Sunderland leading female academics speak out about 'positive change' for International Women's Day

Some of The University of Sunderland's leading women - Prof Arabella Plouviez, Holly Sterling, Angela Smith, Prof Lynne McKenna, Debs Patten and Clarissa Smith.
Some of The University of Sunderland's leading women - Prof Arabella Plouviez, Holly Sterling, Angela Smith, Prof Lynne McKenna, Debs Patten and Clarissa Smith.

Leading female academics on Wearside have spoken about 'positive change' to mark International Women's Day.

The IWD, which is on Friday, March 8, is celebrated across the world and the theme this year is #BetterforBalance - working towards a more gender balanced world.

On the day the University of Sunderland welcomes a new woman professor, we take the chance to celebrate the rich, diverse academics changing students’ lives.

We asked a selection of our leading female experts just what International Women’s Day (IWD) means to them.

Lynne McKenna, Dean of the Faculty of Education and Society, has just learned she has received the title of Professor at the university where she first studied as an undergraduate trainee teacher.

She said: "The recent ‘WomenCount: Leaders in Higher Education 2016’ report reveals that men still overwhelmingly dominate the top leadership positions in 166 Higher Education Institutions in the UK.

"Men chair 81% all governing bodies and hold 78% of Vice- Chancellor or Principal roles. More widely, the rise of women to senior leadership positions in the workplace is often promoted under the banners of 'equality' and 'positive discrimination'.

"While this imbalance is reflected at leadership levels in workplaces across our society, I’m pleased to say that there are aspirations to address this in Higher Education.

"Universities would be irresponsible in the wider societal context if they did not recognise and celebrate the contribution of all its staff.

"It is extremely important that all staff have equal access to opportunity, support and equal pay."

Debs Patten is a Professor of Anatomy at the new School of Medicine, which is set to open at the university.

She said: "IWD is a day to celebrate the value and impact that women bring to our world and society, and to recognise and be thankful for those women who have advanced gender equality for all of us.

"It's hard to believe that in 2019 women are still not present in equal numbers as leaders in business, politics and education too.

"Growing up here in Sunderland I was fortunate to be encouraged by my family and teachers that with hard work, focus, determination and self-belief, I could be successful in science.

"Looking back, once I left school and entered into academia, whilst plenty of my peers were women, there weren’t many female role models in

senior positions around me at that time, and mentorship certainly wasn’t available.

"Thankfully, we now have many more academic women in leadership positions serving as role models and mentors, including my peers. It is wonderful to see it and to be part of it.

"I do feel that while progress may feel painfully slow, positive change is happening."

Professor Arabella Plouviez, Dean of Faculty of Arts and Creative Industries, said: "IWD means having a time in the year to celebrate and recognise the

importance of women’s equality, and the complexity and diversity of what that might mean.

"It is also a recognition that our society, as many others, are at different stages of a journey that values women’s equality.

"Sometimes we don’t notice the every-day sexism that can limit the aspirations of girls and women, or the limitations we can place on people through simplistic stereotypes and limited imagination.#

"And it is in academia that we can push forward towards, and test out, what is possible rather than what is, and essential to that challenge is the range of voices that inform and shape our future. Women’s voices need to be part of that, at every level of the conversation."

Angela Smith, Professor of Language and Culture, said: "For me, IWD provides a space to pause and celebrate the progress towards gender equality that we have made since the first such event 110 years ago.

"This year, we are celebrating IWD through a series of events across both campuses. The University of Sunderland, for me, is a place where gender equality is taken seriously and I am very proud to the first female professor in English, in a faculty lead by the first female Dean, Professor Lynne McKenna. I hope we can use IWD to draw attention to the great work this university does in promoting gender equality."

Clarissa Smith, Professor of Sexual Cultures at the University of Sunderland, said: "For me IWD is a celebration of women centred politics and activism – from protecting rights to abortion through to equal pay and conditions.

"But, it is also about recognising the ways in which women’s interests can be very diverse, that progress for some women might come at the expense of others and no-one should be left behind.

"We have to keep fighting for all women’s choices especially as the rise of the Right brings with it attempts to roll back gains, particularly about women’s bodily and sexual autonomy, in the name of ‘protecting’ us."

Holly Sterling, Alumni Achiever of 2018 and Lecturer in Illustration, has a sporting background and was once named British Universities Karate Champion, as well as the UK National Women’s Karate Champion.

She said: "I come from a strong sporting background, where I have been exposed to a heavily male dominated environment from a very young age.

"Seeing this through my life has driven me to battle against this and strive for equal representation on all levels for the sake of generations to follow.

"My experiences in the sporting world have without a doubt helped to form the person that I am today - working hard and standing up for what I believe in.

"As an academic establishment, it is important that we provide strong instructional role models - both male and female - with valuable voices and good work ethics, so that we can inspire the next generation to be better."