INTERNATIONAL Women’s Day 2016 was marked in Cardiff Bay today by the Women In Wales summit.
More than 200 people gathered to attend a day of talks and discussions on empowering women to take a greater role in public life.
The main message of the morning session was that there is need for a radical examination of the way women are viewed, particularly in the workplace.
The event was organised by charities Women Making A Difference, Oxfam Cymru, and Chwarae Teg.
More than 200 women attended sessions on topics including women and poverty and the importance of women taking on public roles.
Joy Kent, chief executive of Chwarae Teg, and Sarah Rees, who is standing for election to the Welsh Assembly with the new Women’s Equality Party this May, spoke about the importance of representative leadership.
Ms Rees said equality in the UK had a long way to go.
“About 80 per cent of people working part-time in Wales are women. When I became a mum the inequality hit me like a slap in the face. I was suddenly this invisible person who had produced another person, and without the help of Joy and Chwarae Teg, I would still be at home.”
“We need to look at the economy and have policies that benefit everybody – we have growing inequality in the UK and need to do something to impact that. We’ve lost sight of the point of the economy. People in power need to listen, and then make changes to benefit the population,” said Ms Kent.
Ms Kent and Ms Rees spoke at length about the need for more women to be confident enough to put themselves forward for public positions, and the value of more diverse leadership in bringing about real change.
The panel on Women and Poverty included politicians, all of whom will be standing May’s election.
Conservative AM Janet Howarth highlighted the generational trap of poverty. She pointed out the influence of lone parenthood, divorce and taking time out of a career to raise children and how these factors disproportionately affect women in the workplace.
“The economy matters most to those who don’t have the money,” she said.
“We need better access to education for women – it should be free for everyone for life, and there should be provision for childcare for those in education. It would help women to get access to the same service as men, ” said Alice Hooker-Stroud, leader of the Green Party in Wales.
She also spoke out in support of a “Citizens’ Income” so that unacknowledged domestic work would not set women back – there was wide support for this from the room.
Liberal Democrat AM Eluned Parrott added her voice to those talking about education and maternity cover.
“What I want to see is real work for employers to make sure men and women are equally supported. If a parent takes a break for three years because they can’t afford to work, they can’t make a profit, then we see women feeling obliged to go back into the workplace at a lower level, and that is not acceptable.”
“Why is it that women outperform men at high school, but the upper echelons of education are massively dominated by men?”
Sian Tyrrell, 43, said the situation was even worse for women in extreme poverty.
“The work prospects, if you don’t have a permanent address and decent shoes, they’re not good. You’re already on the back foot.”
Ms Tyrrell is a volunteer at a hostel and has worked for mental health charities. She says women are particularly vulnerable when they face homelessness and addiction, both of which she has experienced.
Helen Mary Jones, candidate for Plaid Cymru, spoke about the importance of women having role models and taking on non-traditional jobs. More women than men have cleaning jobs, for instance, which are lower paid than other jobs that require few qualifications.
Lesley Griffiths, Minister for Communities and Tackling Poverty, said: “Sustainable work is the route out of poverty but childcare is a barrier particularly for women.”
Mel Heitkamp, 47, said better childcare provision was needed particularly for women who live in rural areas, use public transport or who do shift work. Frequently one parent has to give up work.
“I’m finally training to be a nurse, because my children are now old enough to walk to school and look after themselves,” she said.
Mel moved to the UK from South Africa in 1998 with two children and her life in a suitcase, fleeing an abusive husband.
She says she’s struggled for work ever since, but has recently been taking courses on the Open University and begins a degree in Adult Nursing at University of South Wales this month.
There was widespread support also for the wider education of the public about inequality.
“We need to bring men into these conversations, so they understand the perspective of women,” said Alice Hooker-Stroud.
Helen Mary Jones summed up: “We need to change the system so it works for women; don’t change women so they work for the system.”