07 March 2022

This year's theme for International Women's Day (IWD) is #BreakTheBias, shining a spotlight on the challenges that women continue to face in the journey towards equity. Whether deliberate or unconscious, bias makes it difficult for women to move ahead. Knowing that bias exists is not enough. We are encouraged to actively challenge stereotypes, fight bias, broaden perceptions, value difference and to celebrate the achievements of women.

At the University of East London (UEL), we are committed to creating a working, learning, cultural and social environment based on dignity and respect where difference is the very quality that sets us apart, makes us unique among academic institutions.

University vice-chancellor and president, Professor Amanda Broderick, said, "I am proud to lead one of the most socially inclusive and diverse universities in the world. The University of East London is an institution which values and welcomes the contribution of women across our University community and is determined to continue to support and encourage the personal development and growth of all.

We are committed to strengthening the diversity of the talent pipeline and to building an environment of success, where students and colleagues are supported to achieve, and our larger community can flourish and thrive.

"Diversity, equity and inclusion are core values at the University of East London and are embedded throughout our 10-year strategy, Vision 2028. I see this year's International Women's Day slogan #breakthebias, as a call to action for staff and students to strengthen their commitment to systemic and cultural change at the University and in wider society and to embody UEL's core values."

UEL is proud to boast a network of female academics, students, staff and graduates who, following in the footsteps of those who have gone before, make positive contributions to not just their own community but to the world around them.

In recognition of IWD, we asked a few of these incredible women to share with us their experiences of bias, thoughts on equality and how they have challenged stereotypes to thrive in their studies and careers, while helping shape a more inclusive society.

Pippa Woolven

Pippa Woolven, student

MSc Positive Psychology and Coaching Psychology

Pippa is a GB cross country runner and steeplechaser who at just 21-years-old reached the 2014 Commonwealth Games. She still competes and her career highlight is winning a silver medal with the British team at the Euro Cross Country Championships in December 2018.  She is the founder of Project RED-S.

"It's no secret that women in sport are treated differently. From participation opportunities at grassroots level to prize money in professional competition, discrepancies have existed for centuries and perhaps of greatest concern are those surrounding research. Until as recently as 2015, medical and scientific communities were not required to acknowledge sex differences in sports-related research, creating huge gaps in knowledge about female physiology and performance.  

"As a result, scientists, coaches and athletes have been working under the assumption that, reproductive systems aside, women are just small men. As highlighted by global female physiology expert Dr Stacy Sims this can have serious health consequences for women, who actually respond to exercise training and nutrition very differently. So, until recently, female athletes like me have been left in the dark about their body's response to exercise in each phase of their menstrual cycle. 

"Thankfully, we are starting to see a shift in gender biased research and pioneering sports researchers are studying the menstrual cycle in great detail. Some, such as the FitrWoman team, have even developed period-tracking mobile apps which deliver information to the masses and provide crucial opportunities for female athletes to take ownership over tailoring their training and nutrition to their unique physiology. I for one, am grateful for this information which helps me work with (rather than fight against) my body to achieve more than I ever thought possible. Although much more needs to be done to close the gender gap in research, I am eager to witness what the current momentum will bring in terms of helping women maximise their potential in all facets of sport."

Dr Jummy Okoya

Dr Jummy Okoya 

Senior lecturer, organisation behaviour & HRM chair, UEL Women's Network & Athena Swan Lead

"As a black woman I have had my fair share of bias at work as well as in my personal life. The one that stands out most shockingly to me happened fairly recently. I was leading a module and in my bid to enhance the student's experience, I decided to include employer engagement by linking the module assessment to an external organisation's platform. 

"As part of the process I contacted the organisation's representative asking them to come on campus to deliver a session for us. I copied a part-time member of staff who was supporting me on the module into the email, who happened to be a white male. To my surprise when this external person was responding, he responded directly to my male colleague confirming arrangements with him.  When I asked him why he responded to my colleague instead of me, he said he did not know I was the module leader even though I was the one that initiated the email. Why did he assume that I wasn't the module leader? His assumption confirmed his bias that the man was more likely than the woman to be the module leader.  

"IWD is marked around the same time every year, however I believe women should be celebrated all year round for our contributions and the significant roles we play in the workplace and the society at large. I celebrate all women who consistently show up gracefully in the workplace despite juggling multiple commitments as a wife, mother, sister, care giver.  

"IWD represents an opportunity to celebrate women's achievements, raise awareness of women's equality. The IWD theme for 2022 is BreakTheBias, this is a call to action to break the bias of stereotypes, discrimination, inequities which makes it difficult for women to progress and flourish in workplaces. 

"On behalf of UEL Women's Network I join millions of other women around the world as we strike a pose to #BreakTheBias and show up in our full glory. "

Tamana Safi, student

Tamana Safi, student

MSc in NGO and Development Management

Tamana has a Sanctuary Scholarship to study at UEL after fleeing Afghanistan three years ago. 

The 30-year-old volunteers with UK national charity STAR (Student Action for Refugees) to campaign for equal access to higher education for asylum seekers and refugees without restrictions. She also volunteers with London-based charity Connected Routes that are on a mission to empower women from refugee and asylum-seeking backgrounds to get into higher education or enter the UK job market. 

"As an Afghan, a world without bias would be bringing Afghan women and young girls back to their normal life. Afghan women and young girls are abandoned and have lost access to education, employment, freedom of speech and choice.  

"Please do not forget Afghan women who fought for more than two decades for their right and to bring their voices to social platforms. Afghanistan has a traditional culture when it comes to women. Together, we can tell all the men who govern Afghanistan today that life without women won't be possible. The involvement of women in any negotiations makes a better and more lasting peaceful country." 

Dr Natalie Garrett Brown

Dr Natalie Garrett Brown

Interim dean, School of Arts and Creative Industries

"As a young women, the world of contemporary dance opened up ways for me to see, name and challenge gender bias. I was introduced to a cast of inspirational pioneering women in dance who challenged stereotypes within society through their art forms. As a leader in higher education, I have had opportunity and success, in part due to the women who have worked alongside me and supported me in my career aspirations. But I have experienced and witnessed women in the dance studio and boardroom over-looked for opportunities, spoken over and ignored. And as I look around me today in the sectors I inhabit, bias remains. The intersectional dimensions of bias experienced by women of colour, women living with a disability and LBGTQ+ women remain an urgent challenge for us all. There is still much work to do to ensure all types of people identifying as women are fully represented in the leadership and decision-making spaces of our communities. 

"International Women's Day for me is a reminder for us all to call out bias when we encounter it so that we can truly realise a world where difference is valued and celebrated. A day to re-commit to the daily actions that will enable a world that is diverse, equitable and inclusive."

Yasmin Ibrahim, alumna

Yasmin Ibrahim, alumna

BA (Hons) Fashion, 2021
Founder of clothing brand Jirkeeyga

Yasmin fled Somalia when she was 10 years old and settled here in the UK. She studied fashion at UEL, graduating in 2021. She is the founder of Jirkeeyga, a unique sports and streetwear label, which is influenced by her own personal experience of Female Genital Mutilation. Her garments are specifically designed to empower women with each piece working at redefining contemporary sportswear through a combination of activism, cultural contexts and narratives.

"It's important that we have a day to celebrate women as strong beings that are able to actually achieve their dreams. It's also important that we remind ourselves of how far we've come, and remember the people that have paved the way for us. As a Black Muslim, I am choosing to challenge the next generation. Are you willing to join a movement and dismantle a stereotype? A stereotype that restricts women, expects them to fit into a sexist standard. International Women's Day globally helps us feel united and I would encourage a lot more people to participate. In the fashion industry, equality is the future of the industry. There's no better time than IWD to spotlight the increase of females in leading roles within the fashion industry. Equality is a beautiful thing and we are continuing to build on it.

"The only thing that I'd like to see is more of our women, regardless of religion or race, celebrating our achievements together more than we have before. To support each other through our struggles towards equality."

Professor Sally Cutler

Professor Sally Cutler

Professor of medical microbiology in the School of Health, Sport and Bioscience

Professor Cutler is one of only a handful of female professors who has been at the forefront of the Covid-19 response but is all too familiar fighting gender bias in the scientific world. She led the asymptomatic testing clinic at the University of East London. She has carried out vital research through the pandemic, and appeared as an expert in numerous media outlets, including BBC News, Sky News and The Guardian.  

"I've been fighting gender bias since childhood. When I was at secondary school I was advised by careers officers to become a secretary. It was absolutely ridiculous. I wanted to go to university and so I blatantly ignored them. As an academic, I've experienced gender inequality, too. I was once interviewed by my future PhD supervisor at Charing Cross Hospital and was asked, 'Are you intending to have a family in the next few years?'

"When I did have children juggling the job and its demands with a young family was tough. It was all about how many publications you got, how many grants you won - people were looking at metrics like that. Taking four months out for maternity leave showed me the world is not equal.

"There is more equality in the world of science in 2022, but I still encounter bias in my role. There's an expectation that a professor is going to be a certain gender, with grey hair and a bit chaotic. I'm perhaps not what people expect. The fact that I have had to struggle, the fact that I have not always had it easy means that I can actually share and equate. I'm stubborn and if I want to succeed or go somewhere and somebody says 'no', I just stick my fingers in my ears and ignore them and carry on anyway.  

 "If you've got a goal you want to go for, your gender should not get in the way of it for any reason whatsoever."

Soumeya Anane IWD 2022

Soumeya Anane

MSc in Sport and Exercise Science 

"In tennis, thankfully I haven't experienced much gender bias and that is largely thanks to Billie Jean King who fought for women's rights and equal pay in tennis. I was fortunate enough to meet one of the founding members of the Women's Tennis Association (WTA) which was really inspiring and interesting to see how much work Billie Jean King put in to fight for equal pay and equality.

"In 1973, there was a tennis match coined 'the battle of the sexes' which was between Billie Jean King and Bobbie Riggs who was a former male professional tennis player and King won. I found it interesting to see what happened behind the scenes and how WTA grew from then until today.

"I played a lot of football growing up and for fun whenever I was at a fair or firework display, I always used to participate in the games which involved hitting targets in penalty shootouts against guys either my brother-in-laws or friends. Often, I got scoffed at by whichever person was leading the game, only to relish the look of bafflement when I consistently hit the targets and won whichever prize was on offer. Perhaps football has got further to go in order to bridge the bias between men and women's football.

"Traditionally tennis has been played by women as well as men for a long time so there has been more time to combat gender bias. Billie Jean King was very high profile in the 60's because she won Wimbledon and made it her life's work to fight for women's rights. Women's football however is a much younger sport so perhaps needs the equivalent of Billie Jean King to improve the gender gap."

Related topics