Pulling together to close the gap

By Emma Smith

For many years, Sheffield Hallam University (SHU) has held a range of events to commemorate International Women’s Day (IWD) and – despite restrictions caused by the pandemic – did so again this year. Emma Smith analyses the messages that were put across for IWD 2021 in ‘An Inclusive Hallam Event’

Dr Sally Jackson, Sheffield Hallam University’s Leadership Team Champion for Gender and Chief People Officer,introduced the event by shedding light on the progress that the university has made on gender equality.

Dr Jackson said: “[At the university] 41% of professors are female compared to the sector average of 28%. They also hold an Athena Swan bronze award, recognising the advancement of women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) careers, and they have an established network of support groups for women-specific health issues.”

She added: “The continuous struggle for gender equality and equity relies on us all pulling together to close the gap. So much more can and must be done.”

Panel of experts

Dr Jackson then went on to introduce the event’s panel – four women from SHU who have all done extraordinary work for gender equality around the world. They were:

  • Baroness Helena Kennedy QC, the university’s Chancellor
  • Dr Suni Toor, Principal Lecturer in Criminology and Head of Human Rights at SHU
  • Professor Hora Soltani MBE, the university’s Professor of Maternal and Infant Health
  • Dr Bridget Ogharanduku, Senior Lecturer in Financial Accounting and Management Accounting at SHU’s Sheffield Business School 

Baroness Helena Kennedy QC is a world-renowned expert on international human rights and passionately champions the rights of women in law and beyond. 

She began the panel discussion by highlighting the recent shocking deaths of women killed for simply expecting democracy in their own country, a sobering reminder that women are still persecuted and executed in many parts of the world because of their sexuality. 

Pioneering work

Women working in law in the UK today have Baroness Kennedy to thank for the pioneering work she undertook in the 1970s and 1980s. Fresh out of university, she saw the laws for what they were: discriminatory in favour of men. Once she became a member of the Bar Council, Helena advocated for women in the law profession. Her continuous writing and broadcasting about the various gender inequality issues – on both sides of the law – eventually led to significant changes in policy and codes of conduct at the very top. 

Baroness Kennedy continues to be involved in global projects as an expert in human rights law and has won many honours over the years, including The Times Newspaper’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 1999 for her work in empowering women. 

Dr Suni Toordescribed herself as an activist who believes in giving a voice to marginalised groups who are often unaware of their individual rights. She has always been eager to “address the imbalance” that women and minority communities experience, and that became the basis of the pioneering work that she carried out in India. 

Dr Toor told the panel: “My awareness of justice is a product of my upbringing in an Indian home within a white suburban environment.”

From a young age, Dr Toor questioned why her male relatives were allowed to do things that she was not, simply because she was female. Unfortunately, her concerns were largely brushed aside at the time. 

Gender-based violence

Dr Toor’s inspiration for her work stems from young feminists she encountered in India who fought for the rights of women who’d suffered gender-based violence. 

“In 2016, I worked on a Foreign Commonwealth Office programme in four Indian states,” she explained, “where my task was to overhaul police training on women’s rights to access justice. Unfortunately, there were major barriers to overcome, such as the patriarchal resistance of male police leaders to having conversations about injustice and prejudice.” 

Equality and equity in India

Referring to what she finds fulfilling in her job, Dr Toor said she was “rightly proud” of the training that was given to more than 300 senior police leaders and influential government officials across the four Indian states. That training programme now forms the basis of the core curriculum in regional academies. 

Other successes that Dr Toor has been involved in include the formation of female crisis centres and resources across India that enable police officers to lead the dialogue around combatting gender-based violence while becoming allies in the fight for equality and equity in the country. 

Professor Hora Soltanihas a background in midwifery and works with dedication and determination to tackle the many issues concerning the health of women and their babies. She told the panel that around the world more than 800 women die every day from preventable pregnancy and childbirth-related causes. She also revealed that around 94% of those deaths take place in lower- and lower-middle-income countries.

For these reasons, the work of Professor Soltani and her team has focused on the main factors that give rise to such a huge number of deaths across the world – namely deprivation, education and nutrition – in a bid to understand why this situation exists. The team has recently had requests to work in places like Indonesia and sub-Saharan Africa, where most pregnancy and birth-related mortalities occur. 

Complex issues

The next step for the team is to look for solutions that may seem simple on the outside but involve a highly complex process, with such difficult issues as war and poverty. A holistic approach is needed, Professor Soltani said. 

She also stressed it was important to note that these issues are not exclusive to countries outside the UK. In Britain, there are stark differences in the mortality rates of black and white mothers during pregnancy and childbirth – indeed, black mothers are four times more likely to die. The rate is also high for women with South-Asian or Pakistani backgrounds. Using clinical and psycho-social data, Professor Soltani and her students are working hard to understand precisely why this should be the case. 

Finally, Professor Soltani said that she firmly believes in international collaboration when it comes to ensuring continuity in midwifery care, because working together contributes to better outcomes for mothers and their babies.

Dr Bridget Ogharandukuis renowned for her passion to uncover inequality. The panel heard how she grew up in Nigeria, where the extended family culture saw girls doing domestic work in the home as a part of life. After graduation, Dr Ogharanduku worked in a bank and it was only then that she began to understand that there was gender inequality.

Her female boss was denied the chance to have children for a certain number of years and, despite being more senior, was consistently sidelined in favour of male staff. As an adult working in accounting, where male colleagues would often tell her to keep quiet in departmental meetings, it became clear to Dr Ogharanduku that “society was hostile towards women”.

Family-friendly and flexible

The behaviour of those men gave her the motivation she needed to apply for a PhD scholarship in the UK and she would use this to research how gender was reflected within the accounting profession. She wanted to determine why the profession was male-dominated, even in Western society. Moving into academia also felt like the right option for Bridget because it offered a ‘friendlier’ environment with the flexibility for some kind of family life in the future. 

Dr Ogharanduku said she was also interested in the prominent Nigerian women who held top positions in that country’s government, including former Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, who recently became Director-General of the World Trade Organization. The big question in Dr Ogharanduku’s mind was how these women progressed to such powerful leadership positions when many women in Nigeria continue to this day to face significant gender discrimination.

Women helping women

The answer, it seems, could be found within such groups as the Society of Women Accountants of Nigeria. In this type of group, women would work closely together in supporting each other, even offering accountancy training in evening classes for other females – a true example of women empowering women. 

According to Dr Ogharanduku, the antithesis is a blame culture where some successful women in authority seem to forget their own journey. It appears that they don’t see the system itself as discriminatory but instead deflect the responsibility of equality challenges on to the younger generation. To combat this, Dr Ogharanduku is working to give a voice to women who are being overlooked, engaging in particular with older women to bring these concerns to their attention.

So what is the future of equality for women?

It is clear that women are disproportionately affected in times of crisis and this imbalance has been highlighted starkly through the consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic. The majority of caregivers for children and vulnerable people are women, and the coronavirus crisis has seen a vast number of women reducing their employment hours or losing work altogether. 

But that is only scratching the surface. As we know, there has been a sharp increase in the levels of domestic abuse suffered by women since the first global lockdown. A United Nations study found that only 3% of government policies implemented during the pandemic around the world took account of the needs of women. More worryingly, there are suggestions that the Covid-19 crisis could have set gender equality back by up to 25 years.

There is undoubtedly a long way to go in the fight for equality for women and tackling gender bias continues to be a struggle, nationally and internationally. At the same time, it remains crucial that we celebrate the enormous amount that has already been achieved in terms of equality within a relatively short time. As Baroness Kennedy reminds us, at the turn of the 19th century “women were considered second-class citizens”.

To progress even further, there are several key actions that we can all take:

  • Keep challenging perceptions and stereotypes
  • Start conversations and create allies – male and female
  • Find ways to identify and address issues of prejudice, inequality and injustice – socially and professionally
  • Tackle problems with solutions that are sensitive to the needs of all communities
  • Value your experiences and use them to help other women to achieve 
  • Congratulate those who are working to make change happen
  • Always look at the bigger picture – equality is better for everybody
  • And, of course, #ChooseToChallenge 

The question to ask yourself today is: what will you achieve in terms of increasing equality and equity for women between now and the time we celebrate International Women’s Day 2022?