The month of March has always been an important time for everyone at the GDST to recognise the achievements of remarkable women across the globe. The annual celebrations of International Women’s Day (IWD) and Women’s History Month provide an opportunity for our school community, partners and allies to congregate, collaborate and recharge after giving so much towards our goal of achieving gender equality throughout the rest of the year.
The realities of our shared challenges cannot be underestimated – the latest ‘Women in Work’ report from PwC revealed that UK women earn 14% less than men per hour – which means the nation’s gender pay gap has widened significantly. In spite of sobering statistics like this, one of the most valuable lessons I learned from the GDST’s week of IWD celebrations is that there is an unbreakable thread of hope that is strengthened when women come together to empower and support each other.
The first demonstration of enduring hope came during the US Ambassador to the United Kingdom, Jane Hartley’s visit to Streatham & Clapham High School to mark International Women’s Day. Incredibly, there has been a 50 year gap between female US Ambassadors to the UK, and she is only the second woman to hold the position in 200 years. We were honoured to not only host the Ambassador, but to give the students from Streatham & Clapham, GDST sister schools and local state partner schools the opportunity to interact with a role model and pioneer in her field. Ambassador Hartley perfectly showcased the career heights that can be scaled with hard work and determination.
Her advice to the students to speak up and keep breaking barriers mirrored the values that we teach across our schools, as did her hope that every year, International Women’s Day will be less and less about all the work we still need to do, and more and more about celebrating the myriad ways that women have moved the world forward. It was a truly empowering call to action for the young women in the room.
In keeping with our goal to build a movement in girls’ education, we partnered with the Women of the World Festival (WOW) to hold an ‘in conversation’ event with Putney High alumna and award- winning journalist Ramita Navai. Joining me to put Ramita through her paces was Serena Kingsley-Bio, the incoming Head Girl of Oxford High School, an aspiring international humanitarian lawyer. Serena spoke fondly of the embracing, inclusive environment at her school but also vocalised her awareness of the fact that some girls don’t have the same rights to education.
Ramita recounted her previous assignments in hostile environments and offered passionate insights about the power of the current women-led revolution in Iran as well as the crucial role male allies have played. Her profound view that 20 years of Western occupation in Afghanistan have not been for nothing brought the room to a standstill. She believes that even though the gains in women’s rights were just for a few, what changed was that there was hope, “Even women in provinces knew what was happening in terms of women’s rights and lived for the day when it would trickle down. That hope is important, it is now the reason why women in Afghanistan are risking everything to fight for that hope.”
We also hosted a stimulating panel discussion at WOW titled “Has Social Conditioning Made Women Better Leaders? (No Problem If Not!)”, which was inspired by some of the findings of our Girls’ Futures Report. Shrewsbury High School GDST’s Head Jo Sharrock highlighted the danger of social conditioning holding girls back from pursuing their own models of leadership because “women leaders have to be a certain way”, whilst activist Laura Coryton spoke about the importance of acknowledging failures, and not just successes, to make it easier for the young women to build resilience. Overall, it was fantastic to hear such an esteemed panel of changemakers publicly endorsing this compassionate, kind and inclusive generation of young women and their rejection of traditional models of leadership.
Some women have spoken about experiencing IWD fatigue for a whole host of reasons – the widening gender pay gap and low numbers of women in STEM for instance, suggest that discriminatory gender barriers seem immovable. The reluctance of some to participate in celebrating women on one calendar day of the year is understandable, and it would be disingenuous to view their rebellion as a betrayal. After all, we haven’t come this far in the fight for equality without often having to go against the grain.
Nevertheless, I would implore those who have become disillusioned with the mainstream celebration of women to not give up hope for a better future, and to continue to celebrate progress. It is hope, hard work and dedication that motivates our teachers and heads to teach our girls that they can do whatever they choose, if they set their mind to it. This hope gives our students the confidence that they can go out in the world and make their mark on whatever industry they join. And this hope galvanises my belief that the GDST, alongside our partners across the world, will achieve our common mission of enabling every girl, no matter where they are being educated, to learn without limits, so that they can go on to lead lives without limits.
The GDST Difference
To mark International Women’s Day 2023, the GDST published ‘The GDST Difference’ – a booklet compiling our own research, and analysis of the findings, setting out to breakdown why GDST schools and all-girl learning environments can offer the best start in life for young women. Discover more about the GDST Difference.