7 March 2017

It is over 100 years since the first International Women's Day. This year's theme is #BeBoldForChange: a call to help forge a better, more equal, working world. We asked some of our own team  change makers in their own right  what this means to them,  how we can better empower women in communities, and who they look to for change-making inspiration. 

Celebrate international women's day.

This year marks over 100 years since the first International Women’s Day. Do you think women still have to work harder to achieve the same recognition as men?

Emily Watts, Country Manager Scotland (EW): Whether it's true or not, it does often seem like you need to prove yourself as worthy of recognition, rather than your length and breadth of experience speaking for itself. I have lots of friends who are young professionals and the level of self-doubt that often exists among well educated, intelligent and experienced women never fails to surprise me. I don't see that as much among my male colleagues and friends, although I don't know if it's just something women are more open about. 

Niamh Scullion, Community Network Developer Northern Ireland (NS): Yes, I think they have to work much harder because the learned response is for women to step back and allow men to take the lead, so we have to fight against that as much as anyone else’s sexism. It’s not womanly to be bold and to stand your ground or to want to lead. We have to redefine womanhood. 

Christine Sefton, Community Project Developer (CS): Depends on the field and whether you class recognition as money, fame and power. In some respects, just by being a woman in a traditionally male arena brings a recognition not available to men.

Tracey Robbins, Delivery Manager (TR): I struggle with this, as I do not think we get the same recognition as men. That said, I don't have the same ambitions as a man, nor do I want to be compared with a man, as I am ALL woman! I think women have to work harder to balance work and family, caring for young and elderly family members, much more than men and without recognition.

Relative to other industries, the charity and community sector is very female dominated in its makeup. Why do you think that is and what does it say about women's role in shaping society?

TR: Women historically were ‘allowed’ to do charitable work.  Education, nursing and caregiving are traditionally female professions too: we are the nurturers of society, the connectors and the communicators. My priorities are people, human beings, not material possessions or financial success. I can of course only speak for myself: we are all unique and there will be women who will have an opposing view.

What do you imagine will be different for the next generation of women who are moving into the workforce?

EW: I hope that they feel less encumbered by the weight of gender issues. I hope that when my children move into work they can say, 'It's much better than it was in Mum’s day', in a similar way that I and my own Mum can say that. When all of the small incremental changes add up, I hope that finally, the next generation won't feel like they have to fight for recognition but instead simply get on with the work of doing whatever they choose, to the best of their ability. I hope it becomes accepted for women to have positions of power, to speak out for what they believe in and take action where it matters, without being vilified, or worse, ignored for the fact that they are women.

NS: I can already see the next generation rejecting gender roles. My daughter does not want to be defined by the traditional girl/woman stereotype and is determined to make her own way and I fully support that. She still tends to take a back seat in terms of leadership, so maybe that tendency is something that is harder to shift. There must be a change in schools. Teachers should be trained to fight sexism and promote gender equality and that means pushing girls harder, expecting more of them and encouraging them to view themselves as leaders.

What do you think is the best way to empower women in communities?

Jeni Lewitt, Community Network Developer London and South East (JL): Depends on what you mean by ‘empower’ and ‘communities’. Women who are juggling family, home and work perform most of the grass-roots volunteer work in communities. So, many women are already self-empowered: they just ‘get on and do it’, hopefully inspiring others to do the same. 

EW: Build confidence and capacity in women to consider leadership roles. I don't think we're very good at making it implicit that women can lead. Instead, it tends to be those who are willing to fight for a cause or activity they believe in. Equality doesn't mean making things the same for everyone but ensuring people have equal access to the same things. I believe this should extend to ambition. I do think there's a job to be done to help women consider that their impact could be just as vital as men’s.

NS: Encourage women to take non-traditional roles, learn non-traditional skills, and train them in leadership. We need a network of women who are community leaders to share experiences, challenges and to support each other. The women in the Eden Project Communities network in Northern Ireland and many others have faced the same challenges as I have in leading a project.

CS: Different communities will require different empowerment priorities. A) freedom from the media portrayal of ‘females’ and ‘males’ B) autonomy and agency. C) access to information and knowledge D) historical stories of female accomplishment. F) a philosophy that celebrates the similarity between all peoples, rather than one that emphasises difference. G) a political climate that reduces the inequality between people financially and educationally. H) a culture that recognises that: men are as intrinsic to a healthy family life as women; men are just as capable of being good parents as women; stops polarising masculinity and femininity and allows expression of the person.

TR: Drop in venues; childcare; communal spaces; inspiring sessions; education; good role models talking to girls in schools; praise and recognition thanking them for the powerfully ordinary things they do, day in and day out.

This year's International Women's Day theme is 'Be Bold For Change'. Who are some of the women that you look up to, who have created change for themselves and others?

Kathryn Garnett, Community Network Developer North England: The women I meet and speak with out in the community continually inspire me. How they step up, speak up and take action. In the limelight, I have respect for women like Rebecca Solnit and Caitlin Moran, who are helping to challenge and provide alternative perspectives on what it means to be ‘feminine’.    

JL: Malala Yousafzai is brave and formidable beyond her years; LaDonna Brave Bull Allard, the Founder of the Sacred Stone Camp opposing the Dakota oil pipeline, and Pussy Riot. These are all role models for women of all ages. They exhibit courage, strength and tenacity in ‘speaking out’ for those who have ‘no voice’.

Niamh: I look up to Olivia Cosgrove who was a boat building trailblazer and without whom I could not have made it through the past year. Her project, as well as the encouragement I got from the Eden Camp and community, gave me the spark to start our Lagan Currachs initiative. It is so important to have role models in your chosen field, so the more we can encourage to come forward, the more impact we will have on the current gender imbalance. I also look up to Victoria McCallum who works to try to recruit more women into the tech industry and continually challenges herself by putting herself under the spotlight at public speaking events. She faces the fear and does it anyway and improves every time. And that’s what more girls should be encouraged to do.  

From top row, clockwise: Tracey Robbins, Kathryn Garnett, Niamh Scullion, Emily Watts, Jeni Lewitt, Christine Sefton.

Face the fear, do it anyway and improve every time.... that’s what more girls should be encouraged to do.