Why we need to get more women equipped with the relevant skills
For this year’s International Women’s Day, Krista Samson, Research and Communications Officer at ESSA, sat down with Dr Lucy Heady, CEO, to discuss what International Women’s Day means to her and what more we can do to improve gender equality.
International Women’s Day is celebrated each year on 8th March. It is a day that recognises and celebrates women for their accomplishments, regardless of age, status, or background.
It is also a day that brings to light some of the issues and challenges women continue to face across the globe. This year’s theme, DigitALL: Innovation and technology for gender equality, is no different. The United Nations reports that 37% of women globally do not use the internet. Around 259 million fewer women have access to the internet compared to men, even though women account for nearly half of the world’s population. With this lack of access to the internet, these women cannot develop digital skills that could later lead to them pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM)-related fields, which only results in women being behind the curve.
As part of this year’s International Women’s Day celebrations, we caught up with ESSA’s CEO, Dr Lucy Heady, to discuss what International Women’s Day means to her and how we can all work better to improve female leadership and push for more women to develop relevant skills.
Could you please tell us a little bit about yourself?
I run a small but energetic charity, as you know. I'm passionate about education and the use of evidence in education. What I enjoy about my job is talking about what we do and getting people excited about it. I love engaging with our enthusiastic team and thinking about how we can maximise our impact.
I'm also a mother. I have two daughters, ages four and eight, and it's interesting to see how they view me because I work from home. And so, in some ways, it's like, 'Oh, mummy's always at home!' because my husband works. 'Do they take my job as seriously as they do my husband's job?' I wonder at times. I also think it's great that they can see that I work; it is okay for parents to work, and their jobs are equally important.
How important is International Women's Day to you, and what does this year's International Women's Day theme, DigitALL: Innovation and technology for gender equality, mean for ESSA?
I think International Women's Day has managed to find resonance and focus. I've seen it make men think about women and the women in their lives. It would be brilliant to see a focus on helping women access professional development, be more digitally savvy, and be on top of digital communications. Right now, there is a lot of activity in getting women interested in STEM.
Yes, it is great to get children and students into STEM. All of these initiatives, however, are hampered by a lack of role models higher up in the system. Furthermore, there are few female role models who push the boundaries of digital technology. So I would not call it a female-only problem. It is an issue about better use of digital communications or digital technology. Digital innovation technology in the university and college sector is lagging. I think significant gains can be unlocked by providing women with professional development opportunities.
What is your proudest accomplishment while working at ESSA?
There are so many to choose from, but I'll tell you what I love about ESSA: the culture. It is something that I, the leadership, and the entire ESSA team think about as the team grows. That is how to create a positive, supportive, and welcoming culture.
People always say how welcoming we are when they join. It can be challenging because we are a distributed organisation and are not always together. So I believe that maintaining that culture is critical to our success. I am building on what was there before I joined and keeping it as we grow.
ESSA recently released a report on the state of women leading. How can we encourage more women to take on leadership roles in higher education institutions?
Firstly, the report highlights mentorship, improved networks, and scholarships targeted at women. Institutions need to ensure that everything they do has a gender lens. They need to embed those approaches in whole institutional strategies around supporting women in leadership positions. Also, combine such efforts with objective measures and metrics so that people can set goals and track success towards those goals.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
I learned a lot by reading the research from the Women Leading Report. I am a natural sceptic. I have been privileged in my life as one of three sisters. There was no gender bias between us growing up. My parents were clear that being a girl should not hold you back in any realm of life. I have not been subject to sexism professionally. I am urging people like me who have had that privileged life to listen to other women's experiences and what's helpful for them.
Everybody has different experiences, so there should be room to share. You could say every woman understands what it is to be a woman, but they have their own experience. So they can get harsh and critical and say, "No", that's not it.
We should be conscious that our attitude toward these issues could be overwhelmed by our experience. That's why it's so important to listen to others. And research is one way—it is not the only way—of listening to others and their experiences.
No matter where or who we are, we each have a responsibility to encourage and push women to develop the relevant skills needed today and to support them as they climb the ladders to success. Where we can, we should mentor. Where we can, we should be a pillar for a woman who needs a solid network. Achieving equality and equity cannot be left to women alone. We need all hands on deck.
Happy International Women’s Day!
The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of ESSA.