Last night, the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham embraced International Women’s Day at a special event hosted by the Council’s Town Hall. A group of women, leaders in their industries, joined a discussion panel to discuss the situation of equality today. The council chambers were packed with an audience consisting of residents, community staff, volunteers and council workers.

Councillor Sade Bright, Cabinet Member for Equalities and Cohesion introduced the evening. ‘This is the fourth year that we have celebrated International Women’s Day. It is time to raise awareness of equality issues that still exist today and discuss how they can be overcome. Each year the programme grows, gets better and better and engages more people’.

The Young Mayor of Barking and Dagenham, Wesley Oparaguo, had only been in his position for a week and this was his first speaking engagement in his new role. He praises the borough for producing ‘brilliant advocates for equality in the form of the Ford Dagenham machinists. These women have had a resounding impact on gender equality. We can encourage such a movement by speaking to peers and let them know how we can bring about change.’

This years theme for International Women’s Day is ‘Press for Progress’ and the six,all female panel, took on this task led by questions from the audience. Councillor Margaret Mullins, Councillor for Village Ward in Dagenham states ‘women are still undervalued in the workforce. The biggest worry is the gig economy as this tends to be women. It is insecure work…they are not getting the financial rewards and it is a real worry’.

Dr Elizabeth Negus, Head of English Department at the College of North West London, says ‘The biggest challenge women face is the renewing of minds. Britain is deeping routed in patriarchy and stereotypes. Children’s minds are struggling to erase the past. The language we use in the classroom forms part of who we are in every sense of the way.’

The gender pay cap is at a national average of 18.4%. Sharon Quintana, Managing Director of Real Estate London at Barclays, suggests that the gender pay gap is not the same as equal pay and the reason for the disparity is that there are more men in higher paid roles resulting in them being paid more than women who traditionally are employed in lower paid roles. ‘The pay gap is 43% in Barclays and there is a long way to go in large corporate institutions. It is really important for younger women to see other successful women in senior positions. It is time to consider quotas in institutions such as banking [otherwise] I fear we will be in a similar position for years to come’. Rt. Hon Dame Margaret Hodge MP disagreed. ‘Women doing the same job as men are not earning the same as men. We saw that with the BBC report. Clearly the data is not good enough yet. It doesn’t go behind what leads to the pay gap’.

What is it like to work in a male dominated industries such as banking, property and the music industry? Stephanie Okato, joint Managing Director of John Samuel Estates believes ‘there is a perception of how women are referred to as a weaker sex. The most important thing I had to do was believe in myself, I had to stand out’. Stephanie goes on to say that it is important to empower other women and she organises women empowerment workshops within her industry. Folk songwriter and singer Lucy Ward is writing a women’s anthem for Barking and Dagenham this year to be performed at the Barking Folk Festival in June. Joining the debate, she says that being commented on her appearance ‘is so specific to being a woman. Women’s rights of passage are being oppressed form the word go. We have been told that “Yorkies are not for girls” and you are “crying like a girl”‘.

So how do women change and renew the mindset? An audience member asks. ‘Networking with other women has helped me. The onus is on us women who are older to support younger women who are growing and realising their potential. Dame Margaret Hodge (pictured below) responds. ‘Don’t be afraid, ask for the next job, ask for the pay rise. Seek out what you can do and how. You can do it’ advises Sharon Quinlan.

A Unison representative asks Dame Margaret Hodge directly ‘What piece of legislation would Labour introduce to improve women’s lives?’. Dame Margaret Hodge responds ‘There are still women in different sectors being discriminated for having children when I thought we had sorted out the law. Bring in legislation to deal with sexual harassment and flexible working. Never take the foot off the accelerator’. Lucy Ward agrees and adds ‘If we take our finger off the pulse for one moment, we just slide back. Challenge every seed of insipid sexism in every way’.

Sarah Jackson (photo above), co-Founder of the East End Women’s Museum, opening in Barking late 2019, was the evening’s key note speaker. She said the objective for the new museum is to ‘Re-balance the history books. You would be forgiven for thinking that women were not invented until the 20th Century. Fewer than 3% of statues represent real women. The others have been pushed to the margins and off the page’. ‘The Suffragettes created a women’s movement that is still with us today. I hope that the celebrations of this year help people to keep fighting. We want to celebrate those women who will never have a statue but deserve one’. Sarah Jackson tells the audience about a young school student she met at an event in Barking the previous year. When asking residents what they would like to see in a museum the student responded ‘my mum is a woman, she is important’. A confident student added ‘you need to save a space for me because I’m going to do something amazing!’.

Councillor Darren Rodwell and Leader of the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham Council closed the evening ‘We are proud of women in this borough from what they have done in the past to what they will do in the future’.

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