International Women's Day - Will you Choose to Challenge?
A challenged world is an alert world and from challenge comes change. Individually, we're all responsible for our own thoughts and actions - all day, every day. On Thursday 11 March we celebrated International Women’s Day and heard diverse perspectives from Helen Pankhurst (Senior Advisor at Care International and great grand-daughter of Emmeline Pankhurst), Esther Kwaku (founder of www.wegotnerve.com) and Carolyn Clark (NED at Starling Bank and board advisor). Watch the session recording to hear their inspiring commentary that resonates now more than ever will challenge you and inspire you. Let’s explore how collectively how we can forge a gender-equal world and raise awareness against bias.
Meet Our Speaker
Helen Pankhurst, Senior Adviser, CARE International
Dr Helen Pankhurst is the great-granddaughter of Emmeline Pankhurst and granddaughter of Sylvia Pankhurst, leaders in the British suffragette movement. Pankhurst is currently CARE International's senior advisor working in the UK and Ethiopia. Helen Pankhurst has worked for a range of international development organisations including ACORD, Womankind Worldwide and CARE International. Her focus has been on programme and policy in urban and rural development, water hygiene and sanitation and women's rights. She is gearing up to the annual International Women’s Day Walk in London under CARE’s Walk In Her Shoes Campaign.
Why does is have to be like this? Exploring the path to gender equality
Following International Women’s Day in March, Protiviti hosted a debate about gender equality – in society and in work. Three leaders from banking, social enterprise, and the charity sector found an audience sitting on the fence – and prescribed some real-world advice about the way forward
Bira is a young woman living in Uganda who makes amazing banana pancakes. She sells them to make a living, but at 2 pence each, it’s hard to make enough money to do anything else. This is important because Bira’s aspirations are elsewhere: she would like to start a fashion retail business but is unsure how to do it. From the costs involved, to the training, and the selling – how will she be able to progress her dream? Her banana pancakes are amazing, but she feels stuck.
So, Esther Kwaku begins to ask her a series of questions. She wants to help Bira think differently about her challenges. How could she make more profit from the pancakes? Who could help her with materials for fashion? Could she sell some products online? When would training have to occur, so it wouldn’t disrupt the pancake selling? You can see where the conversation is going. Esther is coaching Bira to access her own resources and ideas.
“Through our work, we identified Bira as a rising leader,” says Esther, who runs The Nerve Network, which is a social enterprise working with women from marginalised communities. “When we can help her unlock those challenges, she will pay it forward. It’s proven that when we invest in women and female entrepreneurs, they are more likely to do the same for others. We can have this multiplier effect, which is super powerful.”
Six months later, when Esther meets Bira again, her life is beginning to change. She has accessed some of the resources she needs and has also built a shop. It was the initial conversation that helped unlock her potential, says Esther, who believes it gave her confidence to go after what she wanted. “That’s a really important part of our programme,” she says.
This story is being shared just after International Women’s Day in 2021. There has been a groundswell of support across the media, with men and women choosing to challenge the bias and inequality they see in society. The campaign is well timed. Diversity and inclusion remain top of the agenda for businesses. The gender pay gap is still a big problem. And the number of women in senior positions – in society and at work – remains pitifully low. Progress has been made but gender parity remains decades away.
“We’ve still got a culture that gives visibility to what men say and do and focuses primarily on what women look like,” said Helen Pankhurst, activist and senior adviser at Care International. “If you position yourself as a 13-year-old girl, for example, a lot of the social media they use is based on image. I remember talking to a teacher about the first day in secondary school. The boys were looking at photos of girls and ranking them how ‘hot’ they were. And the girls were complicit in this; they were happy to be involved.”
During the event, participants were asked to mark the UK’s progress towards gender equality out of ten. In a live poll of the 100-strong group, most scored 5.8; OK, but ‘could do better’. In a second question, participants were asked about progress towards equal opportunity and pay in the workplace. This answer was 5.4 out of ten. There was a huge range of responses to the second question, suggesting many were feeling negative about professional equality.
“By that indication we are saying it will take another 100 years,” said Helen Pankhurst, reflecting on her great grandmother’s role in the suffragette movement 100 years ago. “Is that good enough? No, it’s not. We all need to do more. The fact we had such variation across different people from zero to 10 is also interesting. Because that’s either experience or it’s perception. For those of you who are at zero, take comfort in the fact that some people think we’ve done better. For those of you at ten, please look around, and see how other people are experiencing things differently.”
Esther Kwaku added: “We don’t want to wait another 100 years to see the changes. We don’t have that luxury of time for so many different reasons: from what’s going on in homes, workplaces and, of course, climate change. Women are hardest hit by climate change and have been hardest hit in the pandemic, too. We need to find better ways to organise and collaborate.”
One of the most powerful questions to ask is ‘why’? Why does it have to be like this? Why can’t it be different? And why does it take a campaign from International Women’s Day to motivate change? During the second half of the event, the speakers shared their ideas about the road ahead. They explored examples where things were working well and suggested ways to effect change. They encouraged everyone to challenge the status quo.
“I think the ‘why’ question is always the most powerful one, because ‘why’ challenges the establishment and the status quo,” said Helen Pankhurst. “Society has developed a certain way of doing things. We need to challenge that and bring in collaboration because collaboration means you get different perspectives. Asking the question, ‘why’? That is critical.”
Carolyn Clarke, chair of the board of trustees at Care International, questioned why women weren’t considered in decisions: political decisions, business decisions, but also decisions about product design. She shared the example of the Range Rover Evoque car. Manufacturer Land Rover spent a lot of time talking to women during the design process. As a result, the model has become one of the most popular with female drivers and recognised with multiple awards. She contrasted that example with personal protective equipment, much of which is designed for the male frame, she said.
Esther Kwaku encouraged people to find role models that “light you up” and “grow with you” as you move through different stages of your life. “It’s really important that young girls can find people they can look up to and who can tell them ‘you are enough’,” she said. Helen Pankhurst said it was important to find collective role models in groups and gain strength from others working together. She also said leaders should facilitate the voice of others, and campaign on their vulnerabilities, too.
Carolyn Clarke voiced the importance of allies, people who act alongside others in support of what they are trying to achieve. In her 30s, she was invited to join the board of Care by then chair Oliver Stocken. She said he took a personal risk to do that, because her background was quite different, but he saw an opportunity for her to develop. Since then, the two have progressed together and are currently working on the board of directors at Starling Bank. “He gave me the opportunity at a time when it wasn’t very common,” she said. “He is an ally and comes from a very traditional place. I think we could all do that if we choose to, because it will help combat inequality.”
But the last word came from Esther Kwaku, who inspired people with Bira’s story, and sensed there was much to feel positive about among the challenges. “This call to action around challenging something that doesn’t feel right is important,” she said. “Educate yourself about the things that bother you, and the things that don’t, and ask why they don’t. Keep having those hard conversations. There are no silver bullets, but there are pockets of brilliance. Hang on to those, because I think there is there is definitely hope; I have loads of hope and optimism for the future.”
Click below to view the entire series