This International Women’s Day, I hosted Hate Crime charity HOPE not Hate at City Hall for an inspiring evening of networking, discussion and learning. London’s Living Room was filled with a wide range of young women from across London, who participated in interactive sessions on community organising and equalities, before a panel discussion on Women in Leadership. Groups such as Oxford-based INASP, an international development charity working with a global network of partners in Africa, Latin America and Asia, helped us to collect knickers, socks and toiletries for Syrian refugee women. The evening was positive, optimistic and inspiring; but I worry that women’s struggles still face a bleak future.
The theme of this year was #BeBoldforChange, calling on us all to make a world that works better and harder for gender inclusivity. Unfortunately, this is just as important in 2017 than ever. Although society has moved on from the early days of suffragettes demanding votes for women or the feminists of the 1960s and 1970s that paved the way for the contraceptive pill and for female employment to become the norm, the past year has seen significant changes in attitudes towards women.
The misogynist temperament of the recently elected president of the United States and closer to home, a member of parliament’s Women and Equalities Committee Philip Davies MP attempting for the second time to filibuster a bill to protect women against violence, demonstrates that International Women’s Day is needed more than ever. I commend the Mayor of London Sadiq Khan for his positive attitude towards gender equality and LGBT rights. In a world increasingly crowded by noxious leaders, I am proud and relieved to live in a city led by someone who not only embraces, but embodies diversity and respect.
Yet even the fact that International Women’s Day sees spikes in searches for International Men’s Day (which is the 19 November for those wondering), highlights the challenges that still exist for gender parity. And women still face multiple challenges in today’s society.
Unconscious bias is something that we all have without realising it, formed by experiences and stereotypes that we see every day, from terms such as fireman instead of fire-fighter and the presumption that a doctor is male. This unconscious bias hinders young women from achieving their ambitions and guides them on a gendered path from a young age.
City Hall held an education conference last month and I chaired a session on getting young girls into STEM subjects. We heard some inspiring stories, including one of a determined young woman working hard to get a dream job in Formula One. Fortunately her school made it their mission to challenge stereotypes and pushes young women to pursue their dream career. However, it became apparent once she was attending university that subjects such as mechanical engineering are still dominated by men and introduced challenges that young women growing up in diverse London may not have yet dealt with.
Unconscious bias is not confined to the classroom. A quick interactive session with headteachers using word cloud, found that when they were asked to submit three words that come to mind when you hear the word girls, the words pink, princess and emotional were prominent. On the other hand ‘boys’ were considered to be strong, loud and smelly.
Furthermore, institutions such as the media perpetuate these images, for example, we are yet to see a female Doctor Who despite the series being on its twelfth Doctor. Not only does this unconscious bias and stereotypes prevent women from fulfilling their ambitions, it damages their self-esteem.
Old-fashioned notions about gender roles and a women’s place in society pervades this behaviour. Women also face attacks on their self-esteem through verbal harassment, which is an issue that unfortunately most women can testify to: it is here that we can see first-hand unconscious bias in everyday life.
To remove the stereotypes that exist in schools and the workplace, the government should look to tackle injustices in every part of society. In order for us to thrive in the digital revolution in the wake of Brexit, we need young women to become engineers, technicians, construction workers and coders. We are missing out on swathes of talent because young women are not confident or encouraged to pursue these careers, and face stigma and stereotypes when they do.
We are failing young females who do not feel bold enough to call out their harassers on the street, and who do not have the self-assuredness to demand that this kind of behaviour is dealt with. When will London follow Nottingham and class misogyny as a hate crime? I have called construction companies endless times to complain about how some of their co-workers leer not just at me but at every woman that walks by. It is beyond pathetic but, what’s worse, it infringes on our feeling of safety and is a constant reminder of what many people still think of women.
It is these stereotypes that young women in particular face daily. We have come a long way since International Women’s Day was first recognised more than a century ago. Many of the earliest battles – including women’s right to vote, obtain degrees and keep their jobs after they marries, are now a given. However, stark inequalities remain, and it is disappointing to see that the World Economic Forum predicts the gender pay gap will exist long into the next century.
With this year likely to be full of political turmoil, I promise to #BeBoldForChange on behalf of the young women of London, starting with my motion in Assembly on the 8th March. You can watch me giving my motion in the video below, in which I call on the Mayor to work with London’s businesses, TfL, and the MPs, to ensure that London is a city in which women are safe from violence and sexual harassment. To ensure that Londoners challenge stereotypes, work towards removing economic barriers, and prosper equally, regardless of gender.
You can find a full-length video of my International Woman’s Day Motion here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_QDh5FLaP5I