Throughout March, the Evening Standard is running a special series to mark Women’s History Month, covering everything from forgotten female heroes to the brilliant women of today.
This week, the Southbank Centre’s annual celebration of women and the fight for gender equality is back. Women of the World Festival, now in its 8th year, is a space to champion, create, argue and reflect on what it means to be a woman, what holds us back, how far there is to go and how far we’ve come.
This year’s festival kicked off with Women in Creative Industries Day, beginning with an awards ceremony to honour the achievements of pioneers and trailblazers like Lubaina Himid and Reni Eddo-Lodge, followed by a day of passionate debate.
From what it means to be a ‘genius’ to how leaders can do things differently, powerful women came together to encourage each other and share their wisdom.
Here are some of the ways that they believe we change the world, and make equality a reality.
Challenge why intersectional groups are being marginalised
Director Karen Tomlin said that she asked senior men within the theatre industry how many black female directors they could name. One thought for a long time and came up with the answer of three - including her. Others mused on it and agreed there was a strong presence - but they couldn’t name any. “We were so invisible that people thought we were already there,” she said. She argued that we shouldn’t fight over a hierarchy of oppression, but challenge how and why marginalisation of minority groups is taking place.
Challenge words that are masculine constructs
“The word ‘genius’ is an irrelevant construct from the 19th century, made by men,” said Tea Uglow, Creative Director of Google’s Creative Lab in Sydney. Harriet Vine, co-founder of Tatty Devine, deconstructed the word, finding that a lot of its traits - self-confident, rule-breaking, unconventional, persistent - are often criticised when displayed by women. But many worried that these words make their mark on girls from a young age, by which time their negative impact has already been embedded.
Invite more than one member of an intersectional group onto a panel
“When there’s more than one trans person on a panel, we get to actually talk about something other than toilets,” said author Juno Dawson. Organisations preoccupied with box-ticking can actually stifle a conversation from happening - groups need to be allowed to exist in those spaces for more than other to justify their own existence.
Achieving gender equality will require some people to give up their seat
People at top tables need to be prepared to give up their seat, argued Tomalin, adding that too often black female directors are held back by ‘emerging artist’ schemes. These schemes, giving the illusion of investment in diverse groups, end up being a way to hold back experienced women by keeping them perpetually in training.
“There’s always that one little thing that they have left to learn. Always,” she said. Women need to be given room to move up,, and that will require others to make space.
Don’t let anyone tell you that work that is ‘personal’ is not serious
Poet and playwright Sabrina Mahfouz talked about how a fellow poet and friend, Hollie McNish, had recently been criticised by someone for being - they argued - not technically accomplished enough as a poet. (McNish has won a Ted Hughes Award). “Because she takes the chance to say something how she needs to say it, and her poems have the word ‘and’, and she speaks her truth,” Mahfouz said.
Illustrator Manjit Thapp echoed this point, adding that artists like Frida Kahlo and Yayoi Kasuma have created work that is personal but also profound. “Art by women can be so many different things,” she said.
Bring in a different way of working
Director Phyllida Lloyd, who was awarded the Chair’s Award at the Women in Creative Industries Award for her Donmar Shakespeare trilogy, used her acceptance speech to argue for a new way of working. When her company came together, the all-woman group spoke about how they often felt anxious about taking up space - but together, they made it a space where anything could happen. “If you believe that how you do your work is as influential as the work you do, then a theatre rehearsal room is the perfect place to model social change,” she said.
Living with doubt does not make you weak
Royal Court boss Vicky Featherstone, awarded the Gender Equality Champion Award for her work addressing sexual misconduct in theatre, made the case for being able to live with doubt as a leader. When the No Grey Area day of action was quickly set up following the Kevin Spacey allegations, she said, “If it didn’t work, it would be my fault - but that’s OK, we’d move on and try something else.” If you have a platform already, you can live with the doubt of not knowing if something will work. “It’s about taking responsibility for failure and not pretending to know all of the answers,” she said.
Speak up - even if it feels uncomfortable
Vanessa Kingori is so great at her job that, in 2016, she got an MBE for it. She’s worked her way up to become the publisher at Vogue, working alongside new editor Edward Enninful, and she gives a masterclass in how to talk confidently about her many achievements. But she admitted that she was once chronically shy and didn’t even speak until she was three. “I have never been somebody who spoke up for myself,” she said. “Until someone said to me, ‘it’s really important for you and for everyone else to speak up - it didn't come easily and other people need to know that it's possible.'"
Empower other women to have a platform
When the Royal Court’s trainee director, Milli Bhatia, approached Vicky Featherstone and asked if she and a group of women who worked there could run events for International Women’s Day, Featherstone said yes. She was thinking back to her time as a trainee director at West Yorkshire Playhouse in 1991, when she asked her boss - Jude Kelly - if she could try running her own street festival.
“She said to me, ‘I will support you, I will give you the platform, I will challenge you, but I will let you do the work’. Jude handed me the power by saying, ‘yes, I’m here - but you can do it’,” Featherstone said.
And remember: change is coming
“I take heart from the fact that we used to have something called the Divine Right of Kings, and we got past that,” Southbank Centre boss and WOW Festival founder Jude Kelly said. “I have come round to the idea that we may well be able to have a new world, and not just a swap-in."
WOW - Women of the World festival runs at the Southbank Centre until 11 March, supported by Bloomberg.