Women appear to be everywhere in the debate on Scotland’s independence, except in the thinking of the mainstream parties when it comes to seeking ways to promote gender equality and eliminate discrimination in a future Scotland. This is despite the emphasis on securing women’s votes for both Yes and No campaigns and recent evidence of a continuing gap in voting intentions.
The established parties count numerous women among their prominent members. On the unionist side, women lead the Scottish Conservative and Labour parties and are to the fore among those campaigning for a No vote. On the pro-independence side, the SNP deputy leader is a woman; while many of the voices in platforms like Aye Talks and the Radical Independence Campaign are women’s. Local organising through Women for Independence has also generated extensive contact and engagement with women across Scotland.
Yet women’s actual presence in the mainstream media coverage of the debate, beyond senior politicians, has been questioned recently by activists and campaigners. And despite the fact that both sides have been making offers to women on issues such as childcare and corporate board composition, many other important issues are not coming into play.
What women want
There has been little talk of progressive measures to advance women’s economic independence and social and political autonomy, such as protecting employment and reproductive rights; equality in parenting; providing publicly funded care for children, older people, and those with complex needs; and non-discriminatory, integrated taxation and social protection regimes.
I laid down proposals along these lines in a new paper, which draws on proposals already in the mix from the likes of the Scottish government’s expert group on welfare to have a social protection system that invests in the wellbeing the individual for a lifetime.
The Scottish Women’s Budget Group, a lobbying group which I convene that aims to promote gender equality within the national budget process, has also issued a statement highlighting key priorities for women that are missing from the formal debate. These include fair and progressive taxation of individuals and not households; gender analysis of public spending and recognising that investing in care provision and preventing violence against women benefits everyone.
The group argues that public policy should reflect in its economic modelling the “realities of women’s lives, including their role in unpaid care and reproductive labour”. We emphasise the enduring inequalities in the labour market and publicly funded training. For instance analysis has shown that Scotland’s modern apprenticeship scheme leads to persistent segregation of men and women. Specialists at Stirling University, within the ESRC Future of the UK and Scotland project, have ploughed similar furrows.
How the policies measure up
Little of this is reflected in the referendum campaign. The proposals from Scottish Labour’s devolution commission do not offer any detail or evidence of consideration of these issues, for example. In its final report, “Powers for a Purpose”, the limited references to women are mainly concerned with equality of representation on public and corporate boards. This is necessary, but it is a limited view of progressive measures to advance gender equality.
The childcare proposals in the Scottish government’s independence White Paper do offer a significant opportunity for progressive policy change. It is rightly concerned with re-framing childcare from a women’s issue to considering it as key to economic development and growth. Recommendations in Labour’s devolution commission report for expanding childcare facilities are welcome too, though they fall short of offering a more expansive and flexible approach to state-funded childcare as part of the economic infrastructure of Scotland.
While the devolution commission recommendations include important possibilities for progressive taxation and remedying some of the regressive measures introduced by the current Westminster coalition, there is little analysis of their potential gender impact. Women are disadvantaged by tax systems that implicitly incentivise traditional types of single/primary earner families rather than dual-earner households. This also needs to be considered by the Scottish government in relation to Revenue Scotland, the agency that will administer the changes to the tax system that are coming down the line. Gender analysis needs to be built in from the outset of this institution to avoid entrenching future discrimination.
In short, there is much of vital importance that is missing from what both sides are saying in relation to women. Formal politics and the internal party processes seem to be failing to build in an understanding and a response to the persistent inequalities that we experience. Both sides are missing an opportunity that could carry them to victory next month. And whatever the outcome, we need to wake up to the key challenges after the referendum to make progressive changes for women.