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27/07/15 09:00

First Minister at the Chinese Friendship Association

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon
27 July, 2015

I’m delighted to speak to the Chinese Friendship Association. I’m very grateful for the good work you do in strengthening the ties between our Scottish Affairs Office in Beijing, and the Chinese Government’s State Council – and I’m also aware that that’s just one example of the good work you do to forge friendships with countries from around the world.

I’m especially pleased to be speaking here today about gender equality, since this is a highly appropriate time and a highly appropriate location.

It’s 20 years this year since Beijing hosted the fourth world conference on women. That conference famously included the affirmation that human rights are women’s rights, and that women's rights are human rights. Around the world, the Beijing Platform for Action rallied governments and international organisations to do more to promote gender equality. In Scotland, for example, it led us to establish our first ever framework against domestic violence .

I’m going to talk today about how we build on and accelerate the progress that the Beijing Platform for Action helped to establish; how we make a reality of the beautiful Chinese saying that “women hold up half the sky”. To do that, I’ll discuss some of the steps we’re taking in Scotland, before addressing wider international issues.

But first, I want to look back on the 20 years since the Beijing conference – not so much in terms of the progress made on women’s rights, but in terms of China’s own achievements

After all, in 1995, China’s GDP per head was 1/7 of what it is now. It’s economy has gone from being less than 1/3 as large as the USA’s, to being of comparable size. That progress has transformed global trade – one of the reasons I’m making this visit is to promote Scottish companies and Scottish goods in the new marketplace that has opened up in China. And perhaps most importantly of all, hundreds of millions of people have been lifted out of poverty. China accounts for around three quarters of the world’s total decline in extreme poverty over the past 30 years.

That shouldn’t be surprising. China has always had extraordinary human resources. But in 1995, it was still only beginning to realise its full economic potential. 20 years later, as its economy continues to expand, the consequences are proving to be momentous and beneficial – not just to China but to the wider world.

And so – although the comparison certainly isn’t an exact one - it is worth thinking about the following point. The world has been changed – dramatically, and for the better – because China is making greater use of the productive potential of more than 900 million working age people.

There are currently well over 2 billion working age women across the world. But there is virtually no country, on any continent, where women have equal economic opportunities to men.

That’s why when Christine Lagarde, the Director of the International Monetary Fund, spoke in Shanghai earlier this year, she stressed the importance of gender equality in contributing to higher, more sustainable growth. In fact, the IMF has calculated that if women participated in the labour market to the same extent as men, income per person would increase by a quarter in south Asia, and by 1/7 in Europe, central Asia and East Asia.

For virtually every nation, fully empowering women is probably the single simplest way, in which they can sustainably increase their productive potential. Gender equality can help to transform the global economy.

Because just as women’s rights are human rights – the great message sent out from Beijing 20 years ago - so women’s innovations are human innovations; women’s wealth-creation is human wealth-creation; women’s prosperity is human prosperity. Societies impoverish themselves when they stifle the talent of half of their population.

And just as everyone benefits from gender equality, so everyone should help to promote it. This isn’t just a job for government, and it’s certainly not just a job for women. Everyone can play a part in making it clear that violence against women is unacceptable; everyone can refuse to perpetuate prejudice and discrimination. And everyone can help to combat gender stereotyping – whether at work, at school or in the home.

Some important aspects of gender equality are about very simple things - how we play with children; how we talk with them as they’re growing up; what they’re encouraged to do by families, friends and the media.

Some of you may well have young daughters or nieces. If you do, I suspect you will have the same hopes for them that I do for my own niece. I hope that she doesn’t have to find out about everyday sexism, or gender pay gaps, or under-representation in positions of influence. I hope that the men and women of my generation will have addressed those problems before she even becomes aware of them. At heart, that’s not an economic issue – although the economic argument is important – it’s a question of fundamental, universal human rights. It’s about giving everyone an equal chance to live in dignity, fulfil their potential and realise their dreams.

Those combined moral and economic imperatives explain why gender equality has become such an important feature in the Scottish government’s approach to economic growth. To give some idea of how much we have already achieved, it’s maybe worth noting that the nations of the G20 – which includes both China and the United Kingdom – have a collective commitment. They have pledged to reduce the gender gap in employment by a quarter in ten years’ time. In Scotland, we have more than halved the gender gap in just three years – from 10 percentage points to 4 percentage points. Our female employment rate is now the second best in the European Union.

But despite that progress, women in Scotland are still less likely to be on company boards or in senior management posts. They are much more likely to be in low paid professions.

And although women make up more than half of all higher education students in Scotland, they make up just a seventh of engineering and technology students, and less than a fifth of computer science students. We know – despite the progress we’ve made – that we’re still underusing the talents of half of our population.

So we’re taking action at all stages of people’s careers. We’re encouraging women to take up more science and engineering courses at school and university. We’re doubling our investment in childcare, to help parents into work. We’ve launched a major initiative at boardroom level, called 5050 by 2020. We want organisations to make the commitment that in 5 years’ time, half of their board will be women.

And as a government, we’re leading by example. When I became First Minister, I appointed a cabinet of 5 men and 5 women. According to the United Nations, it is one of only three gender balanced cabinets in the developed world.

And finally, we’re doing all we can to support women overseas – for example through our international development work in places such as Pakistan and Malawi.

In Pakistan we have established a scholarship programme for up to 250 women from poor backgrounds. The programme was inspired by Malala Yousafzai’s stand on girls’ education, and is being delivered with the British Council. It enables the women to study Masters related courses in Education and Energy. It’s one of the ways in which we’re hoping to encourage a new generation of female leaders in education, industry and wider society.

I know that much of the work we do in Scotland will strike a chord here in China. Gender equality is incorporated in your constitution. Women account for 45% of your workforce. And you recognise the importance of women being fully involved in decision-making. Chu Guang, speaking at the United Nations, argued recently that it “is an important guarantee for women's empowerment.'.

But like all societies - certainly including Scotland - there is also more that China can do. To give just one example, women are still significantly under-represented among key decision-makers in business and in government. The truth is, that virtually all countries are on a journey towards true gender equality, but none have completely achieved it. We all need to learn from each other how best to make progress.

20 years ago, the 4th women’s summit in Beijing was an immensely important part of that dialogue, that learning process. So it is appropriate that in September China is marking the 20th anniversary of the summit, by co-hosting -with the United Nations - the Global Leaders’ Meeting on Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment.

China’s willingness to show leadership is especially important at this particular time. In September, world leaders will agree the new Sustainable Development Goals in New York. In December, they are due to decide future action on climate change in Paris.

Gender equality is important to both of these processes. It has to be at the heart of sustainable development. The previous Millenium Development Goals contributed to the advancement of women – for example by improving girls’ access to education.

However improving the status of women and girls remains critical to progress – this includes tackling violence against women and properly valuing women’s work. That is why I am delighted that the draft sustainable development goals address the empowerment of women much more effectively than their predecessors.

As UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon has said, “Removing the barriers that keep women and girls on the margins of economic, social, cultural and political life must be a top priority for us all – businesses, Governments, the United Nations and civil society.”

And as we look towards the Paris summit in December, we also need to remember that there is a significant gender dimension to climate change. The worst impacts are disproportionately felt by women – they are more likely to be subsistence farmers, and to be affected when crops fail; women are usually the people who get water and have to walk further in times of drought; it is girls who are more likely to stop going to school when tough times force the family to work even harder.

So as we tackle and mitigate climate change, we need to ensure that women are equally represented when it comes to taking decisions. To quote Mary Robinson, the President of the Mary Robinson Climate Justice Foundation – “Women are at the heart of effective solutions to addressing the impacts of climate change. They are the most convincing advocates for the policy solutions that they require and have a right to participate in decision-making processes.”

And of course that basic principle applies far beyond the context of climate change. Women’s rights aren’t something that can primarily be considered and taken account of by men – women and men should have an equal opportunity to lead and take decisions. That’s a basic right which should be recognised by communities, companies and governments all around the world.

The point is, that whether it’s in a small village in a developing country, or in the technology and engineering firms of the advanced economies – we all benefit when women are able to contribute their ideas, expertise, leadership and talent as freely as men

I began this speech by referring to the Chinese saying – “Women hold up half the sky”. However women shouldn’t just be supporting the sky – we should be reaching for it. We need to ensure that young girls and women today feel confident that if they have the ability, and they work hard enough, there are no limits to what they can achieve.

In the 20 years since the last Beijing summit, the world has seen extraordinary change. When you think about the progress made by China, or if you consider the communications revolution that has transformed so much of what we do, you’re reminded that there are virtually no limits to human ingenuity.

And it seems paradoxical that we don’t always show the same ingenuity – or at least, the right level of resolve – when it comes to using the greatest resource we have as a society; the potential of all of our people. For all the progress we’ve seen in the last two decades, virtually no country enables women to participate absolutely equally in the workplace.

It’s why gender equality – as well as being a fundamental issue of human rights – is also one of the great economic opportunities of the 21st century.

By achieving it, we will enable individuals to flourish, families to prosper and our economies to grow. We will help to secure a wealthier, fairer, more sustainable future. And that will bring great benefits for Scotland, for China, for all of us.