One hand to the left and the other to the right. Depicting ‘balance’. That’s the pose that will be struck right around the world today, filling social media timelines in a global push for gender equality.

Today, of course, marks International Women’s Day. And just like the ‘balance pose’, there I stand in the middle – on the one hand, wholeheartedly supportive of the sentiment of the day, and on the other feeling frustrated that, in 2019, we are still talking about how we can achieve gender balance.

As a female leader, and someone who is fortunate enough to be able to use my voice to influence others, as well as to affect real change within my own organisation, I feel a huge sense of responsibility to use IWD2019 – and the spotlight the occasion puts on the issue of gender equality – to send a clear message to business, education and society at large about the vital need for parity between the sexes.

I remain optimistic that the day will come when we don’t need an occasion like this to remind us that men and women are, in fact, equal.

In colleges the length and breadth of the country, females are breaking down barriers – becoming role models to the generation that follows them, and creating a pathway into careers that might have seemed inaccessible to those before them.

I’m extremely proud of the women that we are nurturing at Sunderland College of all ages, and the message to them will always be that gender must not be a barrier.  We have a duty to them to create an environment in which they are empowered. In which they feel able to realise their potential.

However, we also have a responsibility to equip them with the skills they will need in work and in life, and the reality is that, for young women, that often means equipping them with additional tools to progress when -particularly as they advance to more senior roles – gender-related challenges do remain a reality.

Too many women still have to break through gender stereotypes. However, together we must build upon the progress we have made.

For example, Further Education has made great strides when it comes to gender equality, particularly within leadership positions.  At Sunderland College and Hartlepool Sixth Form we are continuing to invest in leadership development in particular and it is a pleasure to work with several aspiring female leaders to ensure they are supported to develop and grow.

However, look elsewhere, and it’s a starkly different picture. University Vice Chancellors in the North East are all male as are council leaders. And there is a real challenge when it comes to female representation in many other institutions that really shape the region’s priorities.

I am proud to be a member of the North East Local Enterprise Partnership board and it is refreshing to see the LEP’s commitment to supporting successful businesswomen from across the region to step forward to ensure this important body reflects the communities we serve.

It’s heartening, also, that positive steps are being taken nationally in an attempt to address the issue of gender balance, including Government setting out an aim for women to make up at least one third of LEP boards by 2020, and an expectation of equal representation by 2023.

I welcome steps like these, which actively promote a level playing field for females in the future.

The fact is, though, that the issue of gender equality is not a challenge for women to conquer on their own. Nor is it the sole domain of business, or politicians, or the education sector.

It is everyone’s responsibility to break down social barriers, constructs and institutions within society that perpetuate this very issue.

While, today, I will be celebrating International Women’s Day and using it to reflect on the progress that’s been made towards equality, only when the talent, ingenuity and skill of women everywhere is recognised and celebrated every day, will we have true balance between the sexes.

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