Following her attendance at the Edinburgh Processions this weekend – celebrating one hundred years of votes for women – Jennifer Henderson, the Keeper of the Registers of Scotland, reflects on her personal experiences promoting inclusion in the workplace. This blog is part of our #RegistersAtoZ series which you can follow on social media.
Never once in my childhood was there any suggestion that I couldn’t do something.
I spent Sunday afternoon with thousands of other women in Edinburgh, taking part in the Procession – a mass participation artwork to celebrate one hundred years of votes for women. In 1918, the Representation of the People Act gave the first British women the right to vote and to stand for public office. One hundred years on, the Processions were an opportunity for women and girls to mark this historic moment as part of a living portrait of women in the 21st century.
The right to vote was a momentous legal change but over the years there have been many more legal changes that have enhanced women’s rights. (There is an excellent Wikipedia page that details these). As Keeper of the Registers I felt I should know more about how women’s rights in relation to property have changed in Scotland over the years.
I discovered that the Married Women’s Property (Scotland) Acts in 1877, 1881 and 1920 significantly improved things for married woman in relation to the rights they had over property they owned, and some commentators argue that this Act (and the equivalent Act in England and Wales) paved the way towards establishing women’s right to vote, as it publicly recognised women as a separate legal entity from their husbands. Reading about the various legal changes that have arisen over the years and created greater gender equality illustrates that there are many ways in which inequality can exist.
I consider myself fortunate to have grown up in relatively blissful ignorance of the fact that gender inequality still existed. With a mother, a grandmother and a great-grandmother who were all scientists I was not short of female role-models for working in male dominated environments.
Never once in my childhood was there any suggestion that I couldn’t do something (or wouldn’t want to do something) because I was a girl. I grew up playing with Meccano and with dolls. Once I could drive, a condition of borrowing the car was that I had to learn how to service it.
As I progressed in my career within a scientific organisation I found there were fewer and fewer women at my grade.
However I did notice that in my maths and science classes at GCSE and A-level there weren’t very many girls, and when I got to university I found I was the only woman in my year at college studying physics. As I progressed in my career within a scientific organisation I found there were fewer and fewer women at my grade.
I was routinely the only woman in the room, or the only woman on the list of presenters at a conference. And I began to consider what was happening, and why? Yes, there were less of us to start with (and it is a related challenge to encourage more girls to study science) but why wasn’t the proportion of women staying the same as I progressed – why was I increasingly in the minority as I progressed through the organisation?
If we didn’t do something about it then who else was going to?
This realisation and my subsequent questioning of the situation precipitated a long chain of events, leading 25 years later to me finding myself in Warsaw at the end of May presenting to the NATO Parliamentary Assembly Science and Technology Committee about the programme I had started in 2013 to increase the number of women in the senior roles within the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL).
When I initiated this activity I didn’t ask permission to get something going; I just sent an email to the very small number of women in the top two grades in DSTL in which I explained why I didn’t think it was OK that the proportion of women in the senior grades wasn’t the same as in the junior grades, and that if we didn’t do something about it then who else was going to? In conversations with women across the organisation we diagnosed the problem as having three parts – women aspiring to progress to senior roles, believing they could progress, and being confident that the climate would support them in succeeding when they got there.
We developed a strategy and an action plan and started systematically to address these three issues. And we ultimately succeeded – slowly but surely the number of women applying for the senior roles increased, as did the number winning these roles. The proportion of women in each grade also increased. We didn’t have targets or quotas, we had simply identified and dismantled the barriers – real or perceived – that were preventing women from being able to compete effectively for senior roles within the organisation.
The Suffragettes demonstrated what can be achieved on a grand scale by taking action to tackle inequality. Smaller actions can also make a real and significant difference, as we demonstrated in our work at the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory. But there is still lots more to do. Ongoing action is needed to continue to address inequality (and of course this is much broader than gender inequality) wherever it exists.
We continue to enable members of all communities that engage with us to do so equally and effectively.
I believe that every organisation needs to work harder to ensure that true equality exists in the services it provides. At Registers of Scotland, as we move towards providing our services digitally, I have been impressed by the thoughtful and proactive way we are working to ensure that the diversity of the citizens who use our services is represented in the way we approach our user-led design. We aim to be on the front-foot in ensuring that, as we evolve our policies and processes, we continue to enable members of all communities that engage with us to do so equally and effectively.
I hope that all the women who took part in today’s Procession, and everyone who was watching the event, are inspired to take action wherever and whenever they see inequality. The combined actions of thousands of individuals, and the organisations they represent, will result in ever greater equality and a fairer more inclusive society.