By Adeeba Malik CBE, Deputy CEO of QED Foundation, who is attending an International Women's Day event hosted by the Prime Minister at 10 Downing Street today
TODAY is International Women’s Day and the theme is ‘Be Bold for Change’.
It can feel easy to feel lost in International Women’s Day; to get a handle on what it means for you, personally, in our everyday lives, here in Bradford.
I recently attended an event in London to mark the day with Boris Johnson, who appointed a new special envoy for gender equality to step up the battle against discrimination against women and girls around the world. Joanna Roper, who takes on the role, will focus on ensuring girls around the globe get the chance to go to school.
Internationally, we’ve seen the Women’s Marches after Trump’s inauguration. Nationally, we have the first female police commissioner in London, and the second female Prime Minister in power.
I was born and raised in Bradford – a city I’ve lived and worked most of my life. Jump out of that helicopter view, and walk in the shoes of young girls and women in the homes, workplaces and schools across Bradford – there are issues we need to prioritise, locally.
For the past 26 years, I’ve worked on the big gender equality issues. My work with the QED Foundation has done everything from helping women from third countries to access English language courses to influencing government policy and speaking at national events on this agenda.
As an ex-teacher myself, it’s good to see that the government, and Mr Johnson, understand the power of education to achieve gender equality. Bradford has one of the worst attainment levels in the UK. It has been flagged by Ofsted for particular concern, citing a lack of political support that has failed generation after generation. Bradford has a similar social make-up to London’s East End, which performs very well – so this is not about ethnicity. The Local Authority needs to step up. It needs to lead politically and take individuals in our community with them, in a partnership approach - to take ownership and raise standards.
Barnardos identified that an alarming number of children in our district are young carers, the majority aged between nine and 15 (although not all are female, society still puts onus on girls and women). Carers UK state the 310,000 carers aged 16 to 25 in England save the taxpayer £1bn a year, looking after parents, siblings and relatives. However, poverty, isolation and health problems – physical and mental – are common amongst young carers, who are twice as likely to not be in education, training or employment.
This works at the other end of the age spectrum too. As a carer myself, I know women over 45 can be squeezed both ends, looking after elderly parents and young children, while keeping their careers afloat. This brings me to those women in the mid-stages of their lives. Whether career progress halts, or they are forced into flexible lower-skilled jobs, we need to recognise the huge pool of skills, talents and experience older women offer.
They should be supported and offered flexibility returning to the job market. We do after all live in a digital age where we do not need to be tied down to a 9-5 office. Utilizing the skills, talents and experience of older women can only benefit our society, with this huge pool of potential; we need to capitalise on the skills and experiences of older women.
Girls and women should be supported so they don’t end up in low-end, flexible jobs, or end up with no qualifications or investment in their own futures.
We need to inject humanity into our results-driven culture, with extra support and flexibility in education and the workplace.
We know public sector cuts mean there simply aren’t enough services for many in need, but as a community we can do more. Our education institutions and workplaces can be flexible, accommodating, supportive and nurturing of young girls and women who risk falling through society’s cracks.
It is notable that despite Bradford’s poor educational attainment, girls out-perform boys. Somewhere along the way in life, their skills, performance, and abilities are too frequently cut short.
One of the areas I feel passionately that Bradford girls could excel is in STEM subjects. There is a skills gap in this sector, and we need to encourage and support more girls to fill those gaps. Those working in science, tech, engineering and maths, statistically earn more. It has been a predominantly male sector, but as girls outperform boys, why aren’t more women in this sector?
As well as outside pressures in society for women and girls to work as carers in addition to having careers, there is an internalised pressure that damages their outlook.
NHS Digital reported soaring numbers of young women are suffering mental health problems and self-harm as selfie culture increases pressure on them. A quarter of 16-24 year-olds suffer anxiety and depression, with young women three times as likely as men to report such symptoms.
We need to value girls and women differently. For their skills and talents; with a focus on building confidence.
As a city, Bradford showcases a diverse range of women - there isn’t just one way of looking. Embracing our diversities – and all the talents women and girls can offer – will boldly make Bradford a better place to live and work.