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Newbury celebrates International Women’s Day

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Inspirational women and the challenges ahead, and how my mum's experiences shaped the future for my daughters

Monday, March 8 is International Women's Day
Monday, March 8 is International Women's Day

Today is International Women's Day (IWD) – a day when the world celebrates the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women.

The day, which began back in 1911, also marks a call to action for accelerating gender parity, with this year’s theme is ‘choose to challenge’. And that is exactly what Sarah Atkinson is doing.

A Board Director at the Thames Valley Berkshire Local Enterprise Partnership and Director, Corporate Social Responsibility, at Newbury-based Micro Focus, she is using the day to write an open letter calling for the business community to challenge inequality in a bid to build a “stronger, more resilient post-Covid economy for Newbury and Berkshire”.

As I began to pull this article together it inevitably got me thinking about the women in my life and how they have made me the person I am today.

When my mum was 14-years-old my grandad made her leave school.

She was one of seven children in a family who had just emigrated from a high-rise council block in London’s Notting Hill to Melbourne, Australia – just one of the hundreds of thousands of ‘Ten Pound Poms’ to leave England – and he couldn’t afford to educate them all.

So, still just a child really, she had to lie her way into a job in a shop, because she wasn’t worth educating any further.

Although that stifled any dreams her teenage self may have had, it did mean that she was entirely focused on ensuring my siblings and I had the best chance at education she could give us.

And although her dreams were never realised, it is because of her that I was able to become the journalist that my 14-year-old self always wanted to be.

It is because of her influence and encouragement that my two young daughters and my niece truly believe that they can do anything they want and be anything they want. Currently this includes being the first woman Red One in the RAF Red Arrows, being an environmental campaigner, being a conservationist vet in Africa and being a physio for the British Olympic team. Their visions are boundless.

I am lucky enough to be surrounded by amazing women – some are stay-at-home mums, one is a VP at a FTSE 100 company, another a heart surgeon. I know doctors, teachers, nurses, police officers, single mums, women who run their own businesses and of course journalists.

On International Women’s Day I will raise a glass to them all, especially to my Auntie Jean, who lost her battle with cancer a few days ago, because she is one of just hundreds of women who have shaped my life.

So today, I am writing about them. But every day I am inspired, encouraged and supported by them all.

For all the leaps forward, however, in 2020 gender pay gap reporting in Berkshire showed that there is still a 28 per cent difference between the average hourly wage of men and women across our workforce.

The reasons for this, according to Sarah Atkinson, are varied.

In her open letter she writes: “It doesn't necessarily mean that men and women are being paid different amounts for the same work (this would be illegal), but what it does show is that there are still concerning differences between men and women in Berkshire’s workplaces.

“This year the theme of International Women’s Day is ‘Choose to Challenge’, encouraging positive change by calling out inequality when we see it.

“The gender pay gap is just one example of such inequality, though many more exist, that go far beyond gender. As a business community we have a responsibility to challenge inequality in all its forms, not just because it’s the right thing to do but because, ultimately it will help us to build a stronger, more resilient post-COVID economy for Newbury and Berkshire.

“This all might seem like a big ask for business leaders concerned about building back from coronavirus. However, there is a wealth of research telling us that a diverse workforce drives better, stronger business.

“Rather than a tick-box HR exercise, diversity should be seen as a core business improvement programme; for example diversity and inclusion forms the foundation of Thames Valley Berkshire LEP’s post-COVID recovery and renewal plan for Newbury and Berkshire.

“Newbury is home to a great number of innovative businesses that help power Britain’s economy. Large and small businesses in industries like technology and pharmaceuticals put Newbury on the national stage. While our local business community is undoubtedly future-forward, the local gender pay gap shows that inequality isn’t a historical issue.

“That’s why it is so important to keep questioning assumptions about diversity and inequality- not just in terms of gender but across all forms of diversity and difference. It is why we need to gather data, establish facts and ask hard questions - of ourselves and others.

“We can only call out and challenge inequality if we can truly recognise it. Just like Gender Pay Gap Reporting, data is an important facet of this understanding, but we won’t always have access to such granular detail. However, we can, and we must start somewhere.

“We can choose to challenge our own misconceptions about diversity and take time to consider if diversity really plays a role in our businesses. It can mean choosing to be a diversity champion. No matter your gender, you can choose to support women and call out inequality when you see it. No matter your race or background you can choose to become aware of your own unconscious bias’ and challenge people when you see them acting on theirs.

“Our post-COVID world will require business leaders to be brave and maintain open minds. International Women’s Day seems the perfect opportunity to reflect on this and choose to challenge our own assumptions and priorities, as individuals but also as a business community wanting to build back better.”

I’ve shared my story and Sarah has chosen to challenge this International Women’s Day. So now share your stories, your challenges, your hopes and your dreams with us too.

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