Ms Sturgeon, tear down this wall
We are separated by three closed doors, two rooms and a long hallway, but the sounds the girls make bouncing around the kitchen will not be contained by anything as trifling as the laws of physics. Silence, should I desire it, would require the kind of noise excluders favoured by pneumatic drill operators and professional dynamiters.
Even at this remove I can tell what each of them is up to. Our eldest, who is suddenly, unfathomably 13 and taller than her mother, is yammering and cackling into a computer screen, from which the video-linked face of a friend occasionally manages to squawk back the odd word. The nine year old is belting out a bluesy tune at the top of her lungs, and this, I know, will soon lead to a violent confrontation with her big sister. From the irregular thumps, I’d say the baby — she’s five, but we’re clinging on — is repeatedly leaping from the sofa, narrowly missing the glass table and shrieking every time she lands.
My study is supposed to be off limits, but on the desk in front of me the younger two have carelessly left behind a scribbled plan for something big. It reads: ‘1) you need to be fast; 2) you need to be unseen; 3) you need to be scylent; 4) you need to look; 5) you need to hide; 6) you do not repete.’ I’ll find out soon enough, I suppose. Meanwhile, back in the kitchen, I can hear my wife growing more agitated with each passing moment. 5, 4, 3, 2, 1…
I am the 20 per cent — a minority of one in a world of scrunchies, skirts, tights, fragrances, lotions, potions and locked bathrooms. I shudder to think how much of my life has been spent ineffectively waggling a hairdryer at long, impenetrably thick, freshly washed manes. It will never not amaze me that I have three daughters. Three girls! That’s a full set: a potential Bananarama, a Chris’s Angels, a Kardashian-ful. To the outside world, I imagine this must cast a fellow in a certain light: a rock-steady, twinkly eyed, avuncular, manly man; a Howard Keel type, barrel chested and broad shouldered, fearless but fair, capable of felling trees and calming panicked horses.
I am, of course, none of those things. Instead: an only child, with enough quirks and neuroses to merit my own Woody Allen film and who more closely resembles Columbo than Keel; a bloke who had precious little understanding of the female condition before nature delivered its triple crash course.
And what a lesson it has been, from the blank terror of that first nappy change — ‘is there, um, anything I need to know about, y’know, erm, the bits…?’ — to shimmying carefully around the ragged moods of a young woman, and everything in between. I’m quite the expert, now. Sort of.
But I also know what I don’t yet know. Most ominously, the ‘boys’ bit is still to come, and also exams, university, jobs and beyond: the real world, with all its slugs and sandtraps. And these are the bits, the known unknowns, that worry me most — when a parent can no longer reach over and nudge a problem away, when an unpleasant tosser of a boss can make life a misery, when the fixed pathways of society work against you because you are of one gender rather than another.
Because let’s be honest: it’s harder for girls. Yes, they’ll usually do better at school and university, and are without doubt the preferable sex in almost every way I can think of, but sooner or later most of them will run into a wall — an adamantine, aeons-thick, male-shaped wall. Being a brick in the wall, I’d never given much thought to this until my three came along. These days I think about it — have to think about it — more and more.
It’s no pleasure to me that the SNP are in government at Holyrood. I have little respect for the party, its methods or its aims — its clammy obsession with The Thing and serpentine skin-shedding in its pursuit has warped Scottish politics for generations at the expense of our children, the poor and the sick.
So when I became aware of a slight dampness in my eyes during Nicola Sturgeon’s speech on being elected First Minister, I was rather alarmed. Did Heath feel a rosy glow when Maggie walked into Number 10? Did Salieri jig around to Mozart’s latest? Did Harry Potter privately believe Voldemort was just a bit misunderstood?
I smiled, first, in the sudden awareness that the tone struck by the new FM would be entirely different from the sneering, glassy-eyed, fat-guy swagger of her predecessor. I also like people who have the capacity for growth — I remember the awkward, edgy Sturgeon of the 1990s and appreciate the effort it must have taken over the years to become what she now is. She strikes me as the first First Minister since Donald Dewar to appear comfortable in her own skin.
But more than any of that, I liked what she said. She hoped her election would send ‘a strong, positive message to girls and young women — indeed, to all women — across our land. There should be no limit to your ambition or what you can achieve. If you are good enough and if you work hard enough, the sky is the limit — and no glass ceiling should ever stop you from achieving your dreams.’
I have no truck with quotas, which put tokenism before talent and can in fact be detrimental to a decent cause. In appointing a gender-balanced Cabinet, I trust Ms Sturgeon did so on something more than simple arithmetic — after all, her choices will have consequences for the lives of those who need wise, effective government the most.
But I do fervently believe in equality of opportunity, and it is unarguable that here society has a lot of work to do. Forty-odd years ago, my mother, then an economically independent university graduate and professionally successful young woman, went to see her bank manager about a car loan, taking along her pay slips and the other usual bumf. After a brief chat, she was told to go away and come back again ‘with your husband’. We may have moved on from that lunacy, but we all know of women who are paid less for doing the same job as a male colleague, who have lost out on a promotion to a less-talented man, or who have had promising careers taken out at the knees by pregnancy and a subsequent inability to access affordable childcare.
Progress of a sort is being made. Figures published last week show that the difference between the average earnings of men and women in the UK has narrowed to 19.1 per cent, the smallest gap since records began in 1997 (the ONS defines it as the difference between men’s and women’s hourly earnings as a percentage of men’s earnings). Indeed, women in their 20s and 30s now earn more than men in the same cohort, and the income of women working full-time increased by more than that of their male counterparts over the past year. Unsurprisingly, though, the gap widens considerably in favour of men after this, as the consequences of motherhood are felt.
The First Minister will, she says, address low pay and improve childcare. Good. But ultimately I suspect it will be her very presence at the top of the tree — our most prominent citizen, a figure of national fascination, a break from the old grey-suited routine — that has the keenest cultural impact. Her thought processes, her style of engagement, her femininity, her quiet, unshowy confidence and Ayrshire wit will all knit themselves into the Scottish psyche and, perhaps, refashion it a little.
She talked in her speech of her eight-year-old niece ‘who doesn’t yet know about the gender pay gap or under-representation or the barriers, like high childcare costs, that make it so hard for so many women to work and pursue careers. My fervent hope is that she never will — that by the time she is a young woman, she will have no need to know about any of these issues because they will have been consigned to history.’
I disagree with Ms Sturgeon about plenty — and I expect there’ll be harsh words ahead — but I’m cheering along with the above. I also suspect she will occupy her new post for quite some time, and I have to say I’m not unhappy at the prospect of my daughters growing up in a nation led from the front by a clever, capable, likeable, emotionally intelligent, barrier-shattering woman, who got there simply by being better than the rest. For their sake, and for the sake of all Scotland’s yammering, cackling little girls, I wish her well.
(This article appeared in the Scottish Daily Mail on November 24, 2014)