Happy International Women’s Day! There’s a mind- boggling number of events and different themes being offered. Some people take a dim view of days like this – why have one day to celebrate women, when this is something we do every day? The GDST was founded on this very premise 150 years ago – our school exists to raise up women, to give you a level playing field, to help you into careers where you can have influence. So every day is for us a celebration of women and what we can achieve.
However, days like this are still important – they give us the opportunity to do even more – and really shout about things. So we have to grasp it. If you Google IWD – the theme is #EmbraceEquity. We are being encouraged to make this hug gesture – a sign of solidarity. You’re very welcome to give yourselves a hug but you’ll be pleased to hear I’m steering well clear of this.
So as well as giving ourselves a hug, what’s going on in school today?
- This morning on our sports field Ms Plank is leading the Football Association’s #LetGirlsPlay event introducing as many girls as possible to this growing women’s sport.
- Mrs Corcoran has invited Kristen Chick, nutritional therapist and lecturer, to talk to you all about perimenopause – a subject that wasn’t really talked about until relatively recently, and that affects all women.
- This evening, we welcome Dr Kevin Stannard, the GDST’s Director of Learning and Innovation to talk about the Girls’ Futures Report, speaking alongside local champion of women in tech, Rifa Thorpe-Tracey. Rifa is an award-winning coach, consultant, and connector for the digital and creative industries. She advocates for diversity and inclusion for women and people of colour.
So, we’ve got women’s health, fitness, girls’ futures, and women in tech all covered.
What I want to focus on this morning is women in tech, and women’s health, merging those two things – science and technology. On the subject of women in technology, the UN have chosen the theme #DigitALL for IWD.
I’m going to tell you two stories of women from the world of science and technology.
From the earliest days of computing to the present age of virtual reality and artificial intelligence, women have made untold contributions to the digital world. But accomplishments have been against all odds, in a field that historically has neither welcomed nor appreciated them. Think about someone like Ada Lovelace – said to be the first computer programmer – I’ve spoken about her before.
Today, women are still underrepresented in STEM education and careers – and this presents a major barrier to their participation in tech design. What I think is so sad is that girls and women are great consumers of tech – think about the time you spend using technology, the time you spend on social media. I know it will be significant. It is for us all.
But what if you could turn that around – and use technology or social media to help others, to help other women? A few years ago, I met a woman in Hong Kong, she was an entrepreneur, she was working on a new app for WeChat – China’s largest social media platform – she was working to reach cancer patients. Simple idea to reach women in the poorest areas – involved clicking a heart to show someone you were thinking about them – found those clicks and hearts didn’t cure people, but had a positive impact on their wellbeing, that gave them a better chance of recovery.
I was reminded of that woman when looking at the UN website I came across Ayesha Amin – she is described as a “tech and gender activist and social entrepreneur from Pakistan”. She is someone working in the FemTech industry – what is FemTech?
FemTech—a term for technology that is specifically designed to support women’s health. Amin is the founder of the youth- and women-led organisation Baithak—Challenging Taboos, and she is working to expand access to information on sexual and reproductive health and rights. Amin feels that the taboo around sexual and reproductive health has historically kept many women in the dark about their own bodies and she’s on a mission to use technology, especially social media, to do something about this.
“When women don’t have access to information,” Amin says, “they are not able to make informed decisions about their bodies.” On top of the stigma, mobility restrictions and lack of resources prevent many from accessing crucial health services.
Amin realised that most of the FemTech applications that exist benefit women who are from socially and economically privileged groups. For women from rural communities, women who aren’t digitally literate or those without sufficient income to pay for subscription-based apps, even these alternative forms of healthcare remain out of reach. She also realised that during the pandemic, women… started reaching out on Whatsapp because health carers were able to get to them physically – and the project’s urgency was further emphasised last year, during the floods that devastated large parts of Pakistan.
So Amin has created something called Gul, an AI-powered voice assistant that will use WhatsApp to help educate young people on reproductive health issues in local languages.
Think about this positive use of tech. When you’re on snapchat or whatsapp – think about how much time it is absorbing – or when you’re scrolling aimlessly through your instagram feed, think about how you could change things. Good news is, you are already learning these skills – CLICK – coding, making, some of you took part in the Minecraft speed-building competition for Eco week.
Keeping with these themes of STEM and women’s health, I want to take you back to celebrate one of our former students – an early pioneer in the world of STEM.
Louisa Martindale, CBE, was an English physician, surgeon, and writer.
- She also served as magistrate on the Brighton bench, was a prison commissioner and a member of the National Council of Women.
- She served with the Scottish Women’s Hospitals in France in World War I, and as a surgeon in London in World War II. Through her writings she promoted medicine as a career for women.
Louisa Martindale’s mother was an active suffragist and a member of the Women’s Liberal Federation “a champion of a larger life for women”. In the 1880s, Mrs. Martindale surrounded young Louisa and her sister, Hilda, who went on to be equally brilliant in her own right by brilliant women. She would have grown up in an environment supportive of her future career.
In 1885 following the death of Louisa’s father, the family moved to Brighton so that Louisa and her sister Hilda could attend Brighton High School for Girls (now Brighton Girls). From an early age it had been decided that Louisa should become a doctor, and at 17 she was sent to Royal Holloway, University of London; she then entered the London School of Medicine for Women in 1893, before moving to Hull and then back here to Brighton, having gained her Doctor of Medicine.
From this point, Louisa achieved a number of firsts: she
- started her own general practice and
- In 1920 she was instrumental in the setting up of the New Sussex Hospital for Women in Windlesham Road, Brighton, and held the post of senior Surgeon and Physician until 1937.
- After moving to London as a Consultant Surgeon, Louisa soon became known as honorary surgeon at the Marie Curie Hospital.
- In 1931, Martindale was elected as President of the Medical Women’s Federation. She was appointed C.B.E. that same year.
- Two years later, she was elected a Fellow of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists.
- In 1937, Martindale was appointed to the Council of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists as the first woman member in history.
- She was a member of the Royal Society of Medicine.
- During her long career in medicine, she carried out over 7000 operations
Louisa Martindale was someone who was really ahead of her time – pushing boundaries – she had that spirit of rebellion and that urge to provoke change. Her medical interests were, at the time sometimes controversial, especially her studies of venereal disease and prostitution. Her book Under the Surface (1909), in which she spoke openly about these topics, caused a stir in the House of Commons.
Thinking about the talks you are going to have later about perimenopause, as I said a topic only recently being spoken about more openly, just look at the list of work Louisa Martindale published:
- The Woman Doctor and Her Future.
- Menorrhagia Treated by Intensive X-Ray Therapy – menorrhagia essentially heavy periods
- Treatment of Cancer of the Breast
- The Artificial Menopause.
- A Woman Surgeon. London
Louisa Martindale was so influential that it was announced last year that the new £483 million building at the Royal Sussex County Hospital in Brighton, East Sussex was to be named after Louisa Martindale. It will be home to over 30 wards and departments and state-of-the-art facilities.
So, this International Women’s Day think about the opportunities you have – as scientists in this school.
Just by being at a school like this you:
- Are 2.5 times as likely to take Further Maths and Physics at A Level.
- Are 40% more likely to study Biology at A Level.
- 77% more likely to study Chemistry and 72% more likely to study Computer Science.
My theme this morning has been women in STEM, science and tech, but I could tell you equally brilliant stories of the girls who came to this school and went on to be influential artists, writers, historians. The point is the same; by being here you are following in the footsteps of people who went out and changed things for women.
One day you will all be alumnae like Louisa – as we celebrate International Women’s Day, I want you to think about what will you contribute to the world? Think about the Head standing here many years from now… What stories will that person be telling about you, former students who went out into the world and made a difference. Next time you reach for your phone, think about Ayesha Amin and what that device in your hand could do.. for others, for good.
Next time you pass the Royal Sussex Hospital, think about the person whose name is being given to the building. She studied here. Changed things for the women that came after her.
So, today, give yourselves that hug of encouragement, reflect on the opportunities you have here, and think big.