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International Women's Day 2024

The Lifelong Education Institute celebrates what lifelong learning and skills can do for women in society today with a joint piece by our Chair and team members.

Women and Early Years Learning – 1950’s style

Dame Ann Limb (she/her)
Chair of the Lifelong Education Institute

Women have played a huge role in my education throughout my life, starting with my mother and grandmothers in the mid 1950’s. A butcher’s daughter from Moss Side Manchester, I was born and lived above the shop where my parents worked together. It was therefore natural for me to see my mother alongside my father, serving customers, making sausages, carving, chopping, and cutting joints of meat. Not only did this offer me a role model of partnership in which men and women played an equal role, it also meant that as a curious child open to learning and constantly asking questions, my mother acted as one of my very first teachers.  I was fortunate that as the first born in my family, with parents on tap 24 hours, who included me in all they did – albeit out of necessity and practicality, I learnt from them by osmosis!


When I was not with my Mum and Dad, I was with one of my grandmothers who through the ‘childcare’ they gave me - although in working class Manchester at the time we didn’t call it that – were equally influential. My paternal grandmother would take me to the park to play and feed the ducks, and as she was a very sociable woman, I remember listening in to her endless conversations (gossip) with friends, neighbours, shopkeepers, bus drivers, and the like, as she went about her daily chores with me in tow. Watching, listening, copying, intervening once I could talk myself - which by all accounts was at an early age, as with my ability to stand up and walk.  Learning by doing, leaning through play, learning by making mistakes – all with women!

My maternal grandmother was a ‘licensed victualler’ aka a pub landlord. Widowed at an early age, she and her unmarried sister, ran pubs around central Manchester – another example of cooperative working and independent women’s leadership – borne again out of necessity and pragmatism.  In those days, the pubs closed after lunch, and I remember fondly how I would sit on the lap of my Nana Brom, as I called her, with the wireless tuned to BBC’s ‘Listen with Mother’. Women’s voices floating over the airwaves were enchanting and empowering in ways I only really became aware of as I grew older. As television became more affordable and widespread, and my parents acquired one, as a 3–4-year-old, I graduated to ‘Watch with Mother’ introduced by the adorable Annette Mills, a pioneer of women in broadcasting. Set to one side forgivingly any notions of unconscious prejudice that might be unearthed for contemporary readers by the mores that prevailed at the time. Women were the childcarers and teachers of the time. Women, therefore, were ever present in my early formative years and it is only in the recollection of these times and experiences that I realise just how much I owe to them.

Lifelong Education and Lifelong Inclusion

Dr Marius Ostrowski (he/him)
Executive Director at the Lifelong Education Institute

Far too often, the choices we make over the course of our lives and careers carry a mark of irrevocable finality. Stay in the place we know, or up sticks and try our luck elsewhere. Take a punt on following our passions, or play it safe and go for careful stability. Go for that new job or that big promotion (or not). Try that new hobby, turn it into that new side hustle (or not). And one of the biggest of all: take the time to start a new family, to care for the family we already have (or, again, not). Keep doing what we are doing, or make a change.

In a world where ‘portfolio careers’ are on the rise, and ‘jobs for life’ are on the way out, we will face a growing number of choices like these throughout our adult lives. But even though we all confront them, the weight of the decision we make does not fall on all of us equally. This International Women’s Day, we should recall the unique penalties that women face that men simply do not, or to nowhere near the same extent, every time a choice like these crosses their path.

The inequalities between men and women are as stark as they are familiar. The ‘gender pay gap’ and the ‘authority gap’ that undervalue women compared to men in the jobs they choose, and female-majority professions compared to male-majority professions across the wider economy. The ‘invisible labour’ that disproportionately takes up women’s time outside employment—unglamorous, unpaid, time-consuming, sapping their energy, crowding out any chance for recreation or additional moneymaking. And caregiving responsibilities that fall heaviest on women’s shoulders, rooting them firmly in their homes and neighbourhoods while men have greater latitude to take up opportunities further afield—and costing them lost earnings and slower progression should they choose to take a career break.

Add these all together, and the upshot is this: women risk more, and face higher hurdles, every time they try to make a change. The force of the structural gender imbalance stacks the incentives in one direction: play it safe, accept the hand society has dealt you, keep doing what you are doing. Fixing this is beyond the scope of any single policy. But that does not by any means imply that policy is powerless to improve the situation in clear, achievable ways.

Lifelong education policy has its own part to play in making society a more equal, more inclusive, and frankly an easier place to be a woman in the 21st century. The essential promise of lifelong education is that anyone, at any point in time, can use the opportunities that learning and training afford them as a springboard—to give themselves a new direction, a new sense of meaning and purpose, that allows them to look beyond the limits of the situation they happen to find themselves in. At heart, that is what we mean when we say that what makes education valuable is that it empowers us all.

What we need as a society is a deep, integrated conversation about what tools lifelong education offers to uplift women when they face these moments of decision. What rights we can introduce to carve out the space and time women need to make their choices free of skewed constraints. What resources we can deploy to guarantee that women can access information and skills whenever and wherever they need them. And how we can affirm women’s ability to overcome the challenges they face—and do so with confidence and pride in what they have to offer the world around them.

At its best, lifelong education opens doors and shows pathways that we may never have known existed. By learning new information, by training ourselves in new skills, we gain new ways of doing and being in the world we did not enjoy before. Today we acknowledge the mission that drives us to put this incredible power at the service of women in all corners of society, at every stage of their lives and careers.

Breaking Barriers: The Significant Impact of Women in Education

Dr Maísa Edwards (she/her)
Senior Policy Researcher at the Lifelong Education Institute

The importance of women in education across various levels in the UK, ranging from schools to higher and further education, cannot be emphasised enough. Across the decades, women have played vital roles in shaping the educational landscape, breaking barriers, and championing inclusivity. From teachers to academics, administrators to policymakers, their contributions have been fundamental in fostering a more equitable and enriched learning environment.

In schools, women educators serve as role models and mentors, helping to inspire generations of students to pursue their academic passions and ambitions. Their presence in classrooms not only brings diverse perspectives and nurturing approaches, but is crucial in fostering an inclusive and supportive learning atmosphere. Research consistently highlights the positive impact of female teachers on students' academic achievement and overall well-being. Moreover, for young girls, seeing women in positions of authority within the educational system is empowering, challenging stereotypes and encouraging them to strive for academic and professional excellence.

Beyond teaching roles, women have likewise made significant strides in educational leadership positions within schools. Headteachers, deputy heads, and department heads are key to providing guidance, direction, and vision for entire school communities. Their leadership ensures effective management and emphasises key values such as collaboration, empathy, and resilience; all of which are essential for preparing students for the challenges of the modern world. In higher and further education, women are still breaking barriers while excelling across various disciplines and fields of study – from the humanities and arts, social sciences, to engineering and medicine. The presence of female academics enhances the academic environment by offering diverse perspectives and strengthening research agendas that address issues of gender equality and social justice. Their contributions to scholarship, innovation, and knowledge dissemination are invaluable in driving progress and fostering a more inclusive academic discourse.

Women in leadership positions within universities and colleges play pivotal roles in shaping institutional policies and practices. As vice-chancellors, deans, and department heads, they advocate for gender equality, diversity, and inclusion, striving to create surroundings where all students and staff can thrive. Their leadership is instrumental in tackling gender disparities in academia, such as the gender pay gap and underrepresentation in certain fields, by implementing proactive measures and a culture of equity and respect.

The significance of women in education also goes beyond their roles as educators and leaders; it extends to the representation of women's experiences and perspectives in curricula and pedagogy. Recognising the diversity of student populations and the importance of inclusive education, women educators play a fundamental role in developing curriculum materials that can better reflect a variety of cultural, social, and historical contexts. By incorporating these diverse voices and narratives into teaching practices, they contribute to creating a more equitable and inspiring learning experience for all students.

Furthermore, the presence of women in education can serve as a catalyst for social change and empowerment. Education has long been recognised as a key driver of social mobility and economic prosperity, and women's access to quality education is essential for achieving gender equality and empowering future generations. By advocating for equal opportunities and challenging societal norms and expectations, women educators and leaders pave the way for a more inclusive and equal society.

The importance of women in education in the UK, spanning from schools to higher and further education cannot be overstated. Their contributions as educators, leaders, and advocates are central in shaping the educational landscape, fostering inclusivity, and driving progress towards gender equality. By recognising and supporting the vital roles that women play in education, we can create environments where all individuals have the opportunity to thrive and fulfil their potential.

Championing Change: Women in Industry

Lucy Chandler (she/her)
Events and Communications Officer at the Lifelong Education Institute

Visibility is the most vital tool which women can utilise in order to educate and inspire the next generation of girls, and especially in industries and roles which are traditionally interpreted as masculine. The achievements of these women not only provide vital role models but prove that pathways into industry do exist and are becoming significantly more influential in proving to other women that there are feasible careers which exist for them, especially in vital industries such as engineering, STEM, medicine and politics.

In engineering, according to data compiled by the Women’s Engineering Society (WES) in March 2022, women make up 16.5% of all engineers in the UK. Although this may appear as a small percentage of the total workforce, it is a significant rise in comparison to the figures in 2020 which sat at 10.5%. In real terms, this meant that the actual number of women in engineering roles in the UK increased from 562,000 in 2010 to 936,000 in 2021. This number continued to rise even when the overall number of people working in engineering fell in 2020-21 during the Covid-19 pandemic. In relation to educational pathways into an engineering career, the number of girls in engineering courses in the UK has almost doubled in the past decade. Alongside this, the number of applications made by women to access these courses has increased by 93.5% from 10 years ago.

Within STEM subjects, since 2015, the number of women and non-binary people graduating in core STEM subjects has grown from 22,020 to 35,330 according to 2021/22 HESA data. Female graduates in Physical Sciences, Mathematical Sciences, Engineering and Technology, and Computer Sciences have seen significant increases. In the academic year 2015/16 to 2021/22 in each STEM branch, there have graduate increases within:

  • Physical Sciences from 40% to 43%.

  • Engineering and Technology from 15% to 21%

  • Computer Science from 16% to 24%.

Mathematical Sciences have stayed consistent at 39%. Within the STEM workforce, number of women in the industry has continued to rise. In 2022/23, there were 1,137,200 women in STEM making up a total of 26% of the workforce. This is lower than the graduate figures, which means there is less uptake of women in careers in STEM who have graduated from a STEM subject, although this figure is continuing to rise despite this fact.

Medicine continues to see women in prevalent positions within the industry. Although men account for the majority of senior roles in the NHS, in the NHS workforce, 77% are female and this statistic has remained relatively stable since 2009. Women’s visibility in the UK healthcare system in highly intellectual and influential positions furthermore proves the ability of women to progress into high-impact sectors and a need for more representation of women in senior medical, medio-educational and medio-political positions. Currently:

  • 47% of doctors in the UK are female, with 59% of these women aged between 30 – 49.

  • 36% of consultants are now women compared with 30% in 2009.

  • 27% of surgeons are women in comparison to 24% in 2009.

Women now outnumber men in certain specialisms within medicine:

  • In psychiatry, women make up 51% of the doctoral workforce. A rise of 2% since 2009.

  • In clinical oncology, women account for 53% of the workforce. A rise of 4% since 2009.

  • In dentistry, women now account for 51% of all dentists. A rise of 8% since 2009.

In 2022, the UK had its third female Prime Minister in Liz Truss. Women in politics, and especially within cabinet and high profile roles, have remained underrepresented. According to the Commons Library data in March 2023, 31% of parliamentarians were women; 225 female MPs in the House of Commons and 237 in the House of Lords. Female representation in the Commons is slightly higher than in the Lords at 35% and 29% respectively. Following the 2019 General Election, the number of female MPs elected into Parliament hit an all-time high at 34%. In the Devolved Assemblies:

  • In the Welsh Parliament, 43% of Members are women.

  • In the Scottish Parliament, 46% of Members are women.

  • In the Northern Ireland Assembly, 37% of Members are women.

In local authorities:

  • In England, 41% of councillors are women.

  • In Wales, 28% of councillors are women.

  • In Scotland, 35% of councillors are women.

  • In Northern Ireland, 26% of councillors are women.

The increase in numbers across the board of women in these industries is promising. However, women are still underrepresented in senior positions across the board. More work needs to be done to bring women into more senior positions, although, their increasing presence in sectors which have traditionally been less receptive to female workers is testament to how far women have come in order to occupy traditionally gendered industries.


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