From elsewhere in the UK, it’s easy to view Scotland as something of a shining light in the fight for women’s rights. Just last week, it was announced that low-income women across the country are set to receive free sanitary products as a way of tackling period poverty. In February, the Scottish government passed a domestic abuse bill that was hailed as a world-leading, “gold standard” piece of legislation – just days before First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announced a £500,000 fund to encourage more women into politics.
“We have some amazing things to celebrate in Scotland around gender equality,” agrees Louise Macdonald OBE, the chair of Scotland’s National Advisory Council for Women and Girls (NACWG). “There’s some really forward-thinking policy work happening, particularly around violence against women, which has been seen across the world as very progressive. But we’re not underestimating the challenges that still remain.”
Macdonald, a former newspaper journalist who grew up on Scotland’s east coast, was appointed as the NACWG’s independent chair in March last year. She juggles the role alongside her day job as the chief executive of youth charity Young Scot, and sees it as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to shape Scotland’s approach to cultural and structural sexism.
“Ultimately, we want Scotland to be a place where gender inequality is seen as a historical curiosity,” she says. “It’s a big ambition, and we’re not underestimating the scale of it – but we want to be really bold, and we want to move fast. Women won’t wait another 50 years for full equality. We should have had it yesterday.”
Making Scotland a better place for women is a grand, macro-scale goal requiring micro-level graft. A significant part of NACWG’s work involves looking at the Scottish government’s laws affecting women and girls, and assessing whether they gel together in a positive way. “We have to step back, and ask ourselves: do these policies and this legislation add up to something that tackles the structural issues around gender inequality, or are some of them competing against each other?” Macdonald says.
The group also wants to change cultural attitudes around issues such as gender stereotyping and sexual harassment and assault in Scotland. Important conversations have begun to take place about both subjects, Macdonald says, but the NACWG wants to translate those discussions into practical action.
“I think we’re now understanding the scale of the problem of sexual harassment, through the space that #MeToo and Time’s Up and other campaigns have created,” she says. Similarly, she thinks that more and more people in Scotland are beginning to notice the sexist stereotypes that surround women who aspire to leadership positions or who want to work in male-dominated fields. “We’re starting to recognise it as an issue now, which is great, but we need to move beyond that into solutions.”
What will those solutions look like for the NACWG? Crucially, Macdonald stresses that the council isn’t looking to replicate or overshadow charities that have been working on women’s issues for years, such as Rape Crisis Scotland or Zero Tolerance Scotland. Rather, it wants to highlight the effective projects that are already up and running, as well as identifying ways that the government’s approach to gender inequality could be improved. Sturgeon, says Macdonald, “wants to be challenged and hear different voices and get a real sense of what’s happening on the ground, but also to get insight and ideas from different people.”
To that end, other members of the council include women such as Tressa Burke, the CEO of Glasgow Disability Alliance; Talat Yaqoob, the director of Equate Scotland and co-founder of Women 5050; and Satwat Rehman, CEO of One Parent Families Scotland. Three of the council members are under the age of 20, something that Macdonald says is “incredibly important”.
“Young people are experts of their own experience,” she say. “If we want to build a Scotland that really is world-leading, we have to include the voices of young women and girls.”
On 4 June, the NACWG launched a campaign called Generation Equal, calling on individuals and organisations in Scotland and beyond to pledge their commitment towards creating a more equal society. What advice would Macdonald have to people who want to tackle sexism and gender inequality in their day-to-day lives? First of all, she says, refuse to be a bystander. “If you see something happening in front of you, challenge it; speak out. Don’t be silent.
“The second thing I’d say is: be open to allowing yourself to be challenged,” she continues. “One of the best things I’ve done over the past couple of years is start following lots of really brilliant black women feminists on Twitter, as well as people who don’t identify [as one gender] or who are gender-fluid. It’s been a brilliant education for me, and it’s meant I’m much more understanding and [ready to] challenge my own white female privilege.”
Building a successful career in the third sector isn’t easy, and Macdonald had to work her way up the ladder from scratch after quitting her job in journalism. But, she says, she’s learnt that the most important thing in life is to do something you feel genuinely passionate about.
“Don’t spend your time doing stuff that makes you unhappy,” she says. “They say that you find your life’s purpose where the things that you love and the needs of the world collide. So put yourself in the way of what you love, and take every opportunity that comes your way.”
Images: Courtesy of Louise Macdonald / Getty Images