First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, visited the University of Glasgow on Tuesday to give a talk in the Bute Hall as part of a student-led speech series organised by the newly founded Successful Women at Glasgow (S.W.A.G.) society.
S.W.A.G. describes itself as aiming “to inspire students with first-hand accounts of female success while also providing insight into a multitude of career paths, with the intention of enlightening and encouraging ambitious students to pursue their passions.”
During a talk, that ended with a question and answer session with an audience comprised of students, staff and graduates, Nicola Sturgeon stated:
“For me, as a young woman starting out in politics twenty-five years ago, I didn’t have very many female role models to look up to, to guide a way forward. I was surrounded, as a young woman in politics, by men, often middle aged men. What you find yourself doing is starting to behave like the men around you behave. And in politics that tends to be to act in a more adversarial or aggressive way, because that’s what you think you have to do to succeed in the world you have chosen to inhabit.
She added: “But the thing is, nobody gives you any credit for that. In fact you can find that it is held against you. What is strong assertive leadership in a man is quickly described by the media and by others as bossy or strident and unappealing in a woman.”
The Vice-Principal and University Gender Champion, Anne Anderson, welcomed the First Minister and the SWAG series, saying: “In my role as Gender Equality Champion at the university, I was very pleased when SWAG office bearers came to see me about their plans to host an exciting series of events around their mission, very much in line with the University’s own mission to promote women in the working world.”
Sturgeon also voiced her support for positive discrimination in the public and private spheres to increase the proportion of women in high responsibility roles, saying:
“I think we need to progress faster, and that is why I have come to the view that the time is right for contemplating targets and quotas to get us there more quickly. The key argument against quotas and targets is that is runs counter to the principle of people being selected on merit. Well, I take a different view on that. I take the view that it might actually be essential in order to achieve a true meritocracy because that is not what we have right now. And the idea that you oppose quotas because they run counter to merit is, in my view, based on the misapprehension that we live in a meritocracy based on gender equality right now, when we don’t.
“Women make up 50% of the population and if we assume that women are generally no less able than men, then if we lived in a meritocracy we would already have a gender balance in all areas of our national life. The fact that we don’t suggest that decisions are not always being taken on merit.”
However, she admitted her own struggles with the SNP over the issue, telling the audience: “On quotas I’ve never actually been able to convince my own party over the years. I’ve found myself on the losing side of the debate after my party have democratically decided not to have quotas or positive discrimination for the selection of our candidates, but it’s a debate I will continue to have with my own party.”
An audience member also questioned the First Minister on her position towards the 5% luxury tax on female sanitary products which are deemed across the EU to be non-essential. VAT exemptions are beyond the remit of the Scottish or UK governments, and are decided unilaterally at a European Union level.
Sturgeon did, however, express her approval of such a tax change, saying: “I do agree with you. I don’t however have the power over taxes to do something about it but you’re right: whether or not I have the power over taxes, I’ve got the ability to make my voice heard so maybe we can start a campaign.”
The First Minister reflected on the progress for gender equality at the University, saying: “I’m here tonight to talk about women but, as all of you know, as students or perhaps graduates of the University of Glasgow, this University was founded in 1451 and it is, I think, a sobering thought that for more than three quarters of the history of this institution, right up until the year 1892, women weren’t actually allowed to study here. Even after 1892, progress towards true gender equality was somewhat, I think, ‘glacial’ might be the correct term to use.
“Women were first admitted to the staff here in 1908 and the first female professors were appointed in the 1970s. At the Glasgow University Union, which I was proud to be a member of during my years here at the University, didn’t admit women until 1980.
“1980 is only eight years before I started my studies here. I think that puts into context just how relatively recent that is. When I studied here there still hadn’t ever been a female Dean. There’s no doubt things have changed, and changed for the better. Now over 60% of Glasgow University students are women.”
Sturgeon, a self-proclaimed former Glasgow Guardian writer and SRC Presidency candidate also spoke about her time studying in the West End, saying:
“It is always a great honour to be back at Glasgow University. I owe a great deal to this university. I think it’s fair to see that the years I spent here did a great deal to make me the person I am today so this university will always have a very, very special place in my heart.”
She added: “I was the first member of my family to go to university, so to graduate in Law from the University of Glasgow was a very special, special moment.”