A potted history
The origins for International Women’s Day (IWD) can be found as far back as 1908, when women in New York went on strike to protest about poor working conditions, and the following year a National Women’s Day was celebrated in honour of those strikes. However, it gained momentum in 1917 when, in a poverty stricken Russia, women came together to protest for better rights. As a direct consequence, Russian women called for and won the right to vote. In fact, Emmeline Pankhurst, famous for her part in the British suffragette movement, was inspired by the Russians following a visit there in June 1917. In the 100 years since it was established, it has been a time to reflect on equality – or lack of - and protest for change. In more recent times subjects of relevance include the #MeToo movement.
This year, the IWD theme is #EachForEqual. As we strive for an equal world to enable us all to be healthier, happier and more productive, it’s important to recognise that equality is everyone’s business and not just an issue for women.
Simon: a champion for gender
“I took on the role of DWP’s gender champion in January 2019, and although I've had a very diverse career in many industries, my first thoughts were: what did I know about gender issues and how could I help DWP improve things?
“Gender is a big issue and I want to do the job justice. We may have a higher percentage of women compared to men, 66.3% in DWP, however this drops to 44% of Senior Civil Servant (SCS) roles filled by women. But as CDIO for DWP Digital, I feel that I’m best placed to take on this role, as we have very specific issues attracting, recruiting and keeping women in the tech industry. Out of all the professions in the Civil Service, only 33.7% of Digital, Data and Technical roles are filled by women. This reduces to just 23.7% when you get to SCS level. So not only do we need to support women to come and work for us in the first place, we need to help them progress into more senior positions and to be successful in their careers.
Supporting women in their careers
“Luckily I'm not alone in my task. Working alongside Ozma Iqbal, DWP gender lead, we’re getting to the root of the real issues affecting women and we’re working with them to ensure that the support and opportunities are available.
“For last year’s International Women’s Day, I went to events where I heard women say they often felt oppressed in meetings and they were scared to speak up. It made me reflect on whether I’d done enough to encourage everyone to speak up in meetings, and to have a voice.
“I trained as a mental health first aider last year. This has helped me to better recognise the signs when someone needs help, and to be confident at offering support for anyone experiencing mental health challenges.
“I recently sponsored a DWP-wide programme for women at middle management to help them move up to a more senior position; the Crossing Thresholds programme is designed to develop their personal and career aspirations, increase their confidence and help gain focus and direction.
“And, in DWP Digital we have our award-winning Digital Voices programme aimed directly at women working in a digital environment to build their confidence and skills.”
What have I learned?
“Gender has to be a qualitative debate and not just about the statistics. It isn’t about numbers – it’s about the quality of the equality.
“Confidence is really important – in carrying out your role, speaking up and talking about yourself and your work.
“Intersectionality is important, where people might represent more than one protected characteristic, for example, being female and disabled. Embracing intersectionality helps us to have a more diverse workforce which is more representative of the population we serve. I’m keen to understand this more and to do more to create an inclusive environment for everyone.
“Being a champion of one protected characteristic has made me more aware of all the diversity and inclusion issues. I’ve really enjoyed having the opportunity to learn more, and I’ll continue to do this so that we are all #EachforEqual.”
Ozma: leading on gender equality
“I remember starting as the DWP Gender Diversity Lead back in October 2015. I knew from the outset that I wanted to help women get to where they want to be in their careers, as helping others is something I’m passionate about. So it’s really rewarding to report that, 5 years on, we’ve made excellent progress and put in place real programmes to get more women into senior leadership and roles which had previously been filled by men.”
Programmes that make a difference
“Our Crossing Thresholds programme helps to ensure we have a strong talent pipeline of women across the department. In this year’s cohort the majority of women were age 50+, showing that age is no barrier. With longer working lives it’s important that we not only recognise gender, but age too and other characteristics that can potentially have a negative impact on individuals if they’re not recognised and championed.
“As Simon says, intersectionality is important. We must all strive towards building a more diverse environment where equality is the norm.
“As part of the Crossing Thresholds programme the women study for a professional leadership and management qualification. Jo Davis, one of the participants on the programme, told me that she learned such a lot about herself, her aspirations, her values and how far she can push herself. As a result, she applied for and gained a promotion. Jo is in her early 50s so it goes to show it’s never too late to pursue your career ambitions.
“Recently I’ve been involved with Springboard to deliver a pilot package of work and personal development training for women interested in promotion. It’s designed for women from different backgrounds to help us to secure a diverse mix of talent. In the Civil Service our ambition is to be the most inclusive employer and this year we’re celebrating 2020 as the Year of Inclusion.
“We hope to drive a cultural change and address some of the issues that women in minority groups can face. Understanding intersectionality is one of our key challenges, for example being a woman and being from a Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic background too. The programme is designed for women of all backgrounds to take more control, enhance their skills and abilities and challenge power and inequality. It will equip those on the programme with tools to help them increase their confidence and assertiveness and how to portray a positive image.”
“I was also delighted when our Digital Voices programme won the Civil Service Diversity Inclusion award 2019 and the Women in IT awards Diversity Initiative of the year. The programme really showcases inclusivity in the workplace.
“We also made it to the ‘Times Top 50 Employers for Women’ list for the first time last year. It was such a proud moment for me because it recognised all the work taking place behind the scenes; it felt like the change was taking shape. It’s a real testament to DWP’s commitment to gender equality.
“Simon and I would urge everyone to get involved with International Women’s Day this year and show the world why equality matters for everyone.”
For more information about DWP Digital visit our careers site.