IT’S an irony that doesn’t escape Nicola Sturgeon as we discuss gender equality in her Edinburgh office. St Andrews House, where we sit, used to be the site of a jail that imprisoned and force-fed suffragettes who demanded the right to vote at a time when women were absent from all forms of political representation.

Now, just more than 100 years later, the country’s female First Minister is being interviewed on this very spot by a female journalist. The two ministerial advisers in the room are women. Her Cabinet is gender balanced.

None of this means equality has been achieved, of course. Far from it. The issue of gender politics has rarely felt more alive and engaging after an astonishing six months that has seen an outpouring of allegations of sexual abuse, harassment and sexism across all sectors of society in the aftermath of the Harvey Weinstein scandal.

We’ve also seen the creation of hugely influential global movements such as MeToo and Time’sUp to facilitate action and give young women in particular a voice, while the unprecedented debate around male behaviour continues.

Sturgeon’s party has not been immune. The day after we meet, MSP Mark McDonald, a former childcare minister, resigned from the SNP after an investigation found he had harassed two women and exploited his position. She has urged him to resign as an MSP.

But does the First Minister believe we are at a watershed moment in terms of societal change?

“I hope so, but I think it’s too early to say,” she says. “There’s been a powerful movement over the last few months that has sometimes been quite difficult to live through as a woman. All of us have been facing up to things we’ve accepted for too long, realising that we can’t go on accepting them.

“But I also feel we’ve got to watch out that we don’t get into a situation where too much of the responsibility for changing society is put on women’s shoulders. Having suffered some of this behaviour for so long the responsibility seems to be on women to come forward and talk about it, relive it. Women should be supported in doing that, but they shouldn’t be criticised for not doing it.

“This is about men’s behaviour. Not all men, but largely men. The responsibility should be on men to change. Men have to be part of the solution. I don’t think it’s going to change immediately, but it has to translate into a fundamental change and a watershed moment, otherwise what a lot of women have experienced over the last few months will have been for nothing.”

Last week, a survey of Holyrood staff, including MSPs, found that almost a third of women had experienced harassment or sexism at work. As a woman who started out as a teenage activist in Ayrshire in the 1980s and came through the ranks in the early days of the Scottish Parliament, it’s hard to imagine Sturgeon doesn’t have personal experience.

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“I don’t think there’s a woman alive who hasn’t experienced something of it. It will be on a spectrum of behaviour, but that doesn’t mean what you would describe as at one end of the spectrum is trivial or unimportant.

“For me it has [manifested as] a range of things. Comments – what many guys would think of as jokes. When I was elected to Holyrood there were more women than there were in Westminster, but it was still a very male environment. It can feel difficult when you’re sitting there and a guy makes what he thinks is a throwaway comment, to say ‘hold on, that’s not acceptable’, because [as a woman] you are made to feel prissy or that you have no sense of humour.

“I’d struggle to point to a particular instance of overt discrimination I experienced, but looking back it was the attitudes and perceptions of women, the way you were spoken about and judged, and that’s still true to this day. You are still judged and talked about differently than men.

“Back then the obvious manifestation was that I was completely surrounded by middle-aged men. I was a rarity.”

Indeed, Sturgeon says that as a young woman cutting her teeth in what was still very much a man’s world, she often felt under pressure to fit in with masculine behaviour stereotypes.

“You start to adopt – unconsciously – behaviours; the stance, the approach,” she recalls. “It leads you to be more adversarial and aggressive in your approach and, as a young woman behaving like the men behave, it inevitably leads to people seeing you as taking yourself far too seriously.

“It’s a no-win situation and you quickly realise this. If you behave in the way people expect women to behave, the danger is you are treated as not being serious enough. If you emulate the behaviours of the men around you, you are accused of not being feminine.”

It’s a position that many women of all ages and backgrounds, across all employment sectors will doubtless recognise, and Sturgeon says over the years she has gradually learned to embrace her own style of politics.

“The older I’ve got, the more experienced I’ve become, the more you learn to be yourself. You gain a bit more confidence.

“If I’m ever asked to impart advice to younger women – particularly in politics but more generally, too – the first thing I say is this: just be yourself.

“Women are not one homogenous group. We’re all individuals and having the confidence and ability to be who you are and follow the path you want to take is the most important thing.”

Though she says it happens less frequently these days, the First Minister still walks into rooms where she is the only woman, or in a distinct minority. Despite being the leader of the country, I wonder if she is still subject to “mansplaining”?

“Oh God, yes,” she laughs. “Even as First Minister I get men trying to explain politics to me. I like to think most guys mean well when they do it, but it’s definitely still a thing. To be fair lots of guys are much more conscious now of how they behave but – dare I say it – there’s still a lot of dinosaurs out there.”

It’s something she may well have discussed with defeated presidential candidate and former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, whom she met in New York last year when both took part in the Women in the World conference. A picture of the pair sits on the sideboard in Sturgeon’s office.

Born in Irvine in 1970, the year of the Equal Pay Act, Sturgeon credits her mother Joan for “always telling me to do whatever I wanted, regardless of gender”. On joining the SNP, she says she was inspired by the strong female role models who had come before her, the likes of Winnie and Margaret Ewing, Margo MacDonald and Roseanna Cunningham.

She is the role model now, of course, Scotland’s first female First Minister, still one of relatively few female heads of Government around the world.

Sturgeon admits it is a “huge responsibility” and she clearly feels it keenly, admitting to being “overcome” during the first few days of her tenure when she became aware of the high number of women and girls who had contacted her to say it meant something to them.

“Suddenly you’re aware that the mistakes you make, the things you get wrong – and obviously you will get things wrong – there will be people out there who point to that and say it tells you a woman can’t do the job,” she says.

“But this is a very special position to be in. And one of the best bits of my job is getting to talk to wee girls and encourage them to be what they want to be.”

Among the wee girls Sturgeon feels a particular responsibility to is her 11-year-old niece, Harriet. The First Minister refers to her often during our conversation, particularly when we discuss the impact of social media on girls and women, and issues around body image (“I was with Harriet last night and her consciousness about how she looks and what she wears is far greater than when I was young”).

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She also worries about the frustrating lack of progress in areas such as equal pay and representation. The gender pay gap in the UK currently sits at 18 per cent, highlighting that although it has been illegal to pay people unequally based on gender for almost half a century, economic parity is still a long way off.

And despite making up more than half the population – 51% – women are still under-represented in Holyrood and Westminster, woefully so when it comes to senior positions in industry.

This is one of the reasons Sturgeon is extending the First Mentor initiative, which offers a young woman aged 18-23 the chance to be personally mentored by her. She has called on other women in leadership roles to offer the same opportunity.

The First Minister is also in favour of using legislation to help redress inequalities, but admits wider cultural change will also be vital if women are ever to be fairly paid, represented and respected in society.

“I would love to think we didn’t need any of that [legislation] but the experience of my lifetime is that you do because voluntary change does not happen quickly enough,” she explains.

“We’ve got to look at how we accelerate the progress, whether it’s on equal pay or representation. For people who don’t want that, the challenge goes back to them – how can we accelerate the pace of change in a different way?

“We simply cannot be sitting here in 10 or 20 years’ time and for things not to have changed. My niece is 11 – if we’re still sitting here talking about these things when she’s a young woman then we’ll have failed another generation. And that’s not good enough.”

In a bid to tackle some of these issues, Sturgeon set up a non-party advisory council on women and girls at the end of last year, chaired by Young Scot chief executive Louise Macdonald.

Members of the panel include Dr Catherine Calderwood, Scotland’s Chief Medical Officer, former National Theatre of Scotland creative director Vicky Featherstone, campaigning barrister Dame Helena Kennedy and Women 50/50 co-founder Talat Yaqoob.

“It’s an incredibly powerful panel,” says the First Minister. “There is a real sense that it can be a catalyst for change and I am very hopeful that it will be pivotal in pushing forward some of these areas we’ve been talking about.

“I would also say that I went to their first meeting and this is not a group of women who are going to let me off the hook.”