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International Women's Day Student Voices

6 current students at the University of Exeter were commissioned to write their own perspectives on International Women's Day, focusing on the achievements of women, sex/gender equality and/or the rights of women.

Considerable progress has been made toward gender equality, for example, more women are now part of the workforce than ever before (Office for National Statistics, 2020). However, full gender equality is far from being attained. Women are still generally paid less than men (ONS, 2019), and are underrepresented across a range of careers that are considered to require high-level of intellectual ability such as brilliance, strong leadership skills and competence (Cimpian & Leslie, 2017). Such careers are those in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and business but also certain social sciences and humanities fields such as philosophy. For example, world-wide women make up only 29.3% of science researchers (UNESCO, 2019), while within the United Kingdom, women make up only 29% of those achieving higher education qualifications in core STEM subjects (WISE Campaign, 2020). This pattern of underrepresentation is due to the fact that brilliance, competence and leaderships skills are associated more with men than women. Importantly, these stereotypes work in two ways: they may determine members of the fields to think women are unsuited for these jobs and this can make it more difficult for women to advance in such careers but they may also undermine women’s self-confidence and willingness to pursue a career in these domains.

On the bright side, recent studies have uncovered that general stereotypes about the difference in competence between men and women have decreased (Eagly et al., 2019; Storage et al., 2020). On the other hand, specific stereotypes are still very present such as the gender brilliance stereotype, women’s perceived lack of assertiveness and lack of leadership competence. Additionally, these stereotypes have been shown to hold true across different ages, including school children, different races and cross-culturally. Despite this, increasing evidence has sown that gender-diverse organisations financially out-perform those with low female representation (McKinsey and Company, 2020). Within the research field, gender-diverse teams have been shown to produce higher quality studies and more innovative publications (Hofstra et al., 2020). This evidence alone shows that gender stereotypes are not based on reality and that women actually outperform men in many domains and contexts.

It is important to mention that certain organisations including many universities are implementing gender equality initiatives, also called GEIs. Some examples of these initiatives are: ADVANCE, Athena SWAN (United Kingdom, Ireland), SAGE (Australia) and SEA Change (United States). These initiatives promote institutional change that favours gender equality, and they reward academic institutions or departments that plan actions and implement changes that tackle gender inequality. In 2015 the Athena SAWN initiative has extended to include not only STEM but also arts, humanities, social sciences, business and law. Particularly, the university of Exeter holds an institutional Athena SWAN Silver Award and all the STEM departments at the university hold awards at Bronze or Silver level. As an Athena SWAN member, the University of Exeter focuses on the representation, progression and working environment of women at all university levels including students, academics, and support staff. Thus, universities and institutions that partake in gender equality initiatives give women the opportunity to study for the degree they are passionate about and follow their desired careers without being hindered by stereotypes.

Further, I will present four women that have each have denounced these stereotypes and managed to succeed in life by following the careers they were passionate about.

Business: Indra Nooyi – A powerful CEO (1955 - present)

Indra Nooyi is an Indian-American business executive and former chairperson and chief executive officer (CEO) of PepsiCo. She has been consistently praised for her leadership and business skills being ranked among the top 100 most influential people according to Time magazine’s 2008 list. She is also number 5 in Forbes’s “Most Influential Women in the World” (2007), number 1 in Fortune’s “50 Most Powerful Women” (2006), and number 22 in Fortune’s “25 Most Powerful People in Business” (2007). She was born in Chennai, India but moved to US and graduated from Yale’s School of Management and worked in companies such as the Boston Consulting Group Inc., Motorola Inc., and ABB. What made her be one of the top leaders in business is her innovative perspective and cross-cultural background but also her strong leaderships skills, collaborative nature and clear business vision. Nooyi also promoted diversity within the company and made PepsiCo an environmentally sustainable company. She is truly an example of exceptional leadership competence and completely contradicts the learnership stereotype so often enforced onto women.

Computer science: Joan Clarke – The Enigma Breaker (1917 – 1996)

Clarke studied at the University of Cambridge in 1936, and achieved a first degree in mathematics, but she did not receive her full degree as Cambridge only awarded these to men. Due to her exceptional mathematic ability, she was recruited to work for the Government Code and Cypher School (GCCS) at Bletchley Park. She was the first female senior cryptanalyst and she worked alongside Alan Turing, working towards decrypting the German Enigma codes during World War Two. Clarkes decryption of the enemy messages saved countless lives from potential attacks and the Bletchley Park team helped stop the war by shortening it by an estimated two years. Even though Clarke was awarded a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) in 1946, in recognition of her work, not many people know about Clarke’s efforts today partly because of the project’s secrecy. It is important to celebrate her achievements today and empower other women that seek a career in male dominant fields to follow their ambitions regardless of the societal norms.

Philosophy: Simone de Beauvoir – First to theorise feminist existentialism (1908 – 1986)

Simone de Beauvoir was the ninth woman to receive a degree from the Sorbonne University in Paris, and she was a French writer, intellectual, existentialist philosopher, political activist, feminist, and social theorist. Even though few women are recognised as philosophers she had an immense influence on both feminist existentialism and feminist theory and she even inspired some of Jean-Paul Sartre, the well-known existentialist, work. Her most famous work is her book – The Second Sex – in which she explained how the society created a hierarchy in which women always take the second place, forever compared with men and undermined by them. Her precocious thinking is truly astonishing for the period she lived in and her political activism for women’s rights has been highly influential.

Biological sciences / Medicine: Ana Aslan—Founder of the First Institute of Geriatrics (1897 – 1988)

Ana AsIan was born in 1897, in Romania. She pursued a medical degree and worked in hospitals during the World War One. In 1949, she became head of the physiology department at the Institute of Endocrinology in Bucharest, one of the first females in Romania to have reached such a prestigious position. In 1952, she founded the Institute of Geriatrics in Bucharest, the first such institute in the world. The institute contained three units: clinical, biologic, and social gerontology. Seven years later (1959), she organised the Romanian Society of Gerontology and Geriatrics and also founded a quarterly journal on the topic. Aslan also became a pioneer in social medicine. Social medicine seeks to understand how social and economic conditions impact health, and what initiatives can be implemented by governments in order to improve the health of the societies. In 1982, she was one of the organisers of the World Meeting for the Third Age (Golden Age) in Vienna, Austria, and received the Leon Bernard Award from the World Health Organization. Aslan shattered all gender stereotypes and proved that women can be just as brilliant and innovative as men, even when faced with challenging conditions.

To sum up, despite challenges and various gender stereotypes women throughout history have managed to show how talented, brilliant and exceptional they are by bending and sometime even completely transforming gender stereotypes. While considerable progress has been made toward gender equality, women are still underrepresented in certain careers and positions and the gender gap has not yet been closed. While we still have a way to go before traditional gender stereotypes will completely dissipate it is important to celebrate successful women and to support initiatives such as Athena SWAN that seek to end gender inequalities for good.


Cimpian, A., & Leslie, S.J. (2017). The brilliance trap: How a misplaced emphasis on genius subtly discourages women and African-Americans from certain academic fields. Scientific American, 317, 60-65.

Collier, S. (2021, February 22). 10 Amazing Female Computer Scientists You’ve Probably Never Heard Of. Top Universities. Retrieved from

Dumitrascu, D., Shampo, M., & Kyle, R. (1998). Ana Aslan—Founder of the First Institute of Geriatrics. Mayo Clinic Proceedings, 73(10), 960.

Eagly, A. H., Nater, C., Miller, D. I., Kaufmann, M., & Sczesny, S. (2019). Gender stereotypes have changed: A cross-temporal meta-analysis of U.S. public opinion polls from 1946 to 2018. American Psychologist, 75(3), 301–315.

Hofstra, B., Kulkarni, V., Galvez, S., He, B., Jurafsky, D., & McFarland, D. (2020). The diversity–innovation paradox in science. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 117, 9284–9291.

McKinsey and Company. 2020. Diversity Wins: How Inclusion Matters. McKinsey and Company. how%20inclusion%20matters/diversity-wins-how-inclusion-mattersvf.ashx.

Office for National Statistics. (2019). Gender Pay Gap in the UK: October 2019. Retrieved from: hours/bulletins/genderpaygapintheuk/2019#:~:text=The%20gender%20pay%20gap%20a mong,2019%2C%20and%20continues%20to%20decline.

Office for National Statistics. (2020). Labour Market Overview, UK: June 2020. Retrieved from: loyeetypes/bulletins/uklabourmarket/december2020

Seelinger, L. (2016, November 23). 10 Female Philosophers Who Will Change Your Life. Culture Trip. Retrieved from

Storage, D., Charlesworth, T. E. S., Banaji, M. R., & Cimpian, A. (2020). Adults and children implicitly associate brilliance with men more than women. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 90, (104020).

[UNESCO] United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. 2019. Women in Science. UNESCO. Fact sheet no. 55.

[WISE Campaign] The Women into Science and Engineering Campaign. 2020. Annual Core-STEM Stats Round Up: 2019– 20. WISE Campaign. annual-core-stem-stats-round-up-2019-20.

Such a wonderful day it is – International Women’s Day! International Women's Day is celebrated in many countries around the world. It is a day when women are recognized for their achievements without regard to divisions, whether national, ethnic, linguistic, cultural, economic or political.

Since those early years, International Women's Day has assumed a new global dimension for women in developed and developing countries alike. The growing international women's movement, which has been strengthened by four global United Nations women's conferences, has helped make the commemoration a rallying point to build support for women's rights and participation in the political and economic arenas. [1] Every year, Inernational Women’s Day adopts a theme and this year’s is: “#ChooseToChallange”. We can all choose to challenge and call out gender bias and inequality. We can all choose to seek out and celebrate women's achievements. Collectively, we can all help create an inclusive world. [2]

Firstly, as a female Engineering Student I would love to share my journey, hardships that I have faced, overall my experiences throughout my career path with you. Since I was 14, I knew that I had a fire in me for science that was burning me inside out! I wanted to be an Engineer so bad that I was trying to convince my friends to build a robot with me using the items that we found around the school and our houses… I know that sounds crazy. However, the passion that I had was unstoppable. Especially, considering the disturbing thoughts of other people…

“Oh, YOU want to be an Engineer?”, “Hmm, that sounds good but isn’t it a men’s job?”, “How will you be an Engineer, you are not strong enough!”

However, I never let those comments to blur my way and stop me from being the Engineer that I aspire to be! I applied to “Engineering and Management” course in one of the Russell Group Universities of the UK, University of Exeter and I got accepted!

When I first stepped into the lecture hall, I just saw only a handful of female Engineering students and that broke my heart dearly. I realised that I was not the only person who were experiencing those horrible comments. I knew that I needed to do something – as women Engineering students we ought to make a change! My coursemates and I decided to found the “Women in Engineering Society” at the University of Exeter. We were so very luck that our lecturers and other coursemates regardless of their gender, all helped us massively to become succsessful in this foundation process!

It was such success and we have finally founded the Women in Engineering Society to raise awarness to the inequality and the diversity within the industry. I am proud to be the President of this strong and effective society! After sharing my personal success as a Women of STEM, I want to mention some of the pioneering women leaders!

Damilola Odufuwa and Odunayo Eweniyi, Women’s rights advocates, Nigeria:

For years, women activists across Nigeria have used online tools to organise social change, whether it was to free the Chibok girls kidnapped by the terrorist group Boko Haram or to raise awareness about gender-based violence. In July, Damilola Odufuwa and Odunayo Eweniyi formed a group with 11 other women called the Feminist Coalition with the aim of improving the rights of Nigerian women. When anger about the unchecked police brutality by the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) reached fever pitch in autumn, they launched into action with their first project — and the #EndSARS movement became a rallying cry around the world.

The Feminist Coalition regards itself not as a political organisation, but as a community-building enterprise and women’s rights advocacy group. Using their sophisticated skills in technology and social media, they were able to disseminate real-time information, which raised awareness and funds for the peaceful protests. Rather than a top-down leadership model, Odufuwa, Eweniyi and their colleagues are democratising information as a way to empower the Nigerian people to make the change they seek. [3]

Christine Lagarde, Managing director, International Monetary Fund:

One of the most powerful women in the world—in fact ranked #6 by Forbes—French native Lagarde is a woman of many hats. She's credited as a lawyer, politician for the Union for a Popular Movement party and, since 2011, the managing director of the International Monetary Fund (to replace Dominique Strauss-Kahn). As the first woman to head the IMF, Lagarde is seeing the onset of a slight global upturn since the recent recession, and she's also helping the fund support female employment in order to avoid poverty and inequality. [4]

Judy Smith, Crisis Manager, United States:

She's the CEO, founder and president of crisis management firm Smith & Company and has covered cases with Monica Lewinsky, Wesley Snipes, Michael Vick and Sony. She also assists in public policy work on issues like the housing crisis and education. Consider it handled.

It is fascinating and inspiring to see those Women Leaders and their initiating work! Did you know that research shows that women are better leaders during a crisis? If you want to find out, here is why:

Between March and June of 2020, 454 men and 366 women were assessed on their leadership effectiveness using the Extraordinary Leader 360-degree assessment. Consistent with the pre-pandemic analysis, it was found that women were rated significantly more positively than men. Each leader assessed also received an employee engagement score based on their direct report’s responses to questions about how satisfied and committed they felt. The engagement level of those working for male leaders was slightly below average, but the engagement scores for the direct reports of female leaders were significantly higher. To better understand what was driving the difference in engagement levels, it looked at the competencies that direct reports ranked as most important during the crisis. Notably, respondents put greater importance on interpersonal skills, such as “inspires and motivates,” “communicates powerfully,” “collaboration/teamwork,” and “relationship building,” all of which women were rated higher on. The analysis echoes what the researchers found in the study mentioned above about U.S. governors that female leaders expressed more awareness of fears that followers might be feeling, concern for wellbeing, and confidence in their plans.

Perhaps the most valuable part of the data collected throughout the crisis is hearing from thousands of direct reports about what they value and need from leaders now. Based on the data they want leaders who are able to pivot and learn new skills; who emphasize employee development even when times are tough; who display honesty and integrity; and who are sensitive and understanding of the stress, anxiety, and frustration that people are feeling. Our analysis shows that these are traits that are more often being displayed by women. But as the crisis continues, and intensifies in many places, all leaders, regardless of gender, should strive to meet those needs. [5]


[1] History of Women’s Day | United Nations | Last Accessed : 19/02/2021's%20Day,was%20much%20earlier%20%2D%20in%201848.

[2] IWD 2021 campaign theme: #ChooseToChallenge | International Women’s Day | Last Accessed: 19/02/2021

[3] 12 Women Leaders That Changed The World In 2020 |

Sarada Peri | Last Accessed: 19/02/2021

[4]21 Female Leaders You Should Know | Erica Gonzales | Last Accessed: 19/02/2021

[5] Research: Women Are Better Leaders During a Crisis| Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman | Last Accessed: 19/02/2021

“You matter because you are you, and you matter to the end of your life” – I read this quote as a fourth-year medical student without the realisation of how inspired I would be by the person who said it. I am now in my final year of medicine and I am regularly inspired by the women who I work with on a daily basis to deliver excellent care to all.

International Women’s day is a celebration of the achievements of women and it is a focal point in the movement of women’s rights, especially in relation to raising awareness around women’s equality. Women significantly contribute to healthcare provision and women have revolutionised healthcare at many points in time. They are arguably the backbone of healthcare in the UK with 77% of the NHS workforce being made up of women. As a future woman in healthcare, I want to share the story of one woman who revolutionised medicine. Her name is Dame Cicely Saunders, and she said the quote above.

Dame Cicely Saunders was a qualified social worker, nurse, and doctor. She is renowned for being the founder of the modern hospice care movement and she transformed the way we as healthcare professionals view dying and the treatment of those patients who are terminally ill.

Cicely started her career as a nurse after the second world war broke out, this was against her parents’ wishes but Cicely knew she wanted to help. Unfortunately, due to a condition with her spine, Cicely was advised to give up nursing and so she gained a ‘war degree’ in social work. She had a special interest in end-of-life care and worked with dying patients.

She recognised many gaps in the care that dying patients received and of note, realised better pain control was needed for those who were terminally ill. So often patients and their families were told “there is nothing more that can be done”, but Cicely believed otherwise. She knew there was much more that could be done to make patients comfortable at the end of their life. She created the concept of ‘total pain’ which is the complex relationship between physical symptoms, mental distress, social problems, and spiritual distress- the idea of ‘looking at the patient as a whole.’

Cicely knew she wanted to make change and progress in healthcare but was faced with adversity. She was told by a surgeon that her ideas would not be accepted in medicine unless she was a doctor. Determined to make her ideas for change a reality Cicely enrolled as a medical student aged thirty-three and qualified as a doctor in 1957. Just a year later she was awarded a scholarship to work in pain control in terminally ill patients. She was a visionary and turned St Joseph’s hospice in London into the first centre which combined research, teaching, expert pain control, and compassionate care all into one.

She pioneered the field of palliative care medicine and her work, more than anybody else, allowed for palliative care medicine to be recognised as a new discipline exactly thirty years after she qualified as a doctor. A specialty that is now recognised and established internationally and one that many doctors today dedicate their careers to.

Dame Cicely Saunders has received many awards including a total of twenty-five honorary degrees from around the world. Although, her true legacy is the change that she has made to medicine and the change that she has undoubtedly made to patients at the end of their lives. However, in my opinion, the concept of ‘total pain’ and viewing the patient as a whole, expands beyond just palliative care, but into all medical practice. Allowing healthcare professionals to recognise and acknowledge the complex interplay between physical symptoms and inner distress.

I do not wish to specialise in palliative care, but I know that the pioneering work that Dame Cicely Saunders has achieved has changed the way I have been taught about death and dying. It has changed the way I will practice as a doctor. However, I am inspired by Dame Cicely Saunders beyond her achievements. Her determination and dedication to what she believed in is something that can inspire us all. It is clear from reading her story that there were many obstacles she faced but these were all taken in her stride.

Medicine is a changing world and more women than ever are becoming doctors. Medicine has previously been notoriously known for lacking gender equality, though this is no longer the case. In fact, 68% of all medical school entrants are now women. The future of medicine lies with women and the story of Dame Cicely Saunders shows the far-reaching impact that the ideas and achievements of women can have in this field. Studying in the field of medicine can arguably have many obstacles, some of which sadly may still be more unique to women. Some specialties may still fall behind in terms of gender equality including surgical specialties. However, there are many women who are overcoming these obstacles to achieve their dreams and visions. I meet them on a daily basis in placement, at networking events, and they are all inspirational.

Reading the story of Dame Cicely Saunders inspired me to believe in my ideas and believe in delivering compassionate holistic care. Dame Cicely Saunders believed in her ideas and wanted to make real change, she was told she needed to be a doctor, and whilst this helped her, I want to highlight that you do not just need to be a doctor to make a change in healthcare. All women, in all job roles, in all settings have valuable visions. So, whether you want to be a nurse, midwife, social care worker, research scientist, occupational therapist, physiotherapist, doctor, or any of the other roles I have not listed (and there are many) then you can make a change. Women in healthcare can and do, repeatedly, make a change. As I have highlighted Dame Cicely Saunders is just one incredible story. Maybe yours will be the next?

The 2021 campaign for International Women’s Day ‘Choose to Challenge’ promotes the vital importance of challenging gender inequality for the global greater good. ‘A challenged world is an alert world. And from challenge comes change’₁. If we unify and continuously, consistently challenge gender bias change will happen, and we will be closer to an inclusive, equal world. The campaign encourages people of all gender identities to post a picture on social media with their hand held high with the caption #ChooseToChallenge₂. It is a symbolisation of promise to challenge every aspect of the world we live in to make it as inclusive as possible. The more publicity the day gets the more conversation is provoked and the more change will transpire.

International Women’s Day falls on the 8th March annually₃. The first official International Women’s Day took place in 1911 in Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland₃. In 2011, on the 100-year anniversary, Barack Obama declared March 2011 to be “Women’s History Month” to reflect on “The extraordinary accomplishments of women”₃. For many countries around the world International Women’s day is a public holiday₃. It’s a time for men to celebrate the incredible women in their lives and reflect on how they could choose to challenge, by using their privilege to help the women they love exist in a more equal world.

In 1996 the UN introduced a theme for the first time, “celebrating the past, planning for the future”₃. From then on, every year the theme carried a poignant and progressive message, such as “World Free of Violence Against Women” in 1999, and in 2021 “Choose to Challenge"₃. The theme allows room for celebration of women’s achievements and recognition of how far the world has come, whilst also providing a structure for conversation to challenge gender bias and achieve gender parity.

The International Women’s Day website displays a large array of inspirational women’s thought provoking messages on how they interpret the ‘Choose to Challenge’ campaign. Award winning poet Aminah Rahman wrote for the Choose to Challenge campaign summarising exactly this. Here is an extract of her incredible work:

“Time for us women to increase our visibility,
celebrate us and call out inequality,
but this year we are going to choose to challenge
and well stand together so let’s fix that damage.
… It’s been tough along the way there’s been some resistance,
but let’s remain strong let’s be persistent,
spreading love, be the love and share your views,
we’re going to challenge and that’s what we choose.” – Aminah Rahman₄

Susie Ramroop offers an alternative view on the choose to challenge campaign, suggesting the best way to reach an inclusive society is to check in on yourself, to challenge whether you’re being the best version of yourself, to check you’re fulfilling your expectation of others. She says “I urge you to challenge yourself first. When you do that you can develop the habit of doing it with much more kindness, much more grace, so when you do decide to call into question, rather than call out, other people’s behaviour you feel okay about it because you are used to setting that standard for yourself.”

Mehalah Beckett takes a similar approach to Susie, encouraging people to look at themselves first, encouraging them to be strong and passionate and choose to challenge the issues they feel most strongly about. She says, “Sometimes I am that shy retiring quiet girl, but when there’s something I’m passionate about, when there’s something I feel I need to take a stand for, I do very courageous things, and I like to think I inspire the people around me to do the same. So, this international women’s day, challenge yourself and you’ll inspire everyone around you.“

Margie Warrell suggests three ways we should choose to challenge ourselves. The first, “Choose to challenge the negative voice in the back of your head which says you don’t have what it takes.”₇ The second, “Choose to challenge the labels that other people may have put on you”.₇ The third, “Choose to challenge other women when you hear them putting themselves down and fail to own their value and internalise their strengths and success”.₇ In the video she quotes the female idol Beyonce, who once said “I’m not one to gamble, but if I’m going to make a bet, I’ll bet on myself.”₇ This is an incredibly powerful message, to choose to challenge yourself, invest in yourself and be so confident in yourself you’re willing to take a bet that you will become your own definition of success.

Dipika Trehan, the founder of Corporate Diva, a women leadership platform in India, also agrees with the other women in challenging yourself to grow into the best version of you. She says, “As a woman leader I chose to challenge the status quo every single day. At corporate diva we believe your growth is your priority - it needs you to invest yourself in self growth and that begins with challenging the status quo and coming forward as a leader.”₈ In order for women to reach their full potential we must not settle, we must keep pushing, we must keep choosing to challenge.

The global pandemic has been a challenge for so many people, a challenge we did not choose, one that stood in the way of us seeing those we love the most, stopped us from celebrating those magnificent milestones we’d worked our whole lives to achieve. It stopped us meeting new people, expanding our minds, travelling the world, experiencing different cultures - becoming less like a draft of ourselves and more like the true, self-loving, accepting masterpiece that we should be. Besides the global pandemic, women are constantly faced with challenges we did not choose - we should regain control and choose to challenge back. In lockdown we have time on our hands, the most valuable asset in the universe. We should be using it wisely, to question what we have been conditioned to accept and challenge every aspect of the world we live in to make it equal for all future generations. Use the time to pause, to think. To slow down the pace of our lives, to celebrate how far we’ve come and re-evaluate who we are, what we believe. Change is a necessity. Start a new chapter when the pandemic is over, challenge what has always infuriated you, challenge your own internalised fears and prejudice, challenge the stereotypes you use, the language you accept, so when the challenge we didn’t choose is over, we can take back control and challenge back. ‘A challenged world is an alert world, and from challenge comes change’₉.


1 (About International Women's Day, 2021)

2 (IWD 2021 campaign theme: #ChooseToChallenge, 2021)

3 (About International Women's Day, 2021)

4 (Rahman, 2021)

5 (Ramroop, 2021)

6 (Beckett, 2021)

7 (Warrell, 2021) 

8 (Trehan, 2021)

9 (About International Women's Day, 2021)



About International Women's Day. (2021). Retrieved from internationalwomensday: Beckett, M. (2021, February 20).

Mehalah Beckett #ChooseToChallengeYourself. Retrieved from Youtube:

A History of International Women's Day. (2021). Retrieved from internationalwomensday:

IWD 2021 campaign theme: #ChooseToChallenge. (2021). Retrieved from internationalwomensday: Rahman, A. (2021, February 15).

#IWD2021 #ChooseToChallenge poem by Aminah Rahman. Retrieved from Youtube: Ramroop, S. (2021, February 12).

My interpretation of #ChooseToChallenge. Retrieved from Youtube: Trehan, D. (2021, Feb 22).

#IWD2021 #CHOOSETOCHALLENGE. Retrieved from Youtube: Warrell, M. (2021, February 23).

#ChooseToChallenge Make a bet on yourself! International Women’s Day Message 2021. Retrieved from Youtube:

The fight for diversity and gender equality in Film and Television awards shows is an ever constant one. The 2021 Golden Globes was aired, or perhaps more accurately, streamed, on Sunday night (very early in the morning in the UK) and saw a whole host of unsurprising and shock winners. Perhaps the biggest success of the evening was the winner of Best Director, Chloé Zhao for her film Nomadland starring Frances McDormand as a homeless woman journeying through Western America. Zhao is also significantly the first Asian woman to win best director. Whilst there are many female directors in the glitzy world of Hollywood, Zhao is only the second woman to be awarded in this category, following Barbara Streisand nearly 40 years ago in 1983.

This idea of being the first or second female filmmaker to win an award in a certain category in any given Awards Ceremony is not uncommon - and it is especially interesting to look at the winners of categories such as ‘Best Film Music’ (BAFTA), ‘Best Original Score’ (Academy Award, Golden Globe) or ‘Best Composer’ (Critics’ Choice Award). In this year’s Golden Globes, the winner for Best Original Score went to the trio of Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross and Jon Batiste for Soul. Soul’s score is no doubt a triumph, with Reznor and Ross using the expertise of Batiste’s soulful and jazzy style to modernise the genre of jazz. You cannot ignore, though, the lack of female composers nominated in the same category: all of them were men. It is important to point out here that I am not suggesting that these male composers and songwriters are not in support of their female counterparts - Jon Batiste, whilst not necessarily known for his film scoring plays with a full female band in his NPR Music Tiny Desk concert from May (linked below).

In charge of nominations is a board of members, for example the Hollywood Foreign Press Association for the Golden Globes. The HFPA were under fire this year for their lack of black members on their board, undoubtedly a reason for the controversial nominations this year, with many black-created films overlooked.

In 2019, ahead of the 92nd Academy Award Ceremony, The Guardian produced a very interesting and compelling interactive graph exposing the extreme lack of gender diversity in Oscar nominations, starting with the number of nominations across a 92-year period and displaying how few of these nominations (in a non-gendered category) went to women. The most famous example is of Kathryn Bigelow who directed films like The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty and is the only woman to have ever won an Academy Award for ‘Best Director’. For music-based awards, out of the 1,238 nominees over the years, women only represent 1.6% of that number.

When you think of your favourite music soundtracks, chances are you’re thinking of a score by John Williams. Take Star Wars, Harry Potter or Jurassic Park for example - catchy earworms that have become some of the most iconic pieces of music of all time (follow the link at the end for a Top 10 List of Williams’ scores). Williams has been nominated for a staggering number of awards, most notably 54 Academy Awards (the most for any living person), and 71 Grammys, where he has won 25. It’s no wonder then that, out of the most iconic films made, Williams’ name is synonymous.

However, try naming a female composer and that is where issues arise. Representation of female song-writing and orchestration is low, and you will struggle to find a female composer who has composed a big blockbuster movie in recent years. According to a report done by the Celluloid Ceiling, only 6% of composers in the top 250 grossing films in 2018 were women, which, shockingly, was an increase from 3% in 2014. In 4 years, the number of female composers in these big films has doubled, yes, but the number is still pitifully low.

The question then is why? Why is it that women make up so few of the female film composers in the 21st century, in a world of promising steps forward in gender equality, especially in the film industry (take the ‘Time’s Up’ movement for example)? What is the barrier that is stopping women from reaching the same heights as names such as Hans Zimmer or Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross? The simple answer is these statistics shown above. With statistics such as these, it’s unsurprising why women are discouraged to enter a field so incredibly dominated by men.

However, despite (and in light of) these depressing statistics, let’s look at a couple of notable female composers who have paved the way for others.

Rachel Portman

One of the UK’s most prolific film composers is Rachel Portman, the first female composer to win an Academy Award for ‘Best Musical or Comedy Score’ for Emma in 1996. Her other titles include One Day from 2011 and Bessie from 2015, which won an Emmy for Outstanding Music Composition for a Limited Series, Movie, or Special. Portman’s success however is inevitably overshadowed by the men around her; if you Google a list of the Top 10 Film Composers of all time, Portman seems to be the only one featured in one of the lists, and in others, she doesn’t feature at all. However, Portman is fairly unfazed by her gender, admitting in an interview that “being a woman” has never held her back in any way. She says that she has “never considered myself any different,”.

Her scores classically flow, fitting to any genre, with many citing her musical voice as unique to her. As with John Williams, her style is immediately recognisable. As a modern-day veteran for film composition, Portman is well-established in the world of film composition, and she is lauded by the BMI as having a “nuanced elegance” to her writing. The demands of a film composer are intense - the time they are given to produce a whole score for a movie is very small, with the film often being advertised to the public before the music has even been written or conceived by the composer. Portman wrote the whole score for the 2000 film Chocolat within a month.

Hildur Guðnadóttir

More recently, in 2019, Hildur Guðnadóttir, an Icelandic musician and composer for the score of Joker - of which she won an Academy Award (Oscar) for - is only the fourth woman to achieve this accolade, and the first to win it for a dramatic film. A relative newcomer to the world of film composition, her scores are modern and haunting, fitting perfectly with the atmosphere of Todd Phillips’ psychological thriller Joker. Guðnadóttir also composed the music for the 2019 miniseries Chernobyl where she took inspiration from the sounds of an abandoned power plant to produce her score, creating the haunting and tense atmosphere of the post-disaster of the Chernobyl nuclear power meltdown. In her acceptance speech for the Oscar, Guðnadóttir addressed women as a whole, and in turn called for the female composers out there struggling to make it in the industry or feeling as if being successful in the industry is an impossible task…

"To the girls, to the women, to the mothers, to the daughters who hear the music bubbling within, please speak up — we need to hear your voices."

Mentioned in this post:

· “Top 10 Unforgettable John Williams Scores” -

· “Jon Batiste: NPR Music Tiny Desk Concert” - NPR Music

· “Oscars: the 92-year gender gap, visualised” - The Guardian

· The Celluloid Ceiling: Behind-the-Scenes Employment of Women on the Top 100, 250, and 500 Films of 2018

· “‘Chernobyl’ composer created entire haunting score from real power plant sounds” – Epicleff Media

· “Rachel Portman: Outlook ‘great’ for female film composers” – Classic FM

Further reading:

· “Why Are Awards Shows Still So Damn White and Male?” - Flare

· “Close-Up: Rachel Portman” - Stingray CMusic

· “7 Must-Hear Recordings by Hildur Guðnadóttir, Who Just Made History at the Oscars” - Pitchfork

At the inauguration of US President Joe Biden, the National Youth Poet Laureate, Amanda Gorman, poses a question: where can we find light in this never-ending shade?

This question follows a period of not only political unease in the US, but also a year of loss and grief throughout the world. In a pandemic that has recorded over 2.5 million deaths worldwide, we have become well acquainted with the “never-ending shade” that Gorman reflects upon, and in many ways have become desensitised to the tragedy and injustice that surrounds us.

The theme for International Women’s Day 2021 is Choose to Challenge, and Gorman’s poem is exactly that: a challenge, a demand for change despite the darkness we may have come accustomed to. What Gorman asks of America and of the world in The Hill We Climb is not just positivity in approaching “the dawn” of a new future, but also retrospection. As a “skinny Black girl / descended from slaves”, Gorman is all too aware of the colonial past (and present) of both America and the wider Western world, asking her audience not simply to move on from the past but “step into” and “repair it”. In this, Gorman asks us to recognise our own racism and misogyny in order to challenge the systems which perpetuate and exacerbate these oppressive prejudices.

Gorman, whose poetry focuses on race, feminism, and oppression, has “known her path from an early age”, having been awarded Youth Poet Laureate of Los Angeles at the age of 16. Now a 22-year-old Harvard graduate, Gorman has recited at the White House and become the first US National Youth Poet Laureate, using poetry to incite and encourage change. In an interview for Here & Now, Gorman notes:

“We all have our own weapons we can take into the arena to fight systematic racism,
and for me the greatest instrument I have at my disposal is my pen.”

It is unsurprising, though no less inspiring, that poetry is Gorman’s “weapon” of choice. Poetry is a form that has always sought to disrupt and disturb, and many feminist scholars and essayists such as Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, and Margaret Atwood have employed it to express what prose cannot, and access what may otherwise be left unsaid.

In the same interview, Gorman references the life of Phyllis Wheatley (born 1753), the first African American author of a published collection of poetry. Gorman recalls Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia, where the third President of the United States writes that “religion indeed has produced a Phyllis Wheatley; but it could not produce a poet. The compositions published under her name are below the dignity of criticism”. Jefferson’s remarks, ignited by racism and misogyny, are a testament to the power of Phyllis Wheatley, and the impact a “small, skinny, Black girl-poet” can have on the world. Gorman reflects on Jefferson’s comments as an unsuccessful “erasure” of Wheatley’s poetic claim, and a call to continue the legacy Wheatley began.

This legacy is one that uses poetry to revisit history and reshape the future. Jefferson’s Notes are used by Gorman to produce Notes on the State, an erasure poem which disrupts Jefferson’s words to produce new meaning: “Religion indeed”, Gorman writes and reclaims, “a Phyllis / could produce / published / under her name / the dignity of”. What both Wheatley and Gorman represent is a

disruption to the poetry canon as we know it, one that has long been dominated by white, cis-gendered men, and is long overdue a shake-up. In announcing her appearance at President Biden’s inauguration, Gorman paid tribute to WriteGirl, a Los Angeles-based creative writing and mentoring organisation in which the poet enrolled in 2012. WriteGirl was founded in 2001 by singer-songwriter Keren Taylor with the aim to “spotlight the power of a girl and her pen” through one-to-one mentorship, creative workshops and career guidance. The non-profit now boasts a 100% college acceptance rate in their alumni and continues to make creative writing accessible to young women and girls of all walks of life. Gorman herself said; “WriteGirl has been pivotal in my life. It’s been thanks to their support that I’ve been able to chase my dreams as a writer”. Gorman’s success as inaugural poet exemplifies the importance of educating and nurturing the talents of young girls, particularly in the creative arts.

The Hill We Climb represents not only a new page in the history of the US, but in the history of poetry, feminism, and anti-racism. Tonya Mosley, who interviewed Gorman for Here & Now perfectly expressed that “poetry is the lens we use to interrogate the history we stand on and the future we stand for”, challenging the past in order to look to a better future.

Plenty can be learned from The Hill We Climb, particularly as intersectional feminists choosing to challenge misogyny and racism in everyday life. As Gorman writes, “we must raise this wounded world into a wonderous one”, and this wound can only be healed by challenging the injustices that surround us. This year and the last has seen a rise in both domestic abuse and racially motivated violence, and as movements such as Black Lives Matter seek to repair the damage of a racist and patriarchal world, we must work to unlearn the prejudices ingrained into our society and ourselves.

#ChooseToChallenge does not begin nor end on International Women’s Day and should remain a mantra we continue throughout our lives. We must ask ourselves again the question Amanda Gorman posed: where can we find light in this never-ending shade? The answer is: in ourselves, in challenge, in action. Gorman closes The Hill We Climb with hope and a request:

“For there is always light,
if only we are brave enough to see it,
if only we are brave enough to be it.”

So, we must both see the light and be the light in order to challenge—and change—a wounded world.