08 March 2019

International Women’s Day 2019 has a clear message that a more gender-balanced world is better for everyone: better for people, better for business, better for politics, better for sport, just…better. Since the day was launched in the early 1900s a lot has changed for the better. But not enough and not quickly enough. And we shouldn’t underestimate the scale of the task.

In the UK and globally there are fundamental issues of safety and education for women. Here, as in many other countries, we still have a sizeable gender pay gap which widens when you include part-time workers and widens also with age.  Amongst those employers who have already published their data for this year, things have got worse rather than better. In education, the (higher paying) career-oriented STEM subjects still have far fewer girls.  Women are still under-represented in politics, nationally and locally, especially at the senior levels – and it’s a much worse picture for BAME women. You can see how power is concentrated when you think about the fact that although nearly two thirds of teachers are women, only 38% of schools have a female head teacher.

Our own sector is not immune to this. I remember sitting in rooms earlier in my career wondering why, when most of the staff were women, most of the senior staff were men. A statistic summing all of this up is that of all public statues only 2.7% are memorials of women!

In some ways though, it’s not the statistics that bring the task home to me most. Having a 5 year old daughter, I’ve been taken aback by how quickly she is learning that there are boys’ things and girls’ things. And I’ve been staggered by how few of her books have a female main character – and how many of them don’t have any girls in at all! It’s surprising that even the animals that populate kids’ books are almost uniformly male.

When London Youth did some polling of young Londoners in 2017, I was shocked to see that on so many dimensions – feeling respected in the community, optimism about the future, and having a sense of connection – girls scored significantly worse than boys. Whatever progress has been made, it is not enough change and it is not being felt enough by young women in London. Thinking about my daughter, it’s easy to see where this starts, and we have to turn this around.

It can happen. On a personal note, one of the areas where I’ve seen real progress is in sport. When I was growing up near Doncaster I was an avid football fan. But when my mum tried to find a girls’ team there was no-one offering football training for girls. At school, the boys would get taken off to play football and we would get left in the playground with a few hula hoops. My mum coached me to go and tell the headmaster it was sexual discrimination. By the time I left that school we had girls’ sides playing 5 a-side regularly.

It is so heartening that now there are so many girls’ teams and that girls are getting proper coaching. This month it was a total thrill for me when I went to see my niece play for England under-16s. It was a tough, highly skilled and highly competitive game against France; 1-1 and we lost on penalties. (Some things don’t change).

Our London Youth sports programme has seen girls’ participation double in the last three years. And it’s something I’m proud of that our shared network includes organisations like the brilliant Goals for Girls.

Women’s determination has made that change in girls’ football happen of course. But one of the pieces of the puzzle that has helped is the change in how men have viewed and been involved with the game. It’s truly heartening to see so many dads coaching, organising and enjoying girls sport.

Two thirds of women who took part in a global study felt that women won’t achieve equality in their country unless men take action too to support women’s rights. And that’s at the heart of this year’s International Women’s Day theme; greater women’s equality builds a better world. Inequality hurts everyone. Equality enables everyone to thrive.

In business, Vivian Hunt, a managing partner at McKinsey consulting has shown that the beneficial impact of greater equality holds true: ‘the fact is that diversity can enhance financial performance and is a competitive advantage. Our research has shown that high performing companies are more diverse”. We need to tackle issues like the gender pay gap because it’s morally right. But it isn’t a kind of moral sacrifice, it’s also good for business, makes for better politics and, according to the World Economic Forum, can help sustain economic growth.

This International Women’s Day, I will be reading my little one a story with a brilliant girl in the lead, celebrating England’s victory in the ‘She-believes’ cup and thinking about the things I want to do in 2019 for better balance and a better world. I hope you will join the team.

– Rosemary Watt-Wyness, Chief Executive


Join the conversation on social media using #BalanceforBetter on Twitter and Instagram.

Find out more about International Women’s Day here.