Today is International Women’s Day. The 2023 Australian Government ‘Status of Women Report Card’ notes that Australia ranks 43rd in the world for gender equality (up from 50th last year). Its data include that women experience significantly more sexual harassment and sexual violence than men, that women spend on average nine hours per week more than men on unpaid work and five hours per week more on housework. The weekly pay gap is 13.3%, translating into $253.50 less every week, $13,182 every year, and women having 23.1% less superannuation than men of the same age. Alarmingly, the report states that in the last 10 years there has been a three-fold increase in intentional self-harm hospitalisations for young girls.
I have written about International Women’s Day before, but this year, in the role of Principal at a girls’ school, it feels different. The statistics feel starker. Now, I am surrounded every day by girls and young women showing strength, intellect, curiosity, and resilience, and staff who wrap around them, teach them, support them, champion them, and challenge them within an environment of care.
The UN Women Australia’s International Women’s Day theme for 2023 is ‘Cracking the Code: Innovation for a gender equal future’. This theme focuses on equity, inclusivity, access, education and innovation in technologies and in STEM pathways and careers for women. Students educated at girls’ schools are invited to the table, the stage, and the lectern. They have been found to enjoy higher academic achievement, higher engagement at school, better mental health, more confident sense of self, increased leadership opportunities, and greater participation and success in those subjects and pathways that might be considered non-traditional for women.
I have recently had the pleasure of meeting, hearing from, and talking to, a number of alumnae from my school. These women have spoken of their experience of the self-belief they feel was instilled in them through their schooling, the sense of sisterhood, the conviction to pursue their dreams, and the capacity for resilience when faced with setbacks. Students in girls’ schools are surrounded by strong female role models. As the saying goes: ‘You can’t be what you can’t see’. Girls’ schools ensure that their students see constant exemplars of women’s successes, leadership, entrepreneurship, and joy in living, learning, working and serving. Students at my school talk about the power of their connections with their peers, the commitment of their teachers, and the older girls and women to whom they look up within the school community.
I have been speaking with students about being brave and having a go, living with authenticity and integrity, and accepting and celebrating the uniqueness of themselves and each other. Vivienne Porritt, the founder of the global organisation WomenEd, says that ‘normal is the setting on a washing machine’, implying that ‘normal’ is not a label we should apply to people. We are best served when we can come as we are, and be accepted and celebrated for our unique gifts, talents and idiosyncrasies. Girls and young women in particular can be encouraged to grow, to take up space, and to be unapologetic in their desire to learn, live, and contribute positively to the world.
All of us are collectively responsible for doing what is right rather than what is normalised or what is comfortable, for pursuing equity in access to technologies, resources and pathways, for calling out bias when we see or hear it, and for creating inclusive, equitable and safe spaces for all.