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International Women’s Day @ King’s College London

Conference Venue

Conference Venue Photo by Gillian King

You know the thing; scrolling down emails at work on a Wednesday afternoon, checking to make sure I hadn’t missed anything of vital importance before I go ‘off duty’. Since I work part-time at the HR department at Heythrop College, University of London, I try to make sure my work has a rhythm to it that means I can pick up where I left off when I get back to work on my next working day.

An email sent round to all staff about International Women’s day at King’s College London caught my eye, mainly because of the sub-title: Inspiring Change. It was International Women’s Day on 8 March and if anything can bring me out of blogging semi-retirement, it’s anything to do with equal rights.

So off I trotted to King’s, not intending to blog about it at all, just to take note of any innovative ideas for my book. There were so many innovative ideas and such inspiration for change, that I feel the need to chronicle the event, if only to capture the prevailing wind of change.

All the speakers were excellent and it was nothing like a talking shop. It was indeed an inspiring afternoon that challenged us to want to inspire change, which was evident from the Q &A session at the end.

The afternoon kicked off with a short video of Daniel Craig (the majority female audience all got excited about that) and I worried that I wouldn’t be able to concentrate on the important message, but the very serious narration by Dame Judi Dench of all the shocking statistics that highlight the gender inequality that still exists, put paid to that! And when Prof Evelyn Welch introduced the Gender ambitions at King’s, I knew my decision to spend the afternoon this way instead of worrying about how to navigate my impending foray into the world of agents and publishers, would be rewarded.

Prof Welch expressed the ambitions for equality at King’s as one of transparency, where everyone knows the rules they are being judged by, so that the ‘unspoken rules’ are not a hindrance to equality and diversity. She says this is an issue of integrity and awareness that is important for the College. It is important to change the culture by making the issues explicit so that they can be addressed.

Professor of Physics, Avreil McDonald challenged us all to create opportunities for ourselves instead of waiting for them to come to us. She said, as women, we needed to see our career progression more as one of ‘snakes and ladders’, rather than the proverbial ladder. The merit in this approach was to expect and therefore not be afraid of failure, because failure is inevitable in reaching for a high goal, but cannot be achieved if we are risk averse. ‘Work smarter, not harder,’ she advised because hard work does not always mean progress. Don’t we know it!

Something else that was innovative and inspiring about this programme was the fact that the keynote speaker was a man! Professor Paul Walton of University of York is head of the chemistry department which was the first academic department in the UK to hold the Athena Sawn Gold award for their commitment to women in science.

He was so inspiring, he got me thinking about work! He challenged us even further than Professor Avreil did. This was apparently not new for him as his challenges have produced a violent response from some audiences on a couple of occasions! I could see why though, once he outlined statistically, how we are all biased unconsciously, creating a culture of prejudice and unfairness that we all must work had to eradicate. How? By using the evidence! He gave some compelling examples of how evidence-based policies implemented to bring about change can make a big difference and dispel myths surrounding working patterns and stereotypes. He says we must use the evidence to challenge the culture, because culture is the single biggest reason for inequality.

He used the results of the Harvard implicit Association Test to demonstrate how we all succumb to unconscious bias. He even went so far as to admit that despite taking the test several times and being aware of how to circumvent it, he still tested as biased, because it’s unconscious and ingrained. This however, does not mean we can’t intervene to mitigate the unconscious bias, because psychologists have done the research and know how to intervene, it’s then up to us to access the information.

He emphasised that it was this gap between what people say they do and what they actually do that is crippling and we should be trained in ways to avoid unconscious bias. For example psychologists have found that people are more likely to be biased when they are tired, angry or under pressure and more ironically, when they are trying hard not to be biased! Therefore, recruitment panels for example could be set up bearing this in mind.

It was a hugely inspiring event because it comprehensively addressed the equality issues facing women and the hurdles they face in trying to achieve it. But it was also shown very clearly, comprehensively and with compelling evidence that change is possible, achievable and desirable, especially if we were all participating to inspire such change.

April 2014
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