By Daniella Theis
In 1908, 15,000 women marched through New York City demanding shorter hours, better pay and voting rights. Yesterday, March 8th marks the global celebration of International Women’s day. It is a time for women to gather, reflect and honour what has been achieved towards equal rights no matter what gender. So let’s continue the conversation on March 9th and every other day of the year.
Even in the last year alone, women across the globe have achieved great things. Leading the environmental movement, schoolgirl Greta Thunberg has succeeded in making a whole generation’s voice heard, leading to events like the UK declaring a climate emergency. The global fight for abortion rights saw abortion be decriminalised in Northern Ireland in December last year. Harvey Weinstein has been found guilty in his sexual assault trial a bit more than two years after #MeToo started trending on Twitter and women across the globe spoke up against sexual assault. What women have proven time and time again, is that there is power in collective female action.
“Too often, women are made to apologise for being simply their own amazing and genuine selves,” says Clodagh Halliday, the current elected Women’s Rep at The University of Strathclyde: “We are made to feel limited in our abilities and capabilities, stifled by societal norms and by what is deemed to be ‘appropriate’ or ‘ladylike’. We are harassed, attacked and bound up for being too much of one thing or not enough of another. It is exhausting, heart-breaking and damaging beyond belief.”
Here, at Strathclyde, we have plenty of our own events and women to reflect back on and honour. Women across departments at Strathclyde have been winning awards for their publications and research. Last year saw dozens of students come together to join the ‘Fight for the Night’ march – a campaign demanding action to make streets safer and show solidarity to survivors of rape and sexual assault.
Reflecting on her own experiences, Halliday says: “As the current elected Women’s Rep at The University of Strathclyde, I have been involved in many of the outstanding events and campaigns surrounding female empowerment this year – including “Fight for The Night” and Girl Up’s recent ceilidh fundraiser. However, my main goal this year has been to achieve a successful campaign for a sexual health clinic on campus. I truly believe that every woman should have access to sexual health facilities and advice without feeling inconvenienced or stigmatised. Having such a facility at Strathclyde would provide students and staff alike with this vital resource while also benefitting others’ health and wellbeing on campus.”
Just as much as it is important to highlight the fantastic work that has been done and the inspiring women we have on our campus, it is also important to remember that this day is not just a day to reflect on past actions. It is just as much a day to share advocacy for what work is still needed and keep fighting for what still needs to be achieved. Right now, we have women and men from Strathclyde standing on the streets not getting paid because they are campaigning for better working conditions at the university.
I went down to speak with three of these women about why they were protesting, and what changes they are hoping to see at Strathclyde in the future. When I arrived I found out that while there was a picket line formed to highlight the baffling 19.6% gender pay gap at Strathclyde, the university itself had organised an event for ‘Strathclyde Women’s Week.’ The ‘Women into Leadership’ event was set to cover several topics such as ‘increasing confidence’ and ‘handling challenging conversations.’
“International women’s day started with women striking in New York. It is rather ironic that there was a decision to go ahead with International Women’s week and put people into a position where they had to cross a picket line,” says Laura Steckley, an academic working for the School of Social Work and Social Policy at Strathclyde, adding: “That was disappointing.”
Explaining her reasons for striking, she says: “In terms of why I am striking it’s that I want this university sector in this country to be strong in the long-term. The current direction of travel is not sustainable. That’s why I am out here. By the time I leave this university, I would like to be proud of making this a better place to work, not a worse place to work – not just in terms of conditions, but also in terms of contributions to society; to the world. I want us to shift back, or at least be heading toward that. Not further away from it.”
Cara Jardine, a teachers associate in the School of Social Work and Social Policy, describes how the casualisation and marketisation hit women harder than men and describes her own struggles in securing a contract that brings some form of worker’s rights.
She says: “I got my first full-time academic job in 2008. I have only had a permanent contract for about a year. I have had more than twenty casual contracts before that. I have friends that are working several contracts across different universities. That is the big change I would like to see moving forward.”
Furthermore, Jardine highlights the difficulties for women to progress into senior positions. She states that not having women in leadership roles is “uninspiring”, adding: “We need more women in leadership roles. When I had my first academic job, there were no female professors in my department. In my second academic job, there were no female professors in my department. What I would like to see, is us looking at the structural things that make it difficult for women to get to those senior posts. Recognising that if you make employment positions precarious, unstable, and low paid then that impacts more on women than on men.”
Dr Elsa Richardson, Strathclyde Chancellor’s Fellow in History, describes that she only got to where she is currently after “three years of post-PhD nightmare”, which saw her working in a bookshop to subsidise her income.
She says: “I was in my early thirties then, and I really felt like it stopped me moving on with these ‘big life moves.’ It is not to say that men are not on precarious contracts, or that they are not suffering from the increased casualisation and marketisation of university, but I do think it does hit women in different ways and perhaps in more systemically dangerous ways. Women are expected to take the bulk of childcare responsibilities, or of other forms of care. They are more likely to take time out during their career or are maybe less likely to put themselves up for promotion. All of this pressure becomes a nasty muddle.
“It is easier to start seeing most of these things as individual issues. We saw today that there was a training session offered to women by the university to help us build more confidence. I think what is needed is a much more thorough ‘soul searching’ on the part of the university as a whole. It is always about deep, systemic, toxic cultures. One training session on how to build confidence is not going to solve it. It is not individuals, it is the system!”
These are the voices of some of the many women at Strathclyde. What becomes apparent is that while we have many things to be proud of and celebrate on International Women’s Day here in 2020, there is still much that needs to be done. There is hope, however, that women will keep up their positive track record in achieving equal rights across the globe in years to come. Let’s empower each other on international women’s day but also every other day of the year.