International Women’s Day

Today is International Women’s Day. In an all girls’ school, free from gender stereotyping and unconscious bias, our pupils find it difficult to imagine what it is like to be discriminated against because of their sex.

In our school, they can be who they want to be, they can tread their own path, seek out their own identity and be free from sexual harassment in the school playground. Most of all, they are not judged because they are women, and they believe they are entitled to success if they work hard.

By the age of 18 they are empowered and when they encounter unconscious bias for the first time at university or in the work place, they are indignant and stand up to fight for their rights. They do not shrug their shoulders and accept the discrimination, because they have not experienced it countless times at school. One alumna, a Maths student at Imperial College, tells the story of being the only woman in her Maths class. She noticed, in her first year, that the boys checked her sums, no one else’s, it was assumed that because she was a woman she would make mistakes. She gave short shrift to these boys and went on to get a first in Maths.

Another alumna noticed in her Politics tutorial, boys kept interrupting her when she spoke, or tutted at her comments. She was taken aback and instead of allowing their behaviour to condition her to become passive, she continued to be a voice and went on to represent students at the student union.

We have come a long way. When I was their age at school in the 1970s it was still legal for husbands to have unconsented sex with their wife, it was accepted as being fair that a woman should earn a third less for doing the same job as a man, and it was not unusual for women to be barred from clubs, not to be served drinks at bars, or not be allowed to play at golf courses. It was also accepted as good practice that women could only get a mortgage if they had a male guarantor or be sacked if they were pregnant.

But there is still not equality in opportunity or in rights. At the recent Oscars ceremony, they were “celebrating” that women were the lead in 23% of Hollywood movies, in Parliament only 22% of women are MPs, 16% of women are high court judges, 12% are council leaders and 95% of editors of national papers are male. I am proud that we have a woman prime minister but very anxious that we have a male president who has legitimised sexist comments, denigrating women for their looks, calling women pigs, dogs, slobs, disgusting animals.

He is the worst sort of role model for young men on how women should be treated and how women then expect men to treat them. In a recent UK Girls’ Guide Attitudes Survey of girls, aged 11-21, the following was discovered:

  • 70% said sexism is so widespread it affects most of their lives
  • 61% had experienced people criticising their bodies
  • 61% felt that when women are portrayed as “sex objects” it makes girls feel disempowered

This is why International Women’s day is so important. It holds up a light to the discrimination that is still taking place and I hope it encourages the strong minded, intelligent women we teach to continue, to argue for the rights for all women to be treated fairly, equally and to live their lives with dignity.

Jo MacKenzie, Headmistress, Bedford Girls’ School

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