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International Women’s Day: “It might be slow but positive change is happening”

ByPress Office Sunderland

Mar 23, 2019

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.

Reacting to the news, she said: “I am absolutely delighted to be conferred the title of Professor from the University where I first studied as an undergraduate trainee teacher.

“My time here as an undergraduate student in the 1980’s prepared me for a career path which I would never have dreamed possible. I do recognise though, that the title Professor carries great responsibility and I want to ensure that I continue to lead the way both professionally and personally and to support our staff and students to achieve their potential too.”

Speaking about the importance of IWD to her, Professor McKenna 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 per cent of all governing bodies and hold 78 per cent 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. Organisations such as Women in Higher Education Management Network (WHEM), and WomenEd are representing the advancement of women in the sector, while the Athena Swan Charter Mark is an external indicator of equality 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 and this needs to be an underpinning principle of Higher Education. After all, the benefits of equal opportunities can only lead to improved career satisfaction and a supporting working environment.”

Debs Patten is a Professor of Anatomy at the new School of Medicine 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 be see it and to be part of it.

“I do feel that while progress may feel painfully slow, positive change is happening.  We can speed it up though. International Women’s Day raises awareness that we all share responsibility to champion inclusion, embrace diversity and be active in advancing equality.”

Professor Arabella Plouviez is Dean of Faculty of Arts and Creative Industries at the University.

She 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.

“International Women’s Day is celebratory and provides one day for all of us to focus our thoughts on women’s experiences across the world, and what it means to be a woman in the 21st Century.”

Angela Smith is Professor of Language and Culture at the University of Sunderland.

She 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.

“I’ve been lucky enough to find a supportive family in academia and a number of women have proved to be absolutely inspirational and amazing colleagues – my Master’s degree in Women’s Studies was filled with women academics who really changed the way I was thinking about the world.” 

Alumni Achiever of 2018 and University of Sunderland Lecturer in Illustration Holly Sterling comes from a sporting background, 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. I always try to bring this into my academic position at the University through my professional career as an author/illustrator but as a lecturer and mentor to my students.

“As an academic establishment, 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.”