International Women’s Day (IWD) is celebrated on March 8th each year. It dates back to an event organised in New York in 1909 held in solidarity for a group of women garment workers who had gone on strike to protest over working conditions. The following year, a meeting in Copenhagen established an international day to focus on achieving universal suffrage for women and promoting women’s rights. In 1975, The United Nations began celebrating the day and in some countries the day is a public holiday. Events can range from protests to celebration – and pretty much everything in between.
In the UK, the day has gained an increased profile over the past 20 years and I welcome it as an opportunity for debate, discussion and celebration.
In 2019, I hosted an event in partnership with NatWest and Coast to Capital Local Enterprise Partnership to celebrate and thank female role models and leaders. A lack of realistic role models is often cited as a barrier to women whether in starting a business, building their career or looking to attain their personal goals. Our event was held at Crawley College and brought together female students starting their career journey with established female professionals in the local area. It was an opportunity to learn from each other and address the challenges we still face.
At the event, we also invited the business leaders to bring a guest - someone who had inspired and supported them. This gave us a powerful grouping of around 70 women to celebrate and mark International Women’s Day.
IWD must not however be an annual one off. I am proud to be continuing work with NatWest on the Rose Review of Female Entrepreneurship. The review is a Government commissioned report to consider the barriers women face in business and how these can be addressed. At the heart of the report is a compelling evidence base as to why this is not just an issue of equality but an issue for the economy:
"The UK is the start-up capital of Europe, attracting more venture capital than any other European country, yet only one in three UK entrepreneurs is female. In comparison with 15% of women in Canada, almost 11% of women in the US, and over 9% of women in Australia and the Netherlands, only 5.6% of UK women run their own companies.
"But without more women in business, the UK is losing out. The advancement of female entrepreneurs is a £250bn opportunity for the UK economy.”
This year, the theme for IWD is #EachforEqual - an equal world is an enabled world.
The International Women’s Day website states: “Individually, we’re all responsible for our own thoughts and actions – all day, every day. We can actively choose to challenge stereotypes, fight bias, broaden perceptions, improve situations and celebrate women’s achievements. Collectively, each one of us can help create a gender equal world. Let’s all be #EachforEqual.”
In my role as Vice Chair and Diversity Champion at Coast to Capital LEP, we are continuing to address gender equality. We are working with NatWest running a banker in residence programme to support female entrepreneurs and are working to develop a network of peer support and role models in the Gatwick Diamond. In addition, we have gone from a Board with just one female private sector representative to six – although there is still more to do to address our wider diversity and to ensure we are representative of our region.
For me, IWD is a lens – it focuses debate and attention – celebrating success and calling out the barriers and challenges we still face. It also reminds me of both how far we’ve come but how far we still have to go.