The Women Who Changed Modern Scotland       

Broadcaster and journalist, Kirsty Wark reveals how pioneering women since the 1960s have surged forward to disrupt the status quo and transform Scotland itself in the process.

The Open University (OU) and the BBC co-produced ‘The Women Who Changed Modern Scotland’, which was broadcast in March 2023. It was supported by leading OU academics from the Faculties of Business and Law, as well as Arts and Social Sciences.

Women weren’t initially thought of or acknowledged in this way in Scotland. Women have endured the fight against society’s ideas regarding how women should behave and what role women should play throughout history. Even as recently as the 1970s, women were considered the property of their husbands. They were mocked for believing that it was possible for them to not only run for, but also win an election. The thought of a woman taking the helm was absurd. When we think of women in the twenty-first century, we acknowledge they can be world leaders, politicians, international footballers, journalists, and scientists working on vaccines for diseases like COVID-19.           

In this article, I interviewed Fiona Gladman who is a retired Further Education lecturer who lives in Glasgow. With the rain lashing down, Fiona and I were sitting in a café in the West End and we immediately began talking about women’s equalities over the last 50 years. I am intrigued to find out more about Fiona’s experience of being a woman.          

Sitting comfortably with our coffee, I began finding out what has changed for women in the fifty years. Fiona said “As a young woman temping in offices aged 16 upwards, there was a lot of what nowadays would be called unacceptable sexual behaviour from men.  Men brushing against you was commonplace in the workplace. You were also not treated as an equal and would be expected to make the tea and basically ‘wait’ on men, as if they were your superiors.  It seems to me that young women nowadays have the confidence not to accept that kind of behaviour and will call out men who behave inappropriately.’

Fiona went on to say: ‘What has changed for me personally, is that as I have aged – now 70 – I have more confidence and don’t really care that much what people think of me. I think it is more important to spend time with people who value you as an individual, rather than choose to spend time with anyone who is negative towards me. Not long ago, I had a situation where a member of a social group was backbiting and nasty behind some of the group’s back. I called her out on this, and no longer see her. I put up with this for a long time before I decided that life is too short to spend time with negative people.’        

We’ve witnessed many generational changes for women with the like of Nicola Sturgeon who was the First Minister for Scotland. When devolution was brought to Scotland and Scotland had its first Scottish Parliament in 300 years in 1999, women saw this as a platform to voice and shape policies that matters to them. The Scottish Parliament has more women entering politics than previous generations. Fiona who is seventy echoed the women leadership: “In Scotland we have had the wonderful example of Nicola Sturgeon being First Minister and effectively leading the country and this must be inspirational to young women.’

The challenges women have faced over the years have been about attitudes from males. Fiona says. She added: ‘I have been married to a man whose life revolves around football attending matches, watching them on TV etc. When raising children I was working full-time during this. I found it difficult to accept that he thought he should be free every Saturday to go to football while I spent time with the children. There was this attitude that he shouldn’t have to change his behaviour since marrying and having a family, and as many of his friends seemed to think the same way, it was a source of friction. I eventually got him to give me some ‘time off’ but then felt guilty at not spending my non-working time with my children.’        

Times have changed and responsibilities have shifted. Fiona said: ‘It seems to me nowadays that men are more involved in childcare, and that is how it should be. I can recall occasions when our children were sick and on the one and only occasion my husband took time off work to look after a child, his line manager (a headmaster) asked why his wife was not doing so. One of the main problems was back up care if a child took ill. It was not built into our contracts that we could have time off to care for a sick child, particularly when working as a teacher. I think that today’s contracts which usually offer this, are much improved on what we had. So, the traditional attitudes in men of my generation have been a source of frustration and conflict. In terms of career, there was no particular ‘glass ceiling’ with promoted posts in teaching. It was common for women to be promoted, including myself.’    

Turning to the future, it is about building a society where women have self-resilience. Speaking about her hope for the future of women and girls in Scottish society, Fiona said: ‘I am already encouraged that women are no longer assumed to be solely responsible for childcare and employers are more accepting that fathers need time off too. The introduction of paternity leave, also meant greater democracy between parents caring for children. I would like to see this trend continue and expand so that men can share childcare to a greater extent.’.          

The Finnieston Bridge over the River Clyde in Glasgow - also known as the Clyde Arc and, less formally, the "Squinty Bridge" - at night.
The Finnieston Bridge over the River Clyde in Glasgow – also known as the Clyde Arc and, less formally, the “Squinty Bridge” – at night.

Still in the 21st century, girls and women are held back accessing societal opportunities in terms of accessing education and career aspirations. Education is such a powerful investment to improve Scotland’s prosperity and shaping their own future.’ As Fiona said: ‘I want to see all young women be given the opportunity for further study. In my own youth, it was not uncommon for parents, particularly fathers, to think that their daughters should just work till they got married, and that was their ‘career path.’ No female should be restricted in this way.’       

She added: ‘It is clear my generation have witnessed extraordinary challenges with the 20th and 21st century. It has seen the revolution of technologies, social media, the increase in women becoming more vocal about the violence they experience. Women and girls continue to face barriers to equality and success in modern society.’ However, Fiona is defiant about the rights of women. She said: ‘I want to see changes being made to make it easier for mothers to be members of parliament. Women have a great deal to offer but if parliament hours are long and inflexible, this makes it extremely difficult for women with political ambitions.’   

We have witnessed how organisational culture has altered tremendously in the previous 18 months, and how the future of work will become prevalent in how we operate. It had a significant impact on how people behave and go about their jobs. Fiona thinks it has been a positive change. She said: ‘The trend of home working, which started during lockdown, is one I would like to see expanded. This I think allows greater work and life balance and cutting down time commuting saves time for work and leisure.’   

The modern world is influenced by current organisational changes, which are widely transmitted through symbols and artefacts. These artistic mediums, whether in the form of visual pictures, sounds, or commercials, express ideas and concepts that determine how an organisation’s culture should evolve. Fiona said: ‘I want to see equality in the workplace and in personal partnerships whether these are men and women, women and women, or men and men. Working as equals in the workplace and in the home will always bring better results and better satisfaction.’  

Scotland has changed profoundly for women and girls over the last fifty years. Women have stood to make their voices heard, from the wavelength of the media to holding the pinnacle of the nation’s government. Many women across Scotland have set the precedence for girls to pioneer their niches in Scotland’s society. Scotland has much to be proud of when it comes to celebrating the achievement of women’s rights.


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