One thing I learnt in this workshop…

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At the ‘Women, Work, and Value’ academic conference in Florence in October http://www.bris.ac.uk/arts/research/women-work/events/workshop2.html , I had been fascinated by the ideas and debates surrounding the position of women in the workplace and at home, and how their output was valued by society and economists. Now it was time to take some of these ideas to a group that would have a slightly different perspective on what was being discussed than a group of academics. On April 21 I had the pleasure of running a workshop for a group of young women from the Meriton School, Bristol, http://www.the-meriton.co.uk/  in my role as the network’s Public Engagement intern. The Meriton is a school for teenage mothers and expecting mothers, with crèche facilities enabling teenagers to continue their education, and take public exams, while their children are being cared for.

Josie McLellan and I met the group in the Refectory for lunch, and could already tell they were an exceptional group of girls- outgoing, chatty, and amazingly at ease in completely unfamiliar and potentially intimidating surroundings. I then ran a workshop designed for the girls to reflect on the discussions that had been had at the conference. Wary of a possibly shy and intimidated group, I had prepared plenty of activities and stimuli to prompt discussion.

Yet starting with just one simple activity – to name one ‘man’s job’, and one ‘women’s job’ – the group immediately launched into spirited debate, already asking each other the kinds of questions I had planned to raise with them. Why were certain jobs were perceived in such a gendered way? Can’t women do anything? This pattern continued through the whole workshop, with the lively debate, contributed to by every single girl, picking up outstandingly on the issues surrounding women and work. My favourite moment was when a fourteen year old suddenly made an astonishingly perceptive point about how women in advertising are just sexualised bodies – something I definitely did not pick up on when I was fourteen!

The debate continued when we moved on to ask how much stay-at-home mothers should be paid per hour, compared to what bankers, lawyers, teachers, and nurses earn. The point was made that a mother’s role incorporated all of these elements – something that had not occurred to me when preparing the activity! The room was divided between those supporting high pay for mothers, and those who thought mothers should not be paid at all, because it’s something you should do for love, not money. This led to another lively discussion about whether child benefit was payment for mothering, as well was why certain jobs were seen as better suited to men or women; we all challenged our own perceptions about female plumbers, and male childminders.

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We honestly could have carried on the discussion for hours, and there was just time for a quick evaluation before the girls had to leave – as well as Josie introducing Bristol’s Foundation Year in Arts and Humanities http://www.bristol.ac.uk/arts/courses/foundation/. One of the many fantastic moments of the afternoon was one of The Meriton’s students showing a real interest in the course (which is a year-long preparatory course for an undergraduate degree) and leaving with leaflets and Josie’s email address.

Thank you so much to Josie, Amy in the Widening Participation office, and Eleanor at the Meriton for organising the afternoon, but most of all to The Meriton’s participants, who made quite a nerve-racking experience for me (the first session of that kind I’ve completely designed and run alone) an amazing, enriching experience that I feel everyone got a lot out of. The level of discussion, as I told them at the end, would not have been out of place in one of my undergraduate seminars, and their life experience meant I saw the ideas and research that had been bandied around at the conference from a different, and helpful, perspective.

My whole internship, from the conference to this session, has given me the chance to connect with such a fantastic cross-section of really inspiring and impressive women in settings that put me far out of my comfort zone, and I hope all the network’s participants have found it as stimulating as I have. It’s also given me a fair few ideas for my dissertation… in fact, I might have to make another trip back to Florence for, um, research?

Sarah Brodie, Women, Work and Value Public Engagement Intern.

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