IWD 2019

There was a lot of excitement in our household last week about World Book Day. Our eldest dressed up as her favourite character from Harry Potter, while my wife found a dragon costume for our 4-year old as he and I share a slight obsession about the How to Train Your Dragon movies. 

Of course, there was another notable date last week, with Friday 8th March marking International Women’s Day. While the United Nations heralded International Women’s Day for the first time in 1975, the earliest historical references to the observance of a national women’s day are from New York in 1909. It’s harder to find a timeline around Scotland having a national day in celebration of the fairer sex, although a country that can boast individuals like Mary Queen of Scots, Elsie Inglis, Mary Somerville, Nan Shepherd, Annie Lennox, Liz McColgan, J.K. Rowling and Nicola Sturgeon has unquestionably built a narrative around pioneering and change-making women.

In my own family tree, women have been the maternal powerhouses that have guided our immediate and extended family through recent generations. From my own mother, to her mother (pictured above with her sisters and mother), grandmothers, great-grandmothers, aunts, great-aunts - from the south of Glasgow, Mid Argyll and Sutherland - women from a largely Protestant tradition have seen in decades of shifting social change, political upheaval, two World Wars, relatives and friends who went to war and some who never came back. Others emigrated to Canada and America.

On my father’s side were women from Skye, Glasgow and Ireland (the Catholic connection), including women forced to emigrate to a new and uncertain country over the Irish Sea. When life gets hard, I should really think back to some of their lives and the constant hardships faced. 

My own mother made my siblings and I feel secure and safe when we relocated to Canada and then the US. My parents chose to follow my Dad’s profession - a medical doctor and academic - to a new continent, it wasn’t as if we were forced to leave Scotland because of an economic downturn, never mind a famine. Still, we had our share of tough times adjusting to a new life and leaving beloved relatives behind.   

Renowned Chilean author Isabel Allende wrote: “We don’t even know how strong we are until we are forced to bring that hidden strength forward. In times of tragedy, of war, of necessity, people do amazing things. The human capacity for survival and renewal is awesome.”  

I was chatting about some of these things to Anneli Ritari-Stewart over lunch last week and then at an afternoon event run by her digital marketing agency, iProspect (part of the Dentsu Aegis global network who acquired Edinburgh HQ-ed creative agency Whitespace in 2018), themed around International Women’s Day. 

Ritari-Stewart, a CEO with a young family who also competes for Scotland in powerlifting, has been influenced, as I have, by sport and sporting icons perhaps as much as by people from the world of business. Among my own sporting crushes is Jasmin Paris, a Scotland-based ultra-trail runner who is currently shattering longstanding records - and finishing ahead of the pick of the male competition - across the board while, in her most recent win, expressing breast milk for her 6-month old baby boy at each rest station along a 268-mile course route in the north of England's Peninne Hills (Paris slept for around 3 hours in total of her 83-hour course record and win).

Turning to the business landscape, increasingly, technology businesses realise the significant advantages of having a workforce that reflects the company’s customer base. Put simply, if you’ve got a more diverse team, your products stand a much better chance of hitting the right notes.

At the same time, gender parity remains a real issue. A 2017 survey of female students in the UK by PwC found that around 80 per cent of respondents couldn’t name a famous female working in tech. More alarmingly, only 3 per cent said a career in technology was their first choice. 

My own experience of working with a number of tech startups and scale-ups in Scotland is that there are a healthy number of females in leadership teams and that gender balance is embedded in the hiring approach of many. Most definitely though, we need more female founders and CEOs. Surely, that would get the needle pointed in the right direction. As a small nation with a correspondingly easy to navigate tech ecosystem, we undoubtedly have the opportunity to make real and lasting change.

Next month, the findings of an illuminating survey into the Scottish context are launched at an event at CodeBase in Edinburgh. Purpose HRAdministrateModulr and Girl Geeks have sponsored the survey aimed to gain a better understanding of what qualified STEM female candidates want from SME employers - what attracts them and what gets in the way. This is but one of a load of like-minded initiatives going on in Scotland at the moment. I think that's a great sign.

A contact of mine who is a reporter at the Financial Times (as well as being a young mother) posted something on social media over the weekend which resonated... "I really hope there will be no IWD when [my son] grows up because gender pay gaps will have been abolished and there will be an equal split between men and women, both at home and in the workplace".

If we don't know what 65 per cent of the jobs will actually be twenty years from now, but we can guess that most of them will be digital, I hope my own daughter can do whatever she wants in life without the kind of workplace and societal bias and prejudice which has blighted most of the 20th century.

An edited version of this article appeared in The Scotsman today (Monday 11th March)