On Monday 9th March 2020, The Leigh Academy helds its inaugural International Women’s Day Conference for Year 12 students. Over a hundred students and staff gathered to mark this global event and consider some of the challenges that women face – in the developing and developed worlds – in society’s struggle for gender equality.

Councillor Kelly Grehan, an elected member of Dartford Borough Council and former Leigh Academy student, led a workshop on women in public life, the challenges that women face in getting their voices heard in a male-dominated sphere of life and the 50:50 Parliament movement that campaigns for equality of gender representation in all elected bodies in the UK.

Joanna Holland then led her workshop on the fashion industry. Joanna, a Chinese national, studied fashion in China and the USA but then worked in the industry in China, as well as lecturing at Hangzhou University. She now lives full time in the UK, where she runs a successful wedding accessories and photography business, based in Dartford. She explained that 90% of the 170 million Chinese employed in the fashion industry in China are women and face great challenges to be recognised for their contribution in businesses that are still male-led. 

Kelly and Joanna then joined Kirsty Marshall and Sandra Shepley, Coordinators of Learning for Post-16 at the academy, and Olivia Wellard and Louise Manley, Year 13 students at the academy, on a panel, where they gave their views of the questions generated by Year 12 students. Olivia is writing her EPQ essay on whether feminism is still relevant in the 21st century and Louise is an active and campaigning member of the Labour Party in Dartford.

Speaking after the event, Kelly said, “Thank you so much for having me.  It was a pleasure! I thought it was a really positive event, where the young people were engaged and asked valid and insightful questions. I believe it was important to have the boys, as well as the girls, present and that all contributions were equally valid.  The set up allowed for good interaction and I think the morning gave the students a lot to reflect on.” Kelly will be returning to The Leigh for its Political Engagement Day with Year 12 in July.  Joanna described the students as “a credit to the school” and hoped that their takeaway message would be that “there are no boundaries to hold them back” and if they tried something and failed, they should simply “keep trying.” 

Student feedback was very positive, with praise for the excellent content from the two workshop leaders. Some female students felt reassured that they would be able to become mothers and still progress in the other parts of their lives, while some of the male students began to realise things that they hadn’t before: “Feminism has always been a scary word to me but today has helped me to start to realise that it doesn’t have to be – it’s just about equality. I now consider myself to be a feminist.”