are currently 99,000 people working part-time because they are unable to find full-time employment and women account for more than 80 per cent of part-time workers in Scotland. There are also 44,000 people working in temporary jobs because they are unable to find permanent employment and women account for more than half of this group.

Public sector job losses will not improve this situation and the impact will again be disproportionately felt by women, given that they account for two-thirds of the public sector workforce. Indeed the STUC has suggested that the fall in public sector employment over the last year is likely to be the most significant factor in explaining diverging trends in male and female unemployment in Scotland.

The scale of the UK government’s attack on women’s lives and incomes over the past  12 months has been unprecedented and the First Minister’s silence on these issues, and indeed the wider welfare reforms that will impact so dramatically on millions of Scots, speaks volumes about his priorities and his true politics.

This regression in opportunities and income for women in Scotland is truly alarming, and for those of us on the left who have consistently pushed for progressive policies that tackle gender discrimination is a fact that should not be ignored and needs addressing immediately.

If we are to avoid a damaging and regressive step back in gender equality in Scotland, we need to see more than glib sound bites about making Scotland better – we now need real and positive action.  My suggestions would include

  • – An undertaking by all public bodies in Scotland to carry out and publish a full equality assessment before introducing any further job reductions – voluntary as well as compulsory.
  • – A demand to both UK and Scottish Governments to prepare an action plan on how they will target female unemployment and under-employment.
  • – A public campaign in Scotland to promote more women into our boardrooms such as the highly successful 30 % Club campaign.

Wasting women’s talents is bad news for everyone – we shouldn’t allow the current economic slowdown to become a permanent reverse gear for women’s right to have an equal say and stake in the future of Scotland.

Ann McKechin is the Labour MP for Glasgow North and Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland. This post was first published in Scotland on Sunday.