Change takes courage: world looks to women role models

MP Peter Kyle alongside 'Modern Suffragette' Kate Willoughby, Best for Briain CEO Naomi Smith, and colourful Stop Brexit campaigner Steve Bray at a Women in Europe Rally on Brighton seafront.
Women for Europe rally in Brighton. From left to right: Peter Kyle, MP for Hove & Portslade; Kate Willoughby, ‘Modern Suffragette’; Naomi Smith, CEO Best for Britain; Steve Bray (‘Mr Stop Brexit’). Photo credit: David Holden

Today we launch a series of articles to mark International Women’s Day on 8 March. The series will include reports on women’s issues, personal stories, thought pieces and more. Look out for a new article every day over the coming days.

In 2020, the World Economic Forum made some startling predictions: that equality between men and women was some 99 years away and that worldwide, it would take 257 years to reach financial gender equality. In 72 countries, women are not allowed to open bank accounts or get credit.

The Forum calls for employment strategies to ensure that girls and women are better equipped, skilled or re-skilled to take advantage of the opportunities of what it calls the Fourth Industrial Revolution: digitalisation.

To help close the gender gaps, the Forum thinks it is vital that women in leadership act as role models to inspire girls and women to take up and train for jobs in new technologies, and that companies open up opportunities to access them.  

As the world tries to recover from the pandemic, what future do we want for our daughters and granddaughters and their own children? Will they enjoy the same prospects and rights as their European peers now the UK has left the EU?

“I believe the rights of women and girls is the unfinished business of the 21st century.”

Hillary Clinton

It wasn’t long ago that women prime ministers were unusual and applauded for their strength. Margaret Thatcher was dubbed ‘the iron lady’ because of her determination to stick to her own views. Now, flexibility in leaders is valued: compassion in the face of the pandemic even more so.

New Zealand (led by Jacinda Ardern) is held up as the example the UK should have followed during the crisis. Germany’s Angela Merkel is still seen as the powerful steadying hand of authority, as someone ready to lock down and resist pressure to relax early. 

But role models are by no means just among the rich and powerful: they are everywhere. As Michele Obama puts it: “Success isn’t about how much money you make, it’s about the difference you make.” 

And more girls and women could be enabled to play central roles in shaping future society if those in power already show them a way to rise to the new challenges before us. 

The Council of Europe is encouraging us all to think hard about how we can do this and remove the glass ceilings, gaps and blocks to girls and women realising equality. It is running an online conference open to the public together with the EU Delegation to the Council of Europe to discuss such structural problems.  

The United Nations has a global message that builds on its efforts last year. Then the theme was about ‘generation equality and realising women’s rights’ across the generations to mark the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Declaration and platform for action.

The fight for equality is longer than just the age-old story of women struggling to get into jobs previously kept for men. As Covid-19 has demonstrated, working practices have to be adapted to accommodate family life. This has led the EU to insist that workers must be given the right to switch off and be offline.

In 2021, International Women’s Day on 8 March will celebrate women’s achievements. But this year, perhaps we can all think about how we can rise to the occasion and respond to this year’s theme: #ChooseToChallenge?

As the inspiring US congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has said: Change takes courage.

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