The Education of our Young Women…

Mulberry School for Girls in East London was involved in Wow – Women of the World Festival for the second year running, having made their debut in talks and panels in the first ever WOW in 2011. This year, Mulberry hosted a Young Woman’s Conference, which took place on Friday 9th March. It brought together different girls’ schools and women and men involved in women’s education to address the question, ‘What makes a great WOW education for 21st Century girls?’

The day included panel discussions between a variety of women with successful careers in education, enterprise and media and included responses to the questions, ‘What inspired you to become the woman you are?’ and ‘What should young women’s education look like in the twenty – first century?’. Many women explained how they made it to the top and others also stressed how important creativity was for them across the curriculum.

Mulberry student, Nazifa , expressed, ‘The panels were extremely interesting and I learned so much’.

Delegates were also treated to a fantastic performance of Mulberry School’s award winning play, ‘The Unravelling’ and to some highly engaging and thought provoking performances from spoken words artists; Holly McNish, Kat Francois, Joelle Taylor and Natalie Fiawoo.

Attendees of the conference also got to choose two workshops to participate in throughout the day including ‘Lessons for my daughter’, which explored the complex and dynamic relationships between mothers and daughters. Another workshop, ‘Better Together: women of all ages learning together’ was delivered in partnership with Magic Me, a company that runs arts projects that bring together people of different generations, whom Mulberry have worked with many times.

All in all, it was a very inspiring day which truly reflected the spirit of the WOW four day festival  in supporting the empowerment of women from all areas of life into realising their potential, after all, we are the future!

By Tasnin, Year 10 student, Mulberry School for Girls.

Losing it with Ruby Wax & Judith Owen

Ruby Wax’s 2-woman show was a blast. Ruby talks at lightning speed of fame, motherhood, glazed eyes, shades of beige and well-meaning friends encouraging her to ‘perk up’. With her trademark pithy wit she talks about her sharp descents and visits to The Priory. That mental health issues affect 1 in 4 of us.  No matter where you are or who you are. After all, depression doesn’t discriminate.

This is not a navel-gazing ‘poor me’ account of depression. It’s honest, it’s laugh out loud, it’s a desensitised account if you will. Judith’s poignant songs, and their friend double act, puts relationships and emotion back into the mix. It’s fun.

The excerpt we saw is part of a longer touring show that has graced mental institutions and comedy venues alike across the country. The Q&A they hold at the end creates an interesting pause for reflection. They invite people with similar experiences to understand it is possible to retrain your brain, to create distance, and to find people like you so you know you’re not alone.

Their mission is to make it socially acceptable to talk about mental health, to ask questions and seek support. They want to create a support network similar to AA so people in the same boat can help each other get to a better place. See this show.

Things I learned this weekend

I came home with my head spinning after the final day of WOW 2012 so thought I’d share some of my reflections from the weekend.

There is no shortage of wonderful role models for women and girls – I developed massive girl crushes on Jude Kelly, Baroness Helena Kennedy, Shami Chakrabarti and Bidisha but also heard Ruby Wax and Rosie Boycott talk about the awful lows in their lives, Rosie Boycott (again) and others discuss global economics, all of the panel at the Arab Spring session, Sali Hughes and India Gary-Martin on body politics, Dr Kiran Bedi on the criminal justice system and many, many more. There are inspirational women all around us.

Strike a woman, strike a rock – The recent protests and strikes were largely lead and run by women. When we get together we can be magnificent (with thanks to TUC Deputy General Secretary Frances O’Grady)

Women need to get into power to change things – Quotas came up in several discussions I attended and I’ve written another post about it. India Gary-Martin was also asked at the Body Politics session how things will change with regards to ‘acceptable hairstyles’ if people like her are still afraid to come to work with dreadlocks. Her answer was that her recruitment practices were changing the culture of the organisation and in time, what’s acceptable will also change. Great answer.

Find your people – The best way to recover from the hardest times in your life is by finding support from those who truly understand what you’re going through. I think the same is true of feminism. Finding support from other women and feminists is crucial. The WOW festival certainly helped address that and I met some amazing women.

There is so much more to be done for women in the world – from Shami Chakrabarti’s breakdown of what is still going on worldwide at the Women, Power and Change session, to the emotional discussion at the Arab Spring session and the panel about the Criminal Justice System it’s clear that we still have a lot to do to bring about equality for women worldwide.

Education of girls is key – The winning idea at the WOW Den was about creating an empowered girls’ network, educating girls and boys about how to relate to each other in a respectful way, and addressing the curriculum of all subjects in school to ensure the role of women is properly taught. It’s an exciting project. In addition, one of the WOWsers stood up and presented her idea about the need for black women to be better represented in careers such as the police force so that they could be role models for young black girls like herself. It was really tough for her to stand up in front of this room of women and speak but with the support of the panel and fellow students she did it. She’ll learn a lot about herself from having done so.

We’re not ladies – After a long and hilarious discussion on the meaning of the word lady, we ditched it. It’s gone. Forget it.

Feel the fear and do it anyway – I did one of the speed mentoring sessions and met some fantastic mentors. A key message from all of them? Go for it. Whatever it is, whatever I want to do, embrace my skills, let them bring me confidence and go for it.

I learned an awful lot more than this but these were some of the key themes which emerged for  me. I look forward to talking about them more on blogs, forums and twitter. Let’s keep the #WOW2012 hashtag going and keep chatting about what we know and what we can do.

What WOW means to me (and is it 2013 yet?)

I’m sure I’m not the only one experiencing a bit of a comedown after the three days of non-stop feminist fabulousness that was WOW 2012. When I woke up this morning, I gave serious thought to rocking up to the Southbank Centre in my Wonder Woman t-shirt and acting like it had never ended.

It’s been an intense few days, not least because it included my very first experience being on a panel instead of in the audience. Body Politics: What’s wrong with you? was chaired by the fantastic Catherine Mayer and my fellow panellists were fat activist and academic Corinna Tomrely, fashion designer and boutique owner Jan Asante, journalist Katherine Baldwin and actress and writer Harriet Walter.

Early on in the panel, we were all asked if we were comfortable in our bodies. I’d arrived primed to rave about those extra few pounds I can’t quite shift (because that would require eating less cake, and who wants to do that?), but was surprised to hear the words ‘Um…no, not really’ coming out of my mouth. What we discovered was the sliding scale of body acceptance as we moved up the age range of the panel. By the time we got to Harriet, who is in her 60s, we’d discussed fat positivity, eating disorders and fashion, and she opened by saying “Well, not much IS wrong with me.” If you’ve never heard a room full of women cheering a 60+ woman whose just announced that she’s happy with the way she looks – well, I recommend it. Harriet has very kindly posted her talk on her blog, and it’s well worth a read – as is her book Facing It: Reflections on images of older women.

I started the panel working out how to hold my notes in a way that would disguise my stomach, but I left reminded that there are an infinite number of ways to be attractive, and they have nothing to do with how old you are, or what parts of your body still work in the way they’re ‘supposed’ to. And when I looked in the mirror this morning and saw the first signs of crow’s feet around my eyes, my reaction wasn’t horror – it was excitement.

One of the highlights of the weekend was the chance to share our experiences, both in the Body Politics panel and in Undivided Attention: Having no children or grandchildren. As a confirmed fence-sitter when it comes to either passing on my genetic material or raising someone else’s, it was wonderful to express my fears and ambivalence in a space where my eventual choice would be celebrated rather than questioned.

Possibly the most emotionally-charged part of the festival for me was the speed-mentoring session. 15 minute conversations with four different women, where I bounced ideas around, confessed my deepest desires and most debilitating fears – it was challenging, terrifying and the most uplifting experience I’ve had in a long time. I left bubbling with ideas, full of confidence in my abilities as a writer, and dying to get started on the countless projects on my to-do list.

No celebration of women’s achievements and struggles would be complete without that classic anthem, Sisters Are Doing It For Themselves. I think it might be enshrined in law that when a group of feminists get together to put on a festival, this song has to be played at least once. At WOW, it was the conclusion of Mirth Control: March of the Women 2012. Sandi Toksvig guided the audience on a whirlwind tour of female composers – some relatively well-known, like Clara Schumann and Hildegard von Bingen, and some undeservedly overlooked like Amy Beach. The WOW orchestra – who, to the audience’s amazement, had only met the day before at their first rehearsal – was the largest all-female orchestra in the world, and all 73 of them were amazing. Sue Perkins helped out with the conducting, and Sandi was joined by the ever-hilarious Jo Brand and West End star Sharon D Clarke, whose voice gave me goosebumps. She’s that good. As a theatre critic, I’m all too used to seeing performances like these dominated by men – Mirth Control was a rare treat, but I wish it was a regular occurance.

So that’s it for another year – next year will see the first WOW Brisbane, and there’s talk of performances in both Derry and South Africa. It’s been an incredible experience, and I’m so grateful for the wonderful Jude Kelly for putting it all together. She spoke about growing up in Liverpool with fantastically supportive parents but few role models when it came to women in the arts. As a teenager in Merseyside in the 1990s she was one of my role models, and ten years on she still is. Thank you Jude, and thanks to all the people who made WOW 2012 possible. I can’t wait for next year.

Global feminism, western feminism, UK feminism?

A sepia photo is projected onto the screen – it shows women marching in the streets. We might guess it’s 1963 because of the big skirts. The march took place in Iraq for international women’s day. At that time, explained Nadje Al-Ali, the chair of gender studies at SOAS, the women’s league in Iraq had about 40,000 members.

If you think that feminism originated in the US, or Europe, and global feminism consists of ‘saving’ or ‘speaking for’ women in other parts of the world – and this is the story of women’s rights that is all too often told in the media – then photos like this should be a wakeup call.

Nadje was talking on today’s ‘Global Feminism’ panel. This festival is called Women of the World. But the idea that women, from country to country, and continent to continent, share in the same struggle, has been a contentious one. It has in the past been presented in oversimplified terms, that ignored the hard realities – for example, sometimes women are complicit in the oppression of other women.

We shouldn’t talk in terms of ‘global feminism’ to mean only ‘feminism of the south’, Nadje argued. Or, indeed, of a monolithic ‘western feminism’ in opposition, as though all feminists in the ‘west’ are on the same page.

Of course, the term ‘western’ is problematic all on its own. To put it simply, as Iranian theatre director Nazli Tabatabai-Khatambakhsh said earlier in the day during another session, “west of where?”

Get a group of feminists in the UK, ask them if feminist porn is possible, and prepare to see the idea of a monolithic ‘western’ feminism dismantled. And that’s before you even get to what you might call the Sarah Palin effect: women using the language of feminists, then vigorously campaigning for policies that constrict women’s lives.

That is not to say this notion emerges from no-where: if feminism in Europe and the US wasn’t so dominated by a few white, middle class perspectives, it would break down the image of a monolithic feminism.

Minna Salami, the blogger MsAfropolitan, told a familiar story: she came to feminism in her earlier 20s through books written by white, middle class feminists. “All the while I was reading their work, I felt that some part of me was neglected,” Minna explained. In time, she came across the work of African American and then African writers. But, “I realised that feminism at large was in trouble.”

Earlier this year, the Go Feminist conference was launched “as a response to feminism’s most sustained critique: that it is not for all women”, as the organisers wrote. The conference was a wonderful riposte, but the fact that it was necessary as an intervention speaks volumes.

Of course there have also been many opportunities to connect with and learn about women’s activism and art during the WOW festival on a global basis – just today, I’ve heard about the battle for women’s reproductive freedom in Nepal, and the struggle of artists in Egypt to figure out when it is right to take time out of the revolution and make art, and Scottish women’s work songs, and so much more. And it was great to hear from festival organiser Jude Kelly that WOW is being put on in Baltimore, and there are plans next year to put on WOW in places including South Africa and Ireland. But it was great to see this idea of an international network of women’s struggle put under the microscope as well as celebrated.

Feminism is not a gift from the ‘west’ to the rest of the world, is the lesson of Nadje’s photo – and to view it as such is patronising and misguided. The notion also makes life harder for feminist activists in some parts of the world, one of the other panellists, Nesrine Malik explained, as it becomes all too easy for their efforts to be dismissed as a hangover from a neo-colonialist mindset which should be resisted.

She gave the example of a reproductive rights campaign in Sudan by the UN. The UN bussed people out to rural areas and gave out condoms to women. “There was a lot of money to do this, but very very little foresight had gone into how to get women who’ve not had any sexual health education to get their husbands to use a condom,” she noted.

It’s not all bad though – there are good models for feminists to support each other internationally. But it might mean setting aside that trip to Sudan to ‘help’ women, and instead fundraising so that a woman can be trained to do the job in that country, as one of the panellists observed today.

Most important, said Kate Nustedt from Women for Women International, is to be led by grassroots women. “The starting point needs to be… from the women who want to see a change and they feel that international support will help the make a difference.”

Rather than blundering around making assumptions about what other feminists need, efforts led by what activists actually say they want from international supporters can be really powerful, Kate said. “To know that there are hundreds, thousands of women that are doing the same thing as them, for them, is massively important.”

Women of the world, women of science

We’re all stardust. Yes you’ve heard this before. But Jocelyn Bell Burnell, one of the astrophysicists who spoke at yesterday’s Women of the World session, ‘This time it is rocket science’, explained in more depth. “The stuff in your body has probably been through two [occurrences] of star building and star explosion. Every atom in your body, apart from a few hydrogen atoms, comes from exploding stars.”
During the talk, Jocelyn took the audience through – in very basic terms that even a journalist and English graduate like me could understand – some of the work she has done. But she also weaved in the story of her own career. She is famous for not receiving the Nobel Prize for her role in the discovery of pulsars when she was an undergraduate. (Although she puts this down to the fact she was a student, not particularly that she was a woman, the stars she spotted went on to net her male supervisors the illustrious prize.)
After graduating, Jocelyn married a man who worked in local government – to advance his career, it was necessary to move every five to 10 years. So move they did – leaving Jocelyn to start again at a new institute each time. She illustrated the effect of this to us by showing us a map of the electromagnetic spectrum. While most astrophysicists would pick a spot on the spectrum, and specialise, Jocelyn noted wryly, “I’ve been just about all over the spectrum.”
It was also a struggle to work part time and raise a child, she explained, at a time when the expectation was that mothers should stay at home and give up all ambitions for a career. Despite all this, Jocelyn has built up a brilliant career.
Maggie Aderin-Pocock, is another space scientist of a younger generation, with another high flying career – you might know her from Dr Who Confidential. She came up on stage carrying her baby daughter in a sling. She also showed us a photograph of a pregnant scientist, standing next to her equipment, which she was using to explore the birth of the universe. The times, you might conclude, have moved on.
But this isn’t exactly the case – Maggie explained that she’s moved away from her research career, to work as a science communicator, which better fits around the schedule and demands of parenthood. And women continue to be pushed out of a scientific career altogether in this country when they have children.
That said, there is more going on here than just the expectation that women will do most of the childcare – that is holding back brilliant scientists. Jocelyn added, “It’s not just about family. Women without partners and children also fail to progress as fast as their male counterparts.”
And that’s starting from a small pool of women who go into a scientific career in the first place. Maggie showed us a clip from a film she made in a secondary school. In the classroom, the walls were arrayed with the images of famous scientists – not one of them was a woman. The girls looking at these images absorbed the message that women simply haven’t made great discoveries. This is simply wrong, and Maggie has been trying to revive the stories of early women astronomers, and communicate them to girls, in a bid to provide role models.
But it was impossible to consider these stories without bringing to mind some of the things that Helena Kennedy QC had talked about earlier in the day, as she reminisced about her experiences fighting in the courts for women’s rights back in the 1970s. What is needed, she said, is “treatment as equals – not equal treatment”. And maybe this logic applies in the laboratory as well as the courtroom. Equal treatment might involve changing the profession so that having a child doesn’t shut women out of a career in research in the first place.
“What we learnt is there is no such thing as neutrality. Neutrality was a complete fiction and in fact it misled and distracted us from the real things,” Helena went on to say.
It’s a lesson that some scientists might find hard to hear, but the structure of how scientific institutions are run is no more ‘neutral’ than, say, the criteria that the TLS uses to determine which books it wants to review. 
Maggie and Jocelyn had some fascinating statistics to show us about the proportion of women represented in the sciences. Women make up 37% of astronomers in Argentina, but only 12% in the UK. This doesn’t mean there is a surprising cluster of talent and interest in Argentina. It shows that the under-representation of women in science is cultural, and can be changed.
The structural changes we’re talking about aren’t to benefit the careers of individual scientists – although it sure couldn’t hurt. Both women were emphatic that a more diverse team will lead to better results. “It’s already been well demonstrated in industry that the most diverse [organisations] are the most flexible, strong and successful,” Jocelyn noted. This isn’t ‘just’ about more women, though: diversity of background leads to diversity of perspectives, which leads to breaking out of the standard patterns of thought. “Anything to dilute the white male Brit will make an organisation stronger,” as she put it.
Maggie was just as straight down the line on the importance of diversity. “If you have a more diverse team.. you are more likely to make great discoveries,” she said.
This post is by Jess McCabe, editor of The F-Word