In the midst of this global lockdown, Thursday’s WIN Conference connected nearly 200 pioneering women and men from across the world in a virtual, inspiring afternoon.
Opening with an opera piece by Kerry Firth, described as a ‘symbol of hope in hard times’, the first talk was from Beverley Hughes, the Deputy Mayor of Greater Manchester. And all I can say is what an inspirational start. This woman has eradicated what was expected of her coming from a working-class family in a time of limited women’s rights, and has not only got herself to the leadership table but has sat right at the top of it. She spoke of how very appropriate it is that the conference is in Manchester and as a proud Mancunion myself I can certainly agree that she has lived up to the history of campaigning and pioneering women that our great city has created. The majority of her speech described the importance of getting more women into leadership roles, harnessing the full potential of women and girls. The importance of this is more evident now than ever, with more women unemployed, a stall in social mobility and growth in serious crime impacting women as a result of the Covid pandemic. But such a crisis has also shown the strong leadership and decisive policy decisions of those women in charge across the world (New Zealand, Sweden, Denmark, Taiwan, and Germany to name some).
Following on perfectly, the next part of the session discussed a ‘world in transformation’ and what the future has install for us, with speeches from Professor Julie Froud and Nazir Afzal. Julie spoke of the economic impact that I think we’ve all come to fear. However, as well as this darker tone, she also illustrated what we’ve all come to notice since lockdown. There has been a clear change in what’s important in society- family, friends, community space, and support just to name a few.
Nazir went on to discuss the damaging impact of the pandemic on the very serious issue of domestic abuse particularly. His work helping the most vulnerable in society has been very impactful and will be extended as a result of the global crisis, with no community in which women are safe. His powerful, emotional and determined speech on the horrors in which he has seen ended with a clear message of the importance of ‘The Power of One’ and how one person can and will change the world. Something he has very much done.
The Zoom room then did some magic and we were whisked into small breakout rooms for some networking, coming back together in a few short minutes for a panel discussion with the title ‘Company of the Future’. Lead by Katie Murray and Jenn Barnett of RBS and Grant Thornton respectively, both highlighted the positive impact of working from home, particularly for women but also for those with disabilities. Yet, for those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, this crisis has been even more damaging. For me, the main takeaway message from this session was the importance of listening to the issues impacting others, especially in this time of dramatic change, to create a company that really fits the future that is install.
Another musical interlude by drummer Doug Manuel sent us off into a further breakout session of our choice. Being a girl in STEM, I very appropriately joined the ‘Girls in STEM’ session (although I’m told the ‘Leading with Courage’ and ‘Accelerating Diversity’ sessions were just as engaging). Despite the increase in women in STEM subjects and jobs, growth is still embarrassingly slow, something I am forever noticing as a Mathematics student surrounded by a cohort of 240 boys. The importance of active mentoring and role models in these areas for young girls is an urgent necessity, not a suggestion. Another generation of young girls cannot be brought up getting that look (and we all know what look I mean) when they say they want to do STEM. And in 2020, seriously!
The last plenary of the day was about ‘women with vision and courage’. All 4 women that spoke in the session could and should have medals, statues, books, films and even a day dedicated to them- real inspirations of the 21st century.
Rose Marley, CEO of SharpFutures discussed her work in building innovation in Greater Manchester through her creation of SharpProject and SharpFutures. As part of GMYCA, I was lucky to work alongside Rose in her work on OurPass, providing young people with free transport and other opportunities in Greater Manchester.
Susan Campion, Cofounder of Giant Steps, left us with a few questions that have really stuck with me. From whom are you learning? What are you normalizing? Who are we elevating? In a conference full of women at very different levels of their careers, with very different histories and different ambitions for the future, I think these were some of the most important questions asked at the conference. Her sound bite ‘be someone’s first yes’ encompasses the message that WIN wants, bringing women from all over together and being our own stepladders.
Dr. Erinma Bell, community activist and proud owner of the first woman statue in the town hall for 150 years, has pretty much lived her life point blankly doing the opposite of anyone who said ‘no, you can’t’. Helping grassroots companies, impacting policies on Stop and Search and helping reduce gun crime in Manchester by 92%, alongside a couple of chats with the PM and afternoon tea with the royals, she should truly be a name known by all.
Jan Iceton of SmartWorks ended the main part of the conference, illustrating her work in helping unemployed women to get a job. A beautiful initiative was added at the end, asking for handbag donations to help her wonderful charity. In the breakout session that followed, I was lucky enough to have Jan in my small group and was in awe of the work her company has done, now celebrating its 5th anniversary.
And now being 5:30pm, the conference was almost coming to an end. Just enough time to grab a glass of fizz, do some belly dancing with Dr. Kaouthar Darmoni and toast Jacqueline Hughes-Lundy (winner of 2020 WIN Manchester award) and all the other incredible women that joined WIN Manchester’s very first online conference. What an afternoon!
Words by Clara Jarvis, Zebra Intern, June 2020