Clare Logie interviews Shona Robison who was first elected to represent Dundee East in 2003 having been a list MSP for the North East region since 1999. Since 2007 she served as Minister for Public Health and in 2009 was given the additional responsibility for Sport. Such is the importance of the Commonwealth Games in 2014 and the high priority in which participation in sport is held by the SNP Government, it was decided to appoint for the first time, a dedicated Sports Minister. Shona is working to establish a lasting ‘legacy’ from the decision to bring the Commonwealth games to Glasgow that will help to create a fitter Scotland and new generations of healthier and more active Scots.
Shona is married to Stewart Hosie, the Member of the Westminster Parliament for Dundee East. Shona and Stewart have a young daughter and live in the constituency they represent in the two Parliaments.
Clare met with the Minister to discuss her views on women in politics, the Games legacy and the opportunities 2014 will present for Scotland.
Clare Logie There has been much in the press recently about women leaving the political landscape, especially in Westminster. What do you think are the key reasons for this?
Shona Robison People leave for a whole range of complex reasons which are, in fact, non-gender specific. If you’re a Scottish MP at Westminster it can be very difficult to manage conflicting demands in your life; you are essentially away Monday to Thursday in London every single week. In addition the Westminster environment delivers challenges of its own; although the culture has improved, it can often be considered to be something of a bear-pit. It has a very male-dominated image, can be very aggressive and some people do find aspects of its culture to be abusive in many respects. We need more women to reach the top, be visible and help change and dilute that negative culture and perception. Norway is a good example of where this is happening; their quotas have delivered a critical mass in terms of numbers of women in influential positions, which creates a domino effect where more and more women will come through and the tipping point is reached which actually then changes culture and behavior.
CL So are you supportive of quotas?
SR The Deputy First Minister has spoken with clarity on this issue; within the Scottish Government we are seeking to implement mechanisms which aim to redress the balance across public and private sector; we believe that the public sector could have a vital leadership role in illustrating how this can be achieved. Quotas are an important element of this journey and would send a very clear message that organisations need to make progress on the issue of diversity. An SNP government in an independent Scotland would seek to bring in laws to direct large public and private sector organisations to appoint women to 40 per cent of their top jobs because women are still underrepresented in the governance of companies and public authorities.
CL You have co-responsibility for an initiative which looks to increase the diversity of, and numbers of women on, public boards in Scotland. Why do you believe this is so important?
SR Simply for equality. 52% of the population is female and yet that is not reflected in board or director positions; are we really saying that women are not as capable as men of holding down influential jobs? As the Deputy First Minister pointed out, a stronger voice for women at the top table will help ensure that the policies that flow from these boards challenge inequality rather than perpetuate it.
CL What do you believe to be the main reasons for the under-representation of women on boards?
SR I really believe it’s about breaking the mould; we need more role models for women to see and aspire to emulate. There are numerous barriers to equality currently and some of these are legislative, some are about encouragement, ie, ensuring we have a large talent pool of ALL under-represented candidates who are appointment-ready. We need the legislative support and encouragement and we need a change in culture and behaviours. In most cases, I don’t believe problems are caused by overt sexism but I do believe there is a significant degree of unconscious bias which needs to be addressed.
CL Are you confident that we, as a nation, can redress the balance – and how quickly do you think we can do so?
SR We absolutely can and we’re already on the way. It has been slow but we’re definitely moving in the right direction and we have much improved figures. I would say that by 2020 we can confidently expect to see a very different public and corporate life.
CL Whilst government will support work on systemic issues to facilitate this redress, what do you believe women can do for themselves?
SR Be open to the challenge. Be more visible. We need to communicate more effectively to women what is expected in public board appointments, but women then need to respond. They need to apply, put themselves forward. Don’t rule themselves out; I do think that women have a tendency to de-select themselves, because they believe they have to be 200% effective before they could contemplate putting themselves forward for anything.
CL Looking at 2014 and the wealth of culture and sport on the menu for Scotland, how would you summarise that year in terms of opportunity for Scotland to shine on the world stage?
SR Well, this is Scotland’s year. The eyes of the world will be upon us and we have an unprecedented opportunity to shape our future on the world stage. We can enhance our reputation and define our own messages about who we are and what we can and want to achieve.
CL Do you anticipate a frenzy around the Commonwealth Games similar to that which we witnessed with London 2012?
SR It’s already started. The excitement is definitely building now as we are getting far more up close and personal with the cultural events, communications and volunteers. We had an overwhelming response from people wanting to be volunteer helpers – just wanting to be part of it. The anticipation is palpable and so positive.
CL What are the key aims in terms of socio-economic and cultural legacy from the Games for Scotland?
SR The legacy will be felt 10 years out from the Games; we have been working on this since the bid. It’s about economic regeneration for the East End of Glasgow, it’s about housing, jobs, opportunities, business growth and contracts. In many respects we need to tell the story of legacy through hard numbers, such as the £1billion transport infrastructure which will benefit the West of Scotland.
It’s about young people and creating foundations and frameworks that will increase their opportunities in the future. ‘Scotland’s Best’ is part of our £5m Legacy Young Persons’ Fund. It’s an employability programme for 1,000 young people aged 16 to 24 which combines training and volunteering, with successful participants achieving a qualification at the end, providing unemployed young people with the chance to gain valuable skills and experience to help their move into education, further training or employment.
Then there is the public health aspect; we are seeking to make Scotland a more active nation and to develop a sporting culture. This is probably the most challenging aspect of the legacy objectives and relies heavily on people responding and taking on positive attitudes about their own health and fitness.
CL Clearly the Independence Referendum colours everything between now and September 2014; who should women, specifically, think positively about what an independent Scotland could deliver for them?
SR Women are aspirational – for themselves their families and their communities and they recognise that they can achieve the most when they have resources, freedom and opportunity to shape outcomes. Our proposition around independence is simple : it’s about shaping our own destiny. The best option for Scotland is to have control over legislative issues that enable us to shape that destiny. The best people to make decisions about Scotland are here in Scotland. It’s like taking on a DIY job; you need a full toolbox to do the most effective job. For us to create an exciting, modern Scotland, we want all the tools available to facilitate that. Through devolution we have already demonstrated we can do this and more powers will give us more opportunities. For example, the Marriage & Civil Partnership (Scotland) Bill last week was a fantastic example and gave out a strong signal about our creating a modern Scotland; I actually found it very moving. There are other such great pieces of legislation that we could choose to bring in that are game changers, that will really move Scotland forward positively.
CL What is the most challenging aspect of your current role?
SR I have a tendency to want to know absolutely everything – all the nitty gritty detail about every issue and that’s really not possible with a role on this scale. So I have to hold back from trying to get into that level of detail and I do still struggle with that.
CL And the most rewarding?
SR Seeing it all come together and being a key part of the building blocks that foster change. For example on the Equalities side, where I have just recently taken on new responsibilities there is a lot of change in Scotland and it is so rewarding to be a part of that.
CL What is the trait you most deplore in other people?
SR Pomposity. Bluster without talent.
CL Who, or what, has provided the greatest inspiration to you in life so far?
SR My mum, for being such a strong, positive, supportive woman. She won a place at a High School in Manchester with a bursary but she was evacuated at 14 and never had the opportunity to take it up. She hated being evacuated and left school as soon as she could to start working in a factory. But she always maintained her belief in the value of education and encouraged us to work hard and to aspire to achieve whatever we wanted. She instilled in me a desire to want to do my best, always.
CL To where do one’s aspirations run when one has been a Cabinet Minister? What remains for you to aspire to?
SR Politics is a strange job because whether or not you stay working in it is entirely dependent on the Electorate. And it’s a real vocation, so you have to keep believing in what you are doing. The biggest mistake a politician can make is to stay too long, so there is a right moment to move on. I don’t know what that will look like for me, but there are lots of things I would like to have more time to do. My daughter is only 10 so I’d love to have more time to spend with her. Perhaps we’ll do some traveling together.
CL If you manage to get clear time off, where would you most wish to spend it?
SR With my daughter. I am aware that she has always had to share her Mum with politics and of course that has given me some moments of doubt, like any working mother. I do try to get home every night but it is always good to have any extra time to spend with her.
CL What is your favourite song and why?
SR ‘Free Nelson Mandela’ by The Specials. I chaired an anti-apartheid movement at Glasgow University and it was a real rallying cry where we all felt passionately, of one mind, about a vital change that needed to be made. And which was made. This song reminds me of that time and that’s a very positive, energising feeling. Obviously with the death of Mandela in December, the song was played a lot and it took me right back to those days and those feelings.