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International Women’s Day 2023

“Today on International Women’s Day let’s briefly consider how far we have come and what we, each of us, can do to enable progress.

by Sam Smith, CEO C-Change Scotland.

The phrase ‘You have got to see it to be it’ is used to campaign for more women specifically, and marginalised groups more generally, in leadership roles. The argument flows that if you can’t see yourself reflected in positions of authority you are unlikely to believe that aspiring to those positions can become a reality. This operates on an individual and societal level. But it can be argued this only takes us so far. Today on International Women’s Day let’s briefly consider how far we have come and what we, each of us, can do to enable progress.

The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), often described as an international bill of rights for women, was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1979. Within the preamble and subsequent articles, it defines ‘what constitutes as discrimination against women and sets up an agenda for national action to end such discrimination’. In 2021 the Scottish Government announced plans for a new Human Rights Bill to incorporate CEDAW alongside three other UN conventions into Scots Law. This is a hugely progressive step, and, at the same time it is not cynical to ask, what difference will it make

How many people living in Scotland are aware of CEDAW? We should all be, it is good, and it is ours and it will be tangibly more so when incorporated. It is an instrument we will be able to use to test and question the landscape and architecture of Scotland’s state and public institutions. And this is where it will become interesting. The impact of Caroline Criado Perez’s book Invisible Women exposed data bias in what she describes as a world designed for men. Much of what we do, we have inherited.  Norms may be considered neutral until contested, at which point underlying biases can be surfaced.

We traverse paths so well worn that it takes courage to step off the beaten track and highlight another way, or very many other ways, of thinking and being are possible. And it is often only at that point we recognise how narrow our thinking really was. Not through malice or intent, more through custom and practice. Some examples of courageous women changing the shape of our world, beyond the field of health and social care, illustrate this point.  

Judy Huemann (1947- 2023) was a disabled women who reshaped the world she was born into for the better. She used a wheelchair and was initially denied access to nursery school on the basis that she was a ‘fire hazard’. Despite this inauspicious start she continued her education eventually earning a BA and a Masters. Having trained as a teacher she was denied a teaching license on the basis that she couldn’t help students evacuate in the event of a fire. She sued and won and became the first teacher in the state to use a wheelchair. She was instrumental in developing disability rights legislation in the USA and the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities internationally. “Some people say that what I did changed the world,” she wrote, “But really, I simply refused to accept what I was told about who I could be. And I was willing to make a fuss about it.”[1]

Maria Grazia is the first female creative director at Dior fashion house. She instigated a policy of using female photographers for all Dior’s commercial projects. She said “People were shocked when I first said I only wanted women to shoot for us. They said it wasn’t possible – that there aren’t so many women photographers. I said, that’s not true. There are plenty. But when fashion houses want to shoot a campaign, they always call up men because the male gaze is seen as the perspective that matters.”[2]

Fern Brady is a Scottish comedian and writer. Her memoir Strong Female Character[3] gives voice to the experience of an autistic woman. She was misdiagnosed with OCD in her late teens and her late diagnosis, like other autistic women, was largely because she didn’t present with traits of an autistic male. Prodigiously bright, she unwaveringly challenges previously uncontested norms that constrain the lives of women and girls generally, and autistic women and girls more specifically, in school, at home, at university and in work.    

These courageous women are not content to fit into roles previously held by others by maintaining the same shape and order. They offer different perspectives and reshape these roles, expanding what we perceive to be possible. The same thinking could and should be applied to health and social care in Scotland. It could be the catalyst for the radical transformation of our society. It is time to reshape our thinking. We have to consciously and consistently challenge the prevailing norms that bound our expectations. We have to be it to see it.

[1] The World Mourns the Passing of Judy Heumann, Disability Rights Activist  – AAPD

[2] Dior’s Maria Grazia Chiuri on bridging feminism and fashion: ‘The male gaze is seen as the perspective that matters’ | Fashion | The Guardian

[3] Brady, Fern. Strong Female Character. Brazen, 2023.

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