Choosing To Challenge For International Women’s Day 2021

What does #ChooseToChallenge mean to you? This International Women’s Day, we speak to women who have championed empowerment through their work, leadership and ongoing commitment to sustainability. 

Each year, International Women’s Day provides an opportunity to celebrate achievements and milestones accomplished by women and girls globally. It also provides a poignant moment to reflect on the ongoing inequalities and issues many women still face today, and the work to be done in overcoming them in the fight for a fairer future. 

The 2021 theme has brought up many interesting and inspiring conversations within the Eco-Age team about what #ChooseToChallenge means to us, and what those commitments look like in action. Looking to our friends and networks all over the world, we bring together individuals whose work and campaigning efforts continue to challenge inequality and set an inspiring example for change makers to follow. It goes without saying that this is not an exhaustive list; rather, we hope these leaders’ work and words provide a starting point for constructive conversations, at home, between friends, within the workplace – in all the places where change happens, and has the potential to happen, every day.

Baroness Lola Young

Lola Young is an independent Crossbench member of the House of Lords. As an Ambassador for Cotton Made in Africa, the Ethical Fashion Forum and MADE-BY, she promotes ethical and sustainable fashion, and is the founding Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Ethics and Sustainability in Fashion. In 2002, she was appointed Head of Culture at the Greater London Authority, and has more recently been appointed Chancellor of the University of Nottingham.

What does ‘choosing to challenge’ mean to you? You could say that I was prepped to challenge from an early age by my status as a black girl, without a family, in 1950s London. Some choices are harder to make than others. I’ve thought from when I was a child that certain things that went on in the world – including my world – were just wrong and shouldn’t happen.”

In your experience, what obstacles stand in the way of governments, businesses and organisations eradicating gender inequality? How can they be overcome, and are you hopeful that they will be in the near future? 

“Qualities that are really needed in politics and policy-making are denigrated as ‘soft’. We need to draw on empathy and imagination, and to develop and enhance our understanding of the appalling consequences of inequalities across the entire intersectional piece. Part of the solution is to have more people from a wider range of backgrounds and experiences, but that in itself is not the whole answer: we only have to look around to see that doesn’t always result in a stronger commitment to eradicating inequality. I do believe that the move towards equality of opportunity is inexorable, though there are always setbacks and false dawns.

Look how long it took for enslaved Africans and abolitionists to break the trans-Atlantic slave trade or how long it was before women in this country were able to vote for their MP. While acknowledging how long change is in coming, we have to strive to fast-track transformation: if it takes too long, it will be too lateWe also have to learn to recognise how something that looks like positive change may be a seductive facade.

We also have to learn to recognise how something that looks like positive change may be a seductive facade. Is economic parity the end, or a means to an end? What if the salary gap is lessened for professional women at the expense of those in ‘unskilled’ labour? Is that progress? In the global north in particular, we must look to values that go beyond the economic.”

Has anyone in particular’s work towards gender equality inspired you throughout your career? “So many women have done so much through their activism. I’d like to pay tribute to the Women of Grunwick’s – most of whom were of South Asian descent – who went on strike for two years, between 1976 and 1978: events on the picket line were reported on a daily basis. Southall Black Sisters were formed a year later in response to the killing of an anti-racist campaigner, Blair Peach. Black Lives Matter has called out police assaults on black women and the Me Too movement has had a substantial impact. When I look at Sonia Boyce’s artworks or read Toni Morrison’s writing, I’m grateful for their persistence in getting their work out there for us to learn from. There’s a cumulative effect that has the capacity to strengthen and empower women.”

Sarah Smith

Facilities manager Sarah Smith specialises in soft services for The FA Group, a role she describes as “challenging, rewarding, and fun”. Committed to driving forward sustainable change throughout the organisation, she leads the FA Sustainability Team (FAST), which won The Sustainability in Sport Award at the 2020 Sport Business Awards. In 2019, Sarah also implemented the event sustainability management system ISO 20121 for major events at Wembley with support from Eco-Age.

What does International Women’s Day mean to you? “To recognise and celebrate the achievements of women.  To help build inclusive workplaces, encourage fairness and equality, instil confidence and inspire the next generation.”

Who do you regard as a great role model? “I was fortunate to meet Patricia Espinosa, Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) at COP 23 in Bonn in 2017. Patricia is an inspiring, enthusiastic and determined woman ‘dedicated to the notion that humanity can and will work together to address climate change in order to build a clean, green, healthy and prosperous future for all people’ –  I can play a part in helping with that goal, we all can. 

What advice would you give to young girls or women wanting to get in to the industry? “Don’t let anyone tell you the industry is not for you. Be bold, be strong and know that you can help bring change; talented women will shape the future of the workplace.”

Image: Sarah Smith
Image: Naseem Lahri

Naseem Lahri

Naseem Lahri is the first woman, and the first Motswana woman, to serve as Managing Director for a diamond mining company in Botswana. Joining Lucara in 2013, Naseem held roles as CFO and Director before becoming Managing Director. She has more than 17 years experience in the mining industry. 

What does ‘choosing to challenge’ mean to you? “In both my personal and work life, I love a challenge. I always believe that taking someone out of their comfort zone makes them grow. You become more resilient and also more adaptable. I am someone who is not used to mundane tasks, so a challenge keeps the adrenaline high and stimulates me as an individual”

Why do you personally believe that women’s empowerment is so important?  “Empowerment for me, in general, is so liberating. It doesn’t have to be specific to women. For me, people need to understand that they do not belong in any box. They can do what they want. So empowering a human being is very liberating and gets people to perform at their best in areas they love.”

In your experience, what does empowerment look like in action? “Empowerment in action is so fulfilling. You can see people excel at what they do. Most importantly, it drives productivity and the bottom line of a business because people do what they love. So individuals never work a day in their life if they are empowered.”

Swatee Deepak

Swatee Deepak helps funders, philanthropists, their families and activists to tell their stories and design strategies for redistributing or investing resources in fresh and engaging ways. She is co-founder of Remember Who Made Them, helping to energise solidarity in fashion. Previously Director of the With and For Girls Collective, Swatee is a board member of the Global Fund for Children, EMpower – the emerging markets foundation and the Healing Solidarity Collective. 

What does ‘choosing to challenge’ mean to you? For me ‘Choosing to challenge’ means honouring those before me, alongside me and after me who organise collectively, resisting injustices and reimagining a world of justice and liberation. 

The reality is that women, girls and gender-non conforming and trans people have been organising and working collectively in their communities for millenia, pushing back against daily oppressions and imagining new worlds for themselves and us all. Feminist movements have been at the forefront of many of the world’s most powerful social justice movements, often prompting unprecedented change – you just need to see the leadership of the #MeToo, Black Lives Matter, climate justice movement and NiUnaMenos and others to see that. 

Choosing to challenge reminds me of that power, that people don’t require us to pity them or provide charity but to remember that despite the extreme vulnerabilities they face, they hold immense power, and a profound capacity to imagine and implement transformations. We must stand alongside them, in solidarity, using our voice, our resources and our collective power to demand better. 

What do you consider the most urgent action that the world needs to see in regards to women’s empowerment? 

Many projects and programmes on ‘women’s empowerment’ focus on the individual: trainings’s, loans, scholarships etc. Unsurprisingly, these kinds of projects fail to effect large-scale change as the burden remains on women to lift themselves out of the situation, while leaving in place the systems of oppression that cause or contribute to this situation in the first place.

Real empowerment begins when women come together and reflect on the social norms that keep them as second-class citizens, a political process grounded in acknowledgement of systemic subordination, and leading to the recognition that women have the power to act together for change. 

Globally, women and girls have borne the brunt of the Covid-19 crisis, from lost jobs and education to deteriorating health and increased violence, along with enormous care burdens. Feminist organisations and movements have laid the groundwork for the response we need today, and do so on shoestring budgets. We need to ensure more support and resources to groups to organise for collective action to transform gender roles, and to redistribute power. 

Which organisations, projects or campaigns would you like to draw our attention to?

First, Remember Who Made Them. In 2020 I came together with a collective of concerned feminists with networks in philanthropy, climate activism, the arts and sustainable fashion to co-create this podcast series, digital campaign and fundraiser, helping to energise a new solidarity economy in fashion. We wanted to do something to be in solidarity with garment workers, and we know that everyday garment workers are organising outside of their day jobs to make our planet a better place. We wanted their voice and demands to be heard. Remember Who Made Them is a member of the #PayYourWorkers campaign which has evolved from the #PayUp movement. In March we join movements, workers and activists around the world for a global week of action and encourage your readers to do the same. Not only do brands need to #PayUp for orders, we want them to ensure garment workers never go without wages again and #PayYourWorkers, #PayHer. 

I’m so fortunate to be a Board Member of both the Global Fund for Children and EMpower. In philanthropy, 90% of Foundation Trustees are white and the overwhelming majority are men, so while I feel privileged to be on a Board, I recognise the need to occupy that position and ensure Boards become more representative of communities. EMpower and Global Fund for Children are both founding members of With and For Girls, and fiercely believe in the power of adolescent girls, young people and grassroots communities in being critical levers of change towards a world of justice and liberation. 

Jessica Simor QC

Jessica Simor is recognised as one of England’s leading public lawyers, with expertise in EU and human rights law. She is editor of ‘Human Rights Practice’ and in 2016, was the UK nominee for Judge at the European Court of Human Rights. Jessica is the “the legal driving force” behind The Circle NGO’s work on the Living Wage; the 2019 report outlined proposals for legal regulation of a living wage for garment works across the fashion supply chain.

What does ‘choosing to challenge’ mean to you? “The ultimate challenge is one’s own fears.  I remember very early on forcing myself to do things that scared me.  Not physically frightening things, but intellectually and socially challenging. I studied sciences at A-level because few girls did. In public lectures I made myself ask a question despite the cold sweat and nerves that came with that. The nerves get better but confidence is a fragile thing – it has to be built and sustained and requires one to take risks.  There are many extremely brainy people out there who both know and seem to know a lot.  But realising that they are not necessarily right, despite that, and challenging them – believing in yourself after you have listened, analysed and reflected, is key. It took me a long time to learn that. 

On a different note, I was subject to sexual harassment early in my working years. After making a run from the office, I worked up my challenge. The next morning, closing the door of the office we shared, I challenged the man directly and told him the position. He was very senior, had my future in his hands and it was frightening. That makes me remember another experience I had with a father of children I was babysitting. He insisted on driving me home – I refused but his wife insisted too. Everything happened as I feared and it was clear the two were complicit. I escaped out of the car but was, of course, owed my babysitting money! It was in France and my French was not good. A friend and I planned what I would say to the wife – who had refused to pay me.  I went to her office but she refused to see me – I refused to leave. When she came out of her office and started yelling at me, I recited my French speech; the entire office got to hear what had happened (and I confess I could see them enjoying themselves hugely). I got my money and left!  It was very filmic, very scary and in the end, very satisfying…  

In your experience, what obstacles stand in the way of governments, businesses and organisations eradicating gender inequality? This is a very big question and not one that I can answer in a paragraph. It is a discussion I have often with my son and it is one on which we reach no conclusions. Obstacles are internal, external, individual, multiple, social, physical and psychological. Men take a lot of space – a lot of airtime.  But can we expect them not to? Do we have to take that air-time ourselves; why are we waiting for men to concede it to us? And what if we don’t want to take that space? There are deep seated prejudices held by us all but can we ‘train’ ourselves out of them? Personally, I don’t believe so.

My experience is also that the men who shout loudest about sexism and gender equality, are the least aware of their own behaviour. Undoubtedly, it remains the case that women are not ‘allowed’ or expected to behave in the way that men behave and this causes huge challenges for who one conducts oneself professionally in a predominantly male world. So, whilst you have to be assertive, you must not be too assertive. Whilst you have to be clear, you must not be too clear.  All of this makes professional advancement difficult and complex.  In the end, you have to learn to be yourself and to take the knocks that come with that!  There are some obstacles that can never be overcome. But to consider being a woman as an obstacle is wrong – we are different and our lives are rich for that.”

Do you believe that sufficient progress is being made, and are you hopeful that it will be in future years?  Sufficient progress is not being made.  Whether it will be depends on women helping and not hindering each other. Every day, we can help women challenge themselves and challenge others.  Most importantly, we can help each other by being interested in and kind to each other.”  

Are there any particular career moments, cases or achievements that particularly stand out to you as a success and step forward in terms of women’s empowerment? There are several cases that stand out for me in terms of feeling not only that you have achieved the aim of the litigation but that in the process something has changed for the person involved.  All of these started with inquests and in every one, it was the women in the families who were tenacious and fearless in their search for the truth. In one case, a prison suicide, the mother who was hugely disempowered grew through the process. At the beginning of the inquest she was full of anxiety and fear; she had not left her flat for several years. After a few days of listening and talking she was able to take the witness stand. We had daughters of the same age and the differences in our circumstances was acute. I can’t tell you her whole story but there is no doubt that someone taking her seriously for two weeks empowered her, and I very much hope she has returned to nursing, which is what she did before life became too much for her. We should never underestimate the disempowerment that comes from poverty.”