The Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival partnered with the WOW festival in Perth to hold a sexism and mental health drop-in workshop for women. The event created a safe environment for women to hear and share their experience of sexist policy on their mental health.

The workshop was led by Dr Iris Elliot, Head of Policy and Research for the Mental Health Foundation, Gail Aldam, Arts and Events Manager for the Mental Health Foundation Scotland, and Maryam Hamidi from the cast of Hysteria!, AJ Taudevin’s political cabaret which premiered at SMHAF.

Talking Heads volunteer Shirley Hellyar spoke to First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, who spoke at WOW’s launch event, about the impact that sexism can have on mental health and the inequalities that women face within today’s society.

As a powerful successful woman in politics, what has been your biggest challenge to overcome with regards to discrimination?

I’ve had cause recently to reflect on the fact that although things are infinitely better than they were 20 years ago, it is often still the case that women are judged by completely different standards to men.

Just after Theresa May became Prime Minister, she came up to meet with me at Bute House in Edinburgh. I remember thinking that day that regardless of our political differences, the image – of a female First Minister of Scotland meeting with a female Prime Minister of the UK – was quite a powerful one for other women and possibly especially for young girls. It sent a message that anything was possible – there are no areas that any longer should be seen as being off limits for women. I remember vividly coming out of that meeting and looking at what was happening on social media and the first image of Theresa May and I meeting on the steps of Bute House, that I saw when I went onto social media, had cut both of us off at the knees because it was an image illustrating a story about what shoes we’d both been wearing. So here we had two female leaders discussing fairly important things like Brexit and the future of the country, but some journalist somewhere had decided the most important thing about that meeting was to compare the shoes we were wearing.

The same actually happened a few months later when I went to visit Theresa May in Downing Street and one newspaper after that meeting illustrated it with a photo of me walking down Downing Street and had the headline “First Minister tries to outdo the Prime Minister on the shoe front”, and again there was a picture of me from the knees down.

Now I really like shoes, but I think there’s more to women politicians than the shoes they wear, and I can’t imagine when Alex Salmond went to meet David Cameron at Downing Street that anyone would have been interested in their shoes.

It is a serious point – women are judged differently and the criteria that you are judged by are very different. Now that focus – on how we look and what we wear – is something that, after more than 20 years in politics, I’ve become personally quite inured by now. It’s not something I pay too much attention to, but I do know from discussions with younger women that it is still something that is potentially off putting to a younger woman considering a career in politics or public life.

It’s one of the reasons why – even although I’m inured to it – I feel a responsibility to speak up about that kind of treatment of women. Whether it’s the more light-hearted treatment of women or the more serious discrimination or prejudice or holding to different standards that women still often experience. And that’s because one of the things I pledged to myself as well as to other people that I wanted to do as First Minister – as the first woman to hold the office of First Minister in Scotland – is to try to use whatever influence that I had to make a difference to the opportunities and chances that other girls and women have now and in the future.

What are main barriers that women face at the moment with regards to stigma and discrimination, and how do you think we as women can overcome them?

Unfortunately, even in 2017, women here and all around the world face inequality in many areas of their lives.

In the workplace they still face pregnancy discrimination, make up the majority of low paid workers, and are underrepresented in senior positions in the organisations and businesses that they work for. The unpaid caring work that they do is undervalued, and all of this contributes to the gender pay gap.

This deficit is reflected in wider society such as politics and the legal sector, with over 70% of the top positions in Scotland held by men.

Alongside this is the everyday sexism and gender stereotyping that many women and girls face and that culturally has been seen as acceptable for generations.

This all sounds deeply depressing and it is, but I am determined that my government will make a difference for women and girls. I have made this clear from day one in my policies and practice – from ensuring women are equally represented in my Cabinet, to making affordable and high quality early learning and childcare a key policy for my government. This isn’t just rhetoric, this is absolutely a priority for me in my time as first minister.

But it’s not just government that can tackle inequality, we all should when we see it. I’ve seen fantastic examples of women and men, girls and boys coming together to challenge discrimination and sexism and that is very powerful, and I encourage more people to become involved in any way that works for them – through social media, their student associations or unions, with political parties or with charities or NGOs working to achieve women’s equality. Together we can make a real difference.

What advice would you give to both men and women to challenge discrimination, in this current climate of recent events, such as Donald Trump being elected President in the USA, and men of power such as Harvey Weinstein who are demeaning and misogynistic and use unacceptable behaviour towards woman?

You should always challenge unacceptable behaviour wherever you see it – whether you’re the recipient of it or if you witness it against someone else. It is also important to challenge the acceptance that behaviours or attributes seen in one light when from a man are seen differently when it is from a woman. In politics, and I’m sure it’s true in other walks of life, what in men is often considered to be strong, assertive leadership is often described by the media and others as bossy, strident or unappealing in a woman. The advice I would give to women would be to always try and stay true to yourself and follow your heart. I believe if you do this then more often than not you’ll make the right decision.

What do you think are the main qualities that make a strong and empowered woman?

Knowing your own mind and developing resilience are vital qualities. If you are good enough and if you work hard enough, the sky should be the limit and no glass ceiling should ever stop you from achieving your dreams. The gender gap, although narrowing, is still a reality. That is why am determined to do everything I can so that everyone has the opportunity to be the best they can be.

by Shirley Hellyar

The second part of Shirley’s interview with Nicola Sturgeon, which focuses on mental health discrimination, can be found at the Mental Health Foundation.

Shirley is a writer, actor and model, currently writing her first screenplay and acting as full-time carer for her disabled dad. She has dyslexia, anxiety and depression. She wants to show that with the right help and support anything is possible, and being honest about mental health difficulties is so important in reclaiming who you are.