International Women’s Day: why I Choose to Challenge, Stroud District Council Chief Executive, Kathy O’Leary

Published: Monday, 8 March, 2021

“When I was 5 years old, my teacher described me as a “bossy little girl”. Had I been a boy, would I have been described in more positive terms as assertive, with a future that might involve running an organisation?

When I was 13 years old, my school would not allow me to take technical drawing as it was a ‘boys’ subject’, or run a 1500m track event as it might ‘damage my development’.

When I was 24 years old, at a job interview I was asked whether I intended to get married and take lots of time off at their expense to have babies – by an interview panel of four middle-aged men.

Monday 8 March is International Women’s Day (IWD). It is a global day to celebrate the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women, and is a call for action to promote gender equality. The theme of this year’s IWD is Choose to Challenge. This is about challenging stereotypes and bias, calling out sexism and racism, and promoting a more inclusive world.

The first IWD was held in 1911, and was the idea of Clara Zetkin who raised it at the International Conference of Working Women in Copenhagen the year before. This came out of activism in the late 19th and early 20th century, which concentrated on two issues – women’s voice and participation in Government and the gender pay gap, which remain just as relevant today. Feminism gained momentum in the 1970s when women lobbied hard for inclusion, influence and equality, to some extent liberated by the advent of the birth control pill. In the 1990s organisational structures began to change to allow women to thrive, and these have continued to improve in the 21st century as influential leaders have become increasingly committed to equality, diversity and inclusion, challenging stereotypes and bias.

I’m delighted that we are taking our own Equality, Diversity and Inclusion policy to full Council on 18 March together with an action plan prepared by the Equality & Diversity Working Group. It is something I am passionate about and committed to, and I am delighted to be the overall lead and sponsor for equalities at SDC to ensure that is high on our corporate agenda.

In terms of gender quality, things have improved greatly in my own lifetime, although I am disappointed that my daughter faces some of the same stereotyping and bias that I did – though I think she is very good at challenging it. However, there is still a long way to go, particularly after the Covid-19 pandemic which is feared to have wiped out the last 25 years of progress on gender equality.

According to recent reports, working mothers, women in senior roles and BAME women have been most impacted. Working mothers because they have had to add home-schooling their children to already stretched roles trying to balance work and work in the home, women in senior roles because they are being put under considerable pressure at work and home and are often held to higher performance standards than their male counterparts, and BAME women because in addition, they have had to deal with the challenges of racial inequality and discrimination. For all of us, the line between work and home has become blurred and has added to stress and anxiety. 

We all have a role to play in forging gender equality. If organisations can make work truly fit into people’s lives as we move out of lockdown, and choose to challenge, we can create a more agile workforce and supportive workplace for everyone.”

Kathy O’Leary

Chief Executive, Stroud District Council

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