Sunday 8 March, marked International Women’s Day and this year’s theme focuses on equality. Equality is such an eminently fair and sensible concept that it seems odd that we still have to make this point in 2020: but we do. The scope of debate currently taking place about gender equality is vast and, when you start thinking about something so huge, it can feel overwhelming. There is always the danger, when a challenge seems insurmountable, that you simply switch off from it because you don’t know how you can make a difference. In reality, as the organisers of IWD say, “Everyone has a part to play – all the time, everywhere.”
We are fortunate in the UK that inequality between men and women is reducing all the time. However, there are plenty of examples which illustrate that it can still be an issue. High profile cases have seen women taking employers to court because they have not been paid the same as their male counterparts for equivalent jobs. In January 2020 presenter Samira Ahmed won the employment tribunal she brought against the BBC in a dispute over equal pay. Ahmed claimed she was underpaid by £700,000 for hosting audience feedback show Newswatch compared with Jeremy Vine’s salary for Points of View. The unanimous judgement said her work was like that done by Vine, and the BBC had failed to prove the pay gap wasn’t because of sex discrimination. However, there are much more subtle ways in which inequality exists many of which are completely unintentional but we haven’t challenged our thinking on them.
The book ‘Invisible women: exposing data bias in a world designed for men’ by Caroline Criado Perez gives a fascinating insight into all sorts of areas of disadvantage women face because most of the large data sets which exist, focus on men. Women are 17% more likely to die and 47% more likely to be seriously injured in a car crash because all crash test simulations are analysed using a crash test dummy which is the size of an average American male from the 1970s. It has taken years to develop and enhance and it is filled with sensors which are able to determine the effect of crashes at different speeds and from different directions on all areas of the body. There is a lack of appetite amongst car designers to invest the time and money into developing a female crash test dummy to the same exacting standards. Until they do, improvements in car safety will be biased in favour of male drivers and passengers and in some cases improvements in safety for men may actually make cars less safe for women, as is the case for some of the more recent design changes to reduce whiplash. I am not suggesting for one moment that this bias is intentional and neither is Carol Criado Perez but unless this and similar examples are addressed, the problem will persist.
The aim of creating a world where there is gender equality is close to my heart, both as the leader of a co-educational school and as the parent of a daughter and a son. I don’t want the girls who are growing up at St John’s today to feel that anything is out of reach to them as a result of their gender. But I have the same aspiration for our boys. I would prefer that gender wasn’t an issue that had to be talked about in this way because I don’t believe it should be a defining characteristic – particularly when we’re talking about someone’s role in the workplace. Too often we do everyone a disservice by falling back on lazy assumptions such as ‘women are more nurturing’ or ‘men are more assertive’. The reality is that every individual – male or female – brings their own mix of skills, ideas and opinions.
As I said at the start of this blog, this is a vast and complex topic but it is always worth acknowledging the positive as well as the negative. On that basis, we should acknowledge that the pupils at our school are growing up in a society that, in terms of gender equality, has progressed hugely from the world their grandparents and great grandparents knew. The first International Women’s Day was held in 1911, when the suffragettes were being imprisoned as they campaigned for the right to vote. Women’s rights in society have taken huge strides since then and, in the UK, we should also be conscious that we live in a much more equal society than many other parts of the world where the opportunities open to young women here would seem unimaginable. But, while we know that progress has been made, we also know there is more to be done.
In a previous blog I wrote about how one person can initiate ripples of change that have transformative outcomes – proof that, no matter how big the challenge seems, we are all capable of making a difference. The organisers of IWD emphasise that, individually, we are all responsible for our own thoughts and actions, and we can make an active choice to challenge stereotypes, fight bias and broaden perceptions within the scope of our own day-to-day lives. Just as I have spoken before about the power of a community to achieve more, this year’s IWD campaign encourages people to think about ‘collective individualism’ which sees us all as parts of a whole, meaning that our individual actions, behaviours and beliefs have the potential to impact society in a broader sense. Collectively, we can make change happen.