March 8th is traditionally celebrated as International Women’s Day, a time to commemorate all those women who fought, and those who died, in the cause of women’s equality, and a chance to reflect on how far we have come.
Much of the struggle over the past 100 years has been for equal access to education, and a recognition of the transformational impact education can have on the lives of women and 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 married or pregnant. We have women mechanics, professors, Prime Ministers and Ministers of State, engineers, judges and even, very occasionally, plumbers. Universal child benefit enabled mothers to save for their children’s education; FE Colleges give women a second chance; the opportunity to go to University has opened up the world for many women.
But despite the major advances made over the past century there is still a long way to go, and the impact of high unemployment, coupled with a range of significant policy changes, will, NIACE suggests, impact more significantly on women than on men. This is one reason why NIACE calls for Equality Impact Assessments to be a starting point for every new piece of legislation.
Consider the impact of loans on older women with families and mortgages; consider the impact on women of the cuts in Arts and Humanities courses at Universities all over England; consider the figures that show that women overwhelmingly take up apprenticeships in the traditional and therefore lowest paid areas of childcare and the service industries, whereas apprenticeships in engineering for example, attract the highest remuneration and are overwhelmingly taken up by men. The latest available Government figures show that in 2008/09, 16,700 women took up an apprenticeship in childcare, compared to 500 men, and just 400 women took up an apprenticeship in engineering, compared to 14,800 men.
Also consider what impact the massive cuts in public transport have on women trying to access courses. As well as the impact of cuts in crèche support, the rise in the cost of childcare and the closure of Sure Start Centres and of libraries. All of these 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.
This is why NIACE’s concern is with every woman’s right to learn. Adult learning supports women to realise their talents and ambitions, to get well paid and secure jobs, to be confident about bringing up their children and to be able to exercise their democratic rights. NIACE’s Manifesto for Women’s Learning hopes to enable every woman to have the right to learn, no matter what their life-circumstances are.
We need to ensure that rights extend to women returning to work or learning after childbirth. To help more women excel in non-traditional industries. To address the cultural and societal expectations, which for some are beginning to shift, but many barriers still remain for Pakistani and Bangladeshi women. And 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.
Carol Taylor - NIACE Director of Development and Research