The centenary of International Women's Day on Tuesday 8 March gave teachers and learners an opportunity to remember all those women who fought, and often died, in the cause of women's equality. Much of that fight was for equality of access to education and the impact they knew this would have on their lives and those of their families. We have seen women gain the vote, the right to go to university, the right not to have to resign from work when pregnant. We have had women professors, Prime Ministers and Ministers of State, judges and even, very occasionally, mechanics and plumbers. Universal child benefit enabled mothers to save for their children's education, and comprehensive education and the chance to go to University, opened up the world for many children.
But things in the garden aren't all that rosy - 40 years on from the Equal Pay Act, women are, on average, still paid significantly less than men. Women were given the same voting rights as men 83 years ago, however, following the 2010 General Election only one in five MPs are women and they are vastly outnumbered in the Cabinet. And as for the 'glass ceiling' very few women make it on to the boards of the top firms - Cranfield School of Management report that 'there are still 43 firms with no women on their board and only 2% of executive directors are women'. Most Universities and boardrooms remain dominated by men and research by the Women's Leadership Network revealed that only 36% of FE principals are women. Although this is an 11% increase on the late 1990s, this percentage falls short if we consider that 63% of the FE workforce is made up of women, 59% of teachers in FE are women and 60% of managers in FE are women.
The cuts we are facing will also impact on women's' opportunities to access education – cuts in crèche support and the increasing costs of childcare; the closures of Sure Start Centres and of libraries; reduction in public transport and of course, unemployment and poverty. All of these will make it harder for women - still overwhelmingly carers of children, disabled adults and older people, still overwhelmingly in part time and low paid work - to access the education they need to succeed in life, work, family and community.
Following conferences in London and Cardiff to celebrate the centenary of International Women's Day, NIACE has kick-started the process of drawing up a manifesto to consider what women need to take up their right to access and succeed in learning. So far two top priorities have been outlined by participants at both events – the issue of childcare and the need for recognition of informal small step activity. The manifesto is an interactive and evolving document which we invite people to contribute to here (http://www.niace.org.uk/womeninlearning). Once contributions have been received, we can finalise the manifesto and launch it later this year, as a tool to help national policy makers and educators identify practical ways to reduce inequality and secure rights for women learners.
NIACE's concern is with every woman's right to learn. There are large numbers of successful women in all corners of the world in public and community life and business. The knowledge, skills and confidence they have gained through education has opened the doors to their success, enabling women to break through social, economic and political barriers to gain equality.
We need to ensure that rights extend to women returning to work or learning after childbirth. Women need quality childcare facilities, flexible learning opportunites that take into account times and locations and more family-friendly policies in the workplace. Employers should not only offer training based on specific job-roles, but should also encourage wider learning that has impressive results for both worker and business.
We need to help more women excel in non-traditional industries by putting an end to stereotyping and by celebrating women who have broken down the barriers and succeeded. The all-age careers service need to start in schools to reach young women. But with more apprenticeships – including those for adults looking for a change in career - and considerable support for them from Government, this should help.
We must address cultural and societal expectations, which for some are beginning to shift but many barriers still remain, especially for Pakistani and Bangladeshi women. And we have to ensure we are prepared for the implications of our ageing society, the raising of the pension age and the fact that women will continue to live longer and hopefully have more active lives.
Adult learning supports women to realise their talents and ambitions. The challenge is to understand what works and what is needed to bring about equality for women and their lives in the 21st Century.
Carol Taylor is director of operations at NIACE, which encourages all adults to engage in learning
Read other FE News article by Carol Taylor:
The Early Intervention review
Taking pride in adult apprenticeships