March 8th is International Women’s Day, a time to celebrate the social, economic and political achievements of women across the world, reflect on past struggles and look to the future.
Gender parity is the theme for this year and individuals and groups are being urged to take action in order to accelerate equality for all.
Over my lifetime I have witnessed remarkable developments in terms of gender equality. Women’s lives have been transformed by technology, changes in our economy and in social attitudes so that women expect to compete on equal terms. Yet life chances are persistently unequal.
As Christine Lagarde, chief executive of the IMF, said in the 2014 Dimbleby Lecture, women “face discrimination at birth, on the school bench, in the boardroom. They face reticence of the marketplace – and of the mind”.
Carolyn Fairbairn, director general of the CBI, reminds us that far too few women run FTSE 100 companies and the pipeline of talent gets blocked by men who, more obviously, fit in. These uncomfortable realities have made me reflect on my own journey.
Today I am proud to be chief executive of the Workers’ Educational Association. The adult education charity has been going for more than a century and it is as badly needed today as it was in 1903.
A survey carried out by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development in 2013 ranked England and Northern Ireland 14th for adult literacy and 16th for adult numeracy. This low level of adult skills inevitably impacts on the success of the economy as a whole.
According to the charity Go ON UK, nearly a quarter of the adult population lack basic digital skills, a phenomenon that affects women more than men, given time taken out because of childbirth.
Which is why the WEA helps thousands of working people and those in the poorest communities to return to education, whatever their age or income. People like my grandfather, who left school at 11 but who enrolled on a WEA course and eventually won a trade union scholarship to Ruskin College, Oxford, and another to Peterhouse at Cambridge.
Leading an organisation was something that I thought was beyond my grasp when growing up in a small Welsh mining town in the 1960s. When I read economics at Cambridge I was intimidated by the cutglass accents and the seemingly easy social confidence of my fellow students.
My accent wasn’t right and the first time I was invited out for dinner I turned up at midday. My first proper job was at the National Coal Board.
Working in such a male dominated industry in the 1970s was no picnic and, despite coal being in my blood, career opportunities were non-existent for women. Like many mothers, my career stalled after I had children. After my third was born I had to deal with redundancy and the serious illness of my husband. For a while, life was bleak.
Childcare costs plus working part-time meant that I was struggling financially. It is a vicious cycle that affects many women, which is why we have to do more to support mothers in the workplace.
There is so much work to be done in the fight for equality. Last year, the WEA launched a campaign focusing on the importance of education and lifelong learning, to enable women to overcome the disadvantages they face in society.
The majority of our students are women and many of them use courses as a means to reskill or retrain. We must do more to promote inclusive and flexible workplace cultures.
The importance of this was recently confirmed by the Centre for the Modern Family, a think-tank established by Scottish Widows. Its latest report, published last week, revealed that one in four UK workers would sacrifice pay for greater flexibility.
The UK still has a way to go before men and women are on an equal footing. According to the World Economic Forum it is now ranked 18th out of 145 countries in terms of the gender gap, an improvement from the 26th place ranking it achieved last year.
So what do we do? According to the report no country in the world has achieved gender equality but I think there are lessons we can learn from those at the top of the league table: Iceland, Finland, Norway and Sweden.
I believe that true equality is possible. According to the World Economic Forum, it will take another 117 years until the pay gap between men and women is closed. Education is at least part of the answer.
We need to learn to be both gender and colour blind. We also need to recognise and reward good practice wherever we see it, learn from our own experience and the experience of other countries and cultures.
Globalisation has the potential to open up opportunities and to encourage wider participation – and global organisations need seriously to address widening and deepening the talent pool if they want to continue to be successful.
Governments need to take tough action where human values of respect and dignity are compromised and we need to tackle head-on the biggest temptation of them all: to set our sights too low and quit the field when the battle is not yet won.
This blog first appeared in the Sunday Express: