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#EmbraceEquity - International Women's Day 2023


8 March marks International Women’s Day, a day of celebration, reflection, and action to recognise and honour the achievements of women worldwide, and to address the ongoing struggles for equity. This year’s theme is #EmbraceEquity, and for those of us in the youth sector, this day is particularly important as we work to empower young women and promote their leadership and participation in society. In the UK, some progress towards this has been made; there are more women represented politically, and the gender pay gap has decreased[1]. However, we still have a way to go. The impact of inequalities are greater when they intersect with race and gender; for example, a report published last year by The Fawcett Society and Runnymede Trust found that black girls are twice as likely to be excluded at school compared to white girls[2].

As organisations working with young people, it is our responsibility to understand and disrupt the unique barriers created by inequity, creating safe and inclusive spaces for all young women and girls, and providing the support and resources they need to thrive. Acknowledging our own personal cultural myopia can be a good place to start – no one individual can possess and internalise the nuances of every lived experience. But how can we, as researchers, practitioners, and policymakers, ensure our provision or services authentically reflect and address the realities facing young women and girls?

Co-production is an excellent method to ensure that your ways of working are collaborative, share power, and break down barriers between services/systems, professionals, and the people who use them, in order to create a level playing field. Co-production values the knowledge, skills, and contributions of all participants regardless of their background. I am fairly new to the youth sector; in my last role I worked alongside adults in South-East London experiencing multiple disadvantage, where women reported barriers in accessing drug and alcohol treatments. It was a male dominated environment where they did not feel safe, and opening hours and assessment structures often did not account for their specific experiences with gender-based violence. As evaluators, we brought together a group of women with lived experience of access to drug and alcohol services to co-produce a
series of recommendations for the local borough, which were focussed around safety flexibility, informed approaches and providing a range of services. These women were often labelled by the system as ‘hard to reach’, but they knew exactly what prevented them from accessing services. This meant that recommendations were responsive to the lived experiences of the women it sought to support, and identified solutions that services had not previously considered. It is essential for all organisations to consider and provide for gender-specific needs in their provision; otherwise, women and girls may encounter difficulty in accessing these services and get left behind.

The Young Women’s Trust is an inspiring organisation that supports and empowers young women who are struggling to live on low or no pay. One of the approaches they champion is peer research: training young women who have experienced the challenge of low pay and unemployment to carry out research into these issues. This model ensures that the voices and perspectives of young women are at the forefront of their work. I am a strong believer in the importance of peer research as a powerful tool for empowering young women to become advocates for change, and to generate evidence-based insights into the experiences and needs of young women. Ensuring that decisions are informed by those with lived experience, which can then influence policy and practice, leads to more meaningful and effective solutions to complex issues.

At the College, I am excited to be leading on a project that is looking at how the youth sector can advance equity through the ways in which we capture and use demographic data. A key first step is speaking to young people about their experiences, working alongside community organisations to engage with diverse sets of young people, and adopting a targeted approach to ensure that we’re reaching young people who may not have been heard or had the opportunity to participate in research before. Our aim with the project is to provide resources for organisations working with young people to improve data collection and build equitable evaluation readiness – see this blog post by NPC to read more about equitable evaluation. Through deeper understanding of the communities you support and the young people that walk through your doors, you are able to embed more equitable approaches into your support offer, improving your ability to identify young people experiencing intersectional barriers and increased capacity for equitable monitoring, evaluation and learning.

To #EmbraceEquity, we must be purposeful in our efforts, especially with those young women at the intersection of experiences that can exclude and marginalise them from society. I encourage and challenge us all as practitioners and researchers to strive to create inclusive and accessible opportunities for engagement - adopting collaborative approaches, widening participation, and creating stronger and accessible channels of communication. In particular, we must think deeply about how our provision may be upholding or creating additional barriers or challenges for young women and girls, and begin to view the label ‘hard to reach’ as an opportunity for curiosity and improvement, rather than a barrier and potential end to the conversation.