Maria Miller is MP for Basingstoke and Chair of the Women and Equalities Select Committee. Nicola Dandridge is Chief Executive of Universities UK and Chair of the Universities UK Taskforce on Violence against women, harassment and hate crime affecting university students.
Today is International Women’s Day and across the globe women are coming together to Pledge for Parity. This year the campaign theme is about how we can all pledge to take a concrete step to help achieve gender equality more quickly: whether that is in the social, economic or political sphere.
There are examples around the globe from young women such as Malala Yousafzai’s tireless campaigning for education for young girls to President Obama’s leadership on preventing sexual assaults on US university campuses.
The first opportunity for many women to learn how to speak out on equality issues is in the education system: in our schools, colleges and universities. In particular, it is in our university campuses that young women have a chance to speak out and express their views and concerns. It is on our campuses that young women, often leaving home for the first time, can define their own identities and shape their future. It is the role of universities to encourage that to happen, and create an inclusive, safe and tolerant environment for all students.
Universities are overwhelmingly safe and secure places for young women, and indeed the latest figures show that more women than ever before are wanting to go to university. There is, however, more that needs to be done to ensure that university campuses are free from sexual harassment. That is why harassment and violence against women are the focus of a new Universities UK (UUK) taskforce which will report its findings later this year. UUK has received responses from universities across the UK on their approaches to address harassment along with examples of best practice.
Activities in universities range from running consent workshops and the creation of online guidance for students affected by harassment, to establishing internal working groups to examine and tackle the problem. A number of universities also spoke about campaigns that were either already being rolled out across campus, or soon to be launched. For example, Liverpool University Guild of Students’ Call it Out campaign encourages all students to call our harassment and assault wherever they see it.
Values and views on gender parity are heavily influenced by what children – both boys and girls – experience at school. Each and every school has a pivotal role to play in giving young girls the same opportunity as young boys. The same opportunity to study science and the arts; equal encouragement to pursue any career including engineering and technology; and the opportunity to understand the importance of equal relationships, too. Research conducted by Plan UK suggests one in five women experience sexual assault on school premises. This type of behaviour can entrench gender stereotypes, have a devastating effect on girls’ lives and lets down boys too if it goes unchallenged. A zero tolerance approach to this type of behaviour benefits all pupils and help better prepare them for life beyond school.
Today we have more than 50 sixth form girls visiting Parliament to hear how they can become the next generation of political, business and education leaders. So with today being an international day to recognise women and the impact we have, it is paramount that we pledge to work together to ensure that women and girls are safe in our communities, schools and on our university campuses.