It seemed poignant that we welcomed our girls back to school after the third lockdown, on International Women’s Day – a day that celebrates the achievements of women and highlights the gender inequalities that are sadly still so evident across the world.
The #ChoosetoChallenge theme could almost have been written for Manchester High as it sits perfectly with our own values that encourage pupils to strive to achieve in any area they want to, regardless of perceived ideas and barriers.
In a virtual assembly last week, Mrs Jeys focused on the need to educate and for our girls to be ambitious in their aims so that female equality can be a realistic goal for the future. She said, “From challenge comes change and we can all choose to challenge and call out gender bias and inequality.”
For the Head Mistress, this should start with equal access to education across the world. “It is hard to believe that only 39% of countries have equal proportions of the sexes enrolled in secondary education and that of the 774,000,000 illiterate adults in the world, two thirds of them are women. If we could achieve universal education for girls and boys, it could be possible to lift more than 420,000,000 people out of poverty across the world.”
She also highlighted the gender pay gap, which girls in school debated during Diversity Day in December. For so many of our pupils, this is a hot topic and something that sixth formers also discussed in a webinar hosted by the London Institute of Banking and Finance and Nationwide Building Society earlier in the year. Gender inequality is a cross-industry problem but in a virtual event, sixth formers explored the impact on women in banking and finance and the need for further parity in the workplace.
Whilst there is still a long way to go, the International Women’s Day assembly celebrated some of the amazing women who are already making a difference in the world of politics, from Sara Kuugongelwa who has been Prime Minister of Namibia since 2015 and whose fight against corruption has led to her country having its first budget surplus in its history, to Jacinda Ardern.
New Zealand’s Prime Minister is only the second woman to give birth whilst in office and her no nonsense approach to COVID-19, which immediately shut down the country and isolated all cases of the virus, meant that her country was one of the very first to reopen safely. Even in such a position of power though, she still admits to a lack of confidence on occasions,
“One of the criticisms I've faced over the years is that I'm not aggressive enough or assertive enough, or maybe somehow, because I'm empathetic, it means I'm weak. I totally rebel against that. I refuse to believe that you cannot be both compassionate and strong.” Jacinda Ardern
Mrs Jeys said, “It is sad to think that women like Jacinda Ardern can find herself receiving potentially biased judgements on the basis that she is a woman.” This is also true of the Finnish Prime Minister who experienced challenges to her femininity when she recently made headlines for wearing a ‘revealing’ outfit on the front of Trendi magazine. Mrs Jeys continued, “At a time when Sanna Marin was launching an ambitious equality program whilst dealing with a pandemic, it is so wrong that the focus shifted from these major accomplishments to a discussion on dress-code for women.”
In fact, the Finnish government is an excellent example of female empowerment. It is headed by a coalition government made up of five women who aim to make their country carbon neutral by 2035 and want to improve gender equality and the position of racial minorities in Finland.
“It is so inspiring to see women in leadership but shocking to think that women serve as Heads of State or government in only 22 countries. There are 119 countries who have never had a female leader.” The Head Mistress continued, “Thankfully, our pupils are always made to feel they can do anything and many of our alumnae have taken this pioneering spirit with them into their careers and have done great things.”
Indeed, she referenced recent virtual events with inspiring alumnae such as Anushka Asthana who believes that MHSG provided her with the strength of character needed to achieve in journalism; and Katie Leviten who acknowledged that not being putting off by gender barriers was crucial to her success in becoming the youngest Venture Capital partner in Europe.
A week after #IWD2021 was trending, Mrs Jeys hopes current students will also leave MHSG with the same strength and foresight as their predecessors - they can achieve whatever they want and #ChoosetoChallenge.