Today is International Women’s Day. A day to celebrate women. A day to reflect on women’s lives, in our communities, our society, our country and across the world. A day to review how far we have come in achieving equality between women and men, and to consider how much further we have to go.
I spent 2016 as a Gender Specialist Fellow, supported by Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, on Clore Social Leadership’s Fellowship Programme. Having worked for twenty years in and around the UK women’s sector, it was an enormous gift to be able to step back and examine the sector with fresh eyes. I have used the year to reflect on women’s position in the UK, how the social sector represents and champions women, where the funding is, where the leadership is, what it looks like and how it is addressing the challenges for gender equality today and in the future.
During the year, a series of unexpected, seismic, often catastrophic events unfolded in the UK and across the world which, taken together, made 2016 a very bad year for women. From an American Presidential Election mired in misogyny to the fetishizing of motherhood in a Conservative leadership contest to the brutal murder by a man of a female MP, to a referendum result which will see the UK leave the EU and potentially jeopardise women’s employment rights to the endless silencing of women on social media who dared to opine on culture, economics, politics or sport. All these events combined show that, in the UK, women are not considered equal to men; that gender equality is not embedded in the way that many had hoped; that a general agreement that gender equality is “a good thing”, is not widely or deeply held in our society, and currently the UK’s women’s sector is too constrained to effectively address this problem.
In my piece, I set out what lessons individuals, organisations, institutions and funders need to urgently learn of last year if there is to be any hope of rebuilding an agreement on gender equality in the UK. I argue that the funders have a vital role in enabling the women’s social sector to contribute to long term thinking about gender equality rather than constantly having to meet short term targets; that there needs to be a greater pooling of knowledge and expertise within the sector to influence and shape broad public policy issues which affect women’s lives alongside the specific areas often categorised as ‘women’s issues’; and that the women’s sector itself needs to refresh its language and reframe the arguments to engage more people in this process.
2016 presented a wake-up call for those of us who care about gender equality in the UK. 2017 isn’t looking much better. In keeping with this year’s International Women’s Day theme, we must ‘be bold for change’ and learn the lessons and take the radical steps required as a matter of urgency.