Equality through education – International Women’s Day 2016

Today (8 March 2016) is the day that the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women throughout history, and across the world, are celebrated. The day also works as a call to action for a continued campaign to achieve genuine gender parity, by building upon the successes of those who have affected change before us.

In anticipation of this International Women’s Day, a group of eight Sixth Form students were selected to take part in the annual lunch held by the Wellbeing of Women (WOW) Cambridge branch last week. The girls listened to a very insightful lecture by Mr Nick Chrimes, author of Treasure Island in the Fens – a historical account of Cambridge. Mr Chrimes shared his understanding of the changing position and role of women in Cambridge, particularly within the University of Cambridge – highlighting the frequent links between the social position of women with the religious and political views of the time, and that women’s access to education has been limited for so long due to their ‘primary’ role being seen as supporting husbands and bearing children. The girls attending the event were surprised to hear about Lady Margaret Beaufort, a 15th Century woman who, despite funding two colleges in Cambridge (St John’s and Christ’s), was still not permitted to attend services in their respective chapels – instead she had to receive communion in a private room attached to one of the chapels.

To mark International Women’s Day in the Senior School, we welcomed Her Excellency, Aloun Ndombet-Assamba, High Commissioner for Jamaica, to speak during whole school assembly on Friday 4 March. Mrs Ndombet-Assamba spoke about the challenges women faced less than 100 years ago in this country, when they were not allowed to vote and had to campaign extremely hard to change the law. She described the demonstrations that took place, and the plight of the women who were sent to prisons and beaten, all in order to change the law and win the right to vote. In addition to not being allowed to vote, many women were denied an education. As Her Excellency highlighted in her talk, our foundress Mary Ward was a woman well ahead of her time in this respect; she decided to go against ‘the done thing’ of marrying and instead dedicate her life to the pursuit of providing women with opportunities, especially the right to an education, hence her founding of schools such as our own.

Mrs Ndombet-Assamba explained how proud she was when, last year, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) reported that if you are a woman and you work in Jamaica, the chances are your boss will be a woman. Her Excellency explained that the reason for women achieving so highly in Jamaica is the good education they receive, thanks to the previous generation which fought for this right. To this end, as a member of Council of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), I was pleased to learn about the Leading Women to Headship Pledge, which is being launched today by ASCL. The programme supports the Department for Education’s (DfE) commitment to a coaching and mentoring programme for women teachers and, by doing so, reaffirms the importance of clear leadership in delivering a quality education, and a commitment to equality for the sexes in opportunities to achieve the highest positions.

Our guest speaker went on to recognise how difficult it can be to be a young person in the 21st Century, with the stresses of school life and adolescence, but the girls were inspired by her story. They were reassured by her examples of times when a fork in the road presented decisions to which the ‘right answers’ were not clear, but combinations of decisions worked together in the longer-term to lead her to this point. Mrs Ndombet-Assamba reminded the girls to be thankful for the education opportunities open to them, in contrast to the plight of women 100 years ago, and encouraged them to:

“take in everything that is being offered, because you never know what you can use at some point in the future… just soak up every bit of information that you can – and don’t only concern yourself with what’s in the books you’re studying here! Read the newspaper! Watch the news! Listen to the radio!”

We are fortunate to have welcomed Her Excellency Mrs Aloun Ndombet-Assamba into school as an excellent role model for the girls at a poignant time in the calendar year, with her unique story, and inspirational and encouraging words – indeed Year 10 student, Dana R., shared with me her interest and amazement at hearing Mrs Ndombet-Assamba’s story, and hopes to follow up with Aloun to discover more about her views on pay equality, sexism, and those girls who are still unable to access an education. Our girls come across role models in all forms and, with International Women’s Day falling just two days after Mothering Sunday, it is important to recognise the role of mothers – and fathers – in educating our young women. I spoke in assembly to Year 10 students last week about gratitude for and awareness of our mothers’ investments in our lives. Please do read the two poems that I shared with the girls – What I learned from my mother, by Julia Kasdorf , and Thanking my mother for piano lessons, by Diane Wakosi. Both works eloquently highlight the sacrifices mothers make to give their children the best opportunities – whether in piano lessons, the essential lessons about life such as caring for one another, or an independent education.

The message we want to send to our students and to women everywhere on International Women’s Day can be shared through the parting words of Her Excellency, Mrs Aloun Ndombet-Assamba: “If you want to be a nail technician, and give people like me these beautiful nails, you can be that; if you want to be a scientist, you can be that; if you want to be an artist – and I have seen some extraordinary artwork at this school – you can be that; if you want to be a teacher, you can be that; if you want to be an astronaut, you can be that – we’ve had some good women who have gone up in to space”.

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