March featured a large number of women-focussed events to coincide with International Women’s Day, and one of the biggest in London was the Women of the World (WOW) festival. Over three days the Southbank Centre was buzzing with thousands of people, mostly women, attending talks, workshops, panel discussions, and performances of music and spoken word. Speakers ranged from MPs to asylum seekers, from academics to actors, from activists to CEOs and MDs… even a handful of men.A caveat to this report is necessary at this point: it can only reflect the panels I attended, and with as many as 10 different sessions in a given time slot, there were a very large number of different experiences of the festival to be had.
With the work of IP Inclusive at the front of my mind on the first day I attended a session entitled The Business Case for Diversity, which featured panellists from large organizations including UBS, AIG and Bloomberg. The business case itself didn’t need much explanation (see the post on this blog here), but when it came to the ways of achieving diversity, there were as many different takes as there were speakers. Some of these might be transferable to smaller businesses, some might be less so. One speaker believed that the key to diversity and inclusion is in holding line managers accountable, since they are instrumental at key points in people’s careers. Another focussed on the need to make a pledge to drive change around it: “without putting a line in the sand, you won’t get where you need to be“. A statement that rang true was the need to look for role models that fit the business’ own view of itself. There was also a suggestion that the tendency to downplay the moral and ethical case for diversity and inclusion can be a misjudgement, since people need to care to be motivated to work for change.”
“One of the strengths of the festival for me was the breadth of intersecting issues it focussed on, providing extensive platforms for LGBT, disabled and BAME contributors. Within one day I saw Channel 4 newsreader Fatima Manji speaking about her experience of sexism and Islamophobia colliding, journalist Reni-Eddo Lodge calmly but passionately explaining the genesis of her book Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, and a much-more-serious-than-it-sounds panel on Badass Lesbians from History. A clear takeaway of the many panels – a message for allies everywhere – was how it is essential to have members of an affected group at the centre of any push for change. To paraphrase Eddo-Lodge, it seems self-evident that those who have to face the consequences of a structural inequality can see its clauses most clearly.
A further theme of the festival in general was the perceptions of gender surrounding money, power and access. There is a lot of talk about the feminisation of poverty: current austerity measures are disproportionately affecting women, the forecasts of the close in the gender pay gap are anything from 50 to 150 years, and unmarried women risk being left with low incomes in old age owing to smaller pension pots resulting from time spent raising children. But we talk far less about the masculinisation of wealth. Is that why this country, on its second female Prime Minister, has never had a female Chancellor of the Exchequer? Would a change in the definition of “success” in our culture result in a society that suits both women and men better? And while we are on the subject of power and politics, why doesn’t every country follow Sweden in having a feminist foreign policy?
I left the festival full of renewed inspiration for pursuing change in so many aspects of our society, not just on women-specific issues, along with a reading list as long as my arm. I will be back again next year and I would encourage anybody who is intrigued to try it out. If you have small children, make use of the on-site crèche. For those who can’t commit to a day or more of the festival, it is worth dropping by the Southbank Centre to check out the atmosphere and the WOW Market, where numerous charities, volunteer organisations and campaign groups have stalls and there is plenty of opportunity to chat about how you might be involved. In the spirit of inclusivity, there is a partner festival Being a Man in November, which “addresses the challenges and pressures of masculine identity in the 21st century“.”