Talat Yaqoob: Gender equality has to be the rule

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There was something different about the first meeting this week of the new Scottish Government Cabinet. Unlike Cabinet meetings before, this meeting did not have a majority of men around the table. Instead, for the first time, there was an equal number of men and women making decisions for Scotland.

Our new First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, has said how she hopes her 50:50 Cabinet shows how seriously her government takes gender inequality.

She said: “The Cabinet line-up is also a clear demonstration that this government will work hard in all areas to promote women, to create gender equality, and it sends out a strong message that we will start the business of redressing the gender balance in public life right here in government.”

It’s a shame, however, that the First Minister could also foresee the prejudice her fellow female Cabinet members would face, and emphasised that women like Angela Constance were there on merit and their track record.

Did she have to do that for the men around the table? Of course not. And already there have been mutterings that a balanced Cabinet is “a step too far” and fears that next the First Minister will campaign for quotas.

Well, we at Women 5050 hope these murmurs turn out to be true. Our campaign is fighting for fair representation of women in Scotland’s public life. Today, even though women make up nearly 52 per cent of the population, we are going backwards in our attempts to reach equality. Today, there are fewer women MSPs in the Scottish Parliament than there were in 1999, with only 34 per cent of MSPs women and only 24 per cent of our councillors.

We could wait for gender equality to become the norm, but in the meantime women are absent from many of the decisions affecting Scotland, and our parliament and council chambers do not look like the society they are meant to represent.

Instead of waiting, why don’t we fight for change and join almost half of the world’s parliaments and introduce positive action to address this injustice. Inequality has never been tackled by waiting for processes and systems to catch up, it has been achieved by pushing for fair change.

Too often we hear that merit should be the only condition by which women are elected and that quotas are tokenism. All this reveals is that some people think fewer women than men are capable of holding political office, which is clearly not true. Ask Nicola Sturgeon.

Quotas are merely a way to overcome institutionalised inequality, and will open the doors for capable and talented women to take their rightful place alongside their male counterparts.

Where inequality exists, surely it’s our duty to do what we can to fight it.

Nicola Sturgeon has already shown that gender equality matters to her. Her next logical step is to sign up to the Women 5050 campaign, and make equality a reality – not just for her Cabinet, but for all women and girls who have the talent and ambition to become leaders.

Talat Yaqoob is steering group member at the Women 5050 campaign.