The further education sector is a transformational place, that empowers people and communities. Much work has been done, particularly on women in leadership in recent years and latest stats show that 48% of college principals are women. However, with 61% of the college workforce being women, there is still some way to go on representation within the sector at all levels.
To mark International Women's Day we asked some amazing women across AoC and colleges what International Women's Day means to them and their journey into further education. Here's what they had to say...
Shakira Martin, Head of Student Experience at Rose Bruford College and Commissioner on the Independent Commission of the College of the Future
"I was introduced to the word ‘feminism’ relatively late in life. It doesn’t mean I wasn’t a feminist before that, I just didn’t know a word or movement like that was accessible to people like me. For so long the women’s movement has focussed on and amplified middle class voices. This isn’t to say that discrimination or harassment or prejudice doesn’t affect these people, it absolutely does. But so many other voices have gone unheard for too long simply because the language is inaccessible and women, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds who typically have less access to further and higher education are excluded from these conversations. It is part of the reason I first got involved in the student movement and then went on to work in a college, further education saved me, and it continues to help thousands of women like me every day.
For me, International Women’s Day is about listening to the stories of those people you’d never get to hear from normally. To realise that one woman’s struggle is everyone’s struggle and to reach real gender equality we shouldn’t assume that people already know what we’re talking about. We’re all on a journey, throughout my time as NUS Vice President and then later as President I spoke to FE students who had been victims of sexual harassment and not even identified it was abuse. Breaking down the barriers for working-class women and those from marginalised backgrounds is what I strive to do, I was fortunate to have the platform to do so. As we enter a new decade, I must not be the anomaly, but the norm."
London and South East College
"It’s been a positive year for gender equality all around the world, giving us much to celebrate on International Women’s Day 2020. For me, it’s important to recognise the social, economic, political and cultural achievement of women and the progress that’s been made in terms of equality over the past 100 years – while also encouraging younger women to strive for the top of their career ladders.
Gender equality is about just that – equality. It’s not about women being ‘better’ than men or vice versa. However, we must ensure that everyone has access to the same opportunities when it comes to reaching their professional potential, regardless of sex, race or anything else. Education opens the door to opportunity and supports social mobility, something I am passionate about. We need to ensure that FE and HE provision is accessible to everyone, including women who perhaps have families to care for and need more flexibility to study.
Achieving work-life balance is more difficult than ever in a day and age where technology means you can be constantly reached – emails are only one click away. Striving to maintain balance with the demands of being a CEO and the pressures of running a family and home life is not easy, but something I work hard to achieve. I am surrounded by amazing women– both colleagues and students – who inspire me on a daily basis. We must celebrate our achievements, encouraging the next generation of talented women to achieve their ambitions, whatever these may be."
Cath Sezen, AoC Senior Policy Manager
"I started work in FE in 2001. I had previously worked as an English Language teacher in a private language school. My move into college was to also work as an EFL teacher. However, despite having worked overseas for four years it was in FE that my journey of discovery really began. Only in FE can you train to be a farmer or a chef or a fashion designer; teach adults, 16 to 18-year-olds, HE students and 14 to 16-year-olds. I soon moved from EFL to working with 14 to 16-year-olds in alternative education on the college’s land-based campus – where else would you make that giant step? I never looked back. On a day-to-day basis the team strove to keep students in education and out of youth offending. It was tough, but it was worthwhile to see the students thrive and succeed.
I moved college, but remained with 14 to 16 working with another incredible team to build up the alternative provision. I took on the LLDD team and was given cross college English and maths.
The moment I am most proud of was teaching poetry to a group of alternative provision students. In the first lesson all the staff in the team had to choose their favourite poem and the students had to match the poem to the member of staff – all went well. In the second lesson we analysed Katie Perry’s ‘Firework’; great for discussion of similes and metaphors! It still all went well. Third lesson and it was time for the real nitty gritty, war poetry…. Not so easy for the group, or for me. We were losing them. Then suddenly one of the boys who particularly struggled with English said, ‘Cath, I get it; the falling leaves – they are brown, like the soldiers’ uniforms, and like the soldiers they are dying.’ I had to turn away I was so overwhelmed. He got an E in his English, but in that one moment he shone. Even now, that is what gets me up in the morning to travel into London. FE gives everyone the moment to shine."
Meryl Green, Principal at Derwen College
"Following a successful career in the textile and ceramics design industry designing for the likes of Marks & Spencer and Debenhams, I worked towards my teaching qualification. Becoming a Principal was not a future I could have foreseen when at school but has been an interesting and rewarding journey; one in which I am still always learning. I worked towards my teaching qualifications in-post gaining a PGCE, various specialist educational needs and disability (SEND) qualifications and ultimately a Masters in Educational leadership whilst working full time at Derwen. I think like many people who end up teaching, mine was not a direct route, but now I look back there is a definite thread that links all the things that I learnt over the years.
I consider myself very lucky to work at Derwen. The job can be stressful at times but on the whole I am happy to come to work each day and I’m not sure that everyone can say that after 20 years! On a personal level, I am inspired when I see examples of our students giving back to the community – for instance our Duke of Edinburgh students volunteer in the local community as part of their bronze, silver and gold awards and Performing Arts students go into main stream schools to deliver workshops and raise awareness of disability. This is real success to me; young people with SEND not just sitting back and being passive members of society but taking a full and active role, helping to break down barriers and taking control of their lives. At Derwen, we aim to develop the whole person during that vital child to adult phase, now that’s a job worth doing."
Marguerite Hogg, AoC Policy Development Advisor
"I never completed my degree first time around but was a hard worker and, as York College had given me another chance years before as a student, understood what a fantastic ‘helping hand’ FE can give people. I think that’s why, once I started working in the sector, I felt I couldn’t leave. It’s a vocation. A need to make a difference in people’s lives. Most of my early FE career was spent developing and delivering EU mobility projects for students and staff. That led onto international work and consultancy for the sector and working with British Council, UKCISA and AoC.
Some of my proudest career moments are those that involve former students. To see one featured in the Erasmus+ 30th Anniversary exhibition 14 years after he did a placement in Finland as a shy 17 year old was fantastic and to see how well he’s doing now running an international football agency, signing key players from across Scandinavia. Another former student spoke at an event at the House of Lords about how his experiences abroad have shaped him personally and professionally – they were both ‘proud Mum’ moments! I’ve moved away from my international role and into the Policy team at AoC focusing on Adult Education. Practising what I preach, I am finally doing a degree in Politics, Philosophy and Economics as I approach my 50th birthday – something which isn’t easy alongside work and family but is something I am proudly persevering with."
Julia Belgutay, Deputy editor at Tes
"I have been lucky to encounter a range of inspiring women in my career - and International Women's Day is a day to reflect on how they have shown me the way ahead. My very first editor may well have been the toughest local journalist I have ever met. Aged 16, I soaked it up like a sponge. Along the way I had the opportunity to observe many more at work - from international correspondents reporting from war zones to the woman I now work for, the editor of Tes. They broke the mould, were outstanding at what they do and, in amongst it all, still took the time to teach me.
There is no shortage of inspiring women in FE - and in the nine years since I first started covering the sector, I have been lucky enough to meet more of them than I can count. From the principals truly among the first to women to lead FE institutions in the UK, to the first female apprentice at Rolls Royce, to female NUS presidents both in Scotland and at UK level rising to any challenge. What I have learned in that time, however, is that it is not just about the leaders. It is also about every female apprentice in a male dominated industry - in the same way it is about every male childcare student. It is about every student stepping into a field where they stand out - and our job, today and every day, is to make sure they can do just that."