By Grace Broad
This year’s annual Soroptimist International (or, ‘SIGBI’ – Soroptimist International Great Britain and Ireland) conference was held online for the very first time. What was hoped to be presented in Belfast – before Covid-19 was upon us – was now able to reach a huge online audience of over 900 delegates. The conference took place over two half days last weekend, on Friday 30th and Saturday 31st October 2020.
To commence the two days of conferencing, Soroptimist International Federation President, Isobel Smith, reflected on the last year and the pandemic. She acknowledged and gave thanks to those attending; having noted this year’s audience was potentially the most global-reaching, ever. This will have been the first Soroptimist International conference for a number of delegates – myself included. The conference then dived into the discussions of incredible keynote speakers; each followed by a Q&A session.
Friday’s first keynote speaker was Lady Hale – arguably, one of Britain’s most influential legal minds and famous brooch-lover. Lady Hale’s talk was entitled, Celebrating Women in the Law and she discussed exactly that. Reflecting on the last forty years for women in law, Lady Hale was incredibly positive about women entering the legal practice in 2020 and potentially following in her footsteps. Although female lawyers still form less than half of practice partners and judges; women are making great progress in breaking through the glass (legal) ceiling. Having been President of the UK Supreme Court (2017-2020), Lady Hale was the most Senior Judge in the UK before her retirement.
The second keynote speaker on Friday was Sue Black (OBE) – Professor of Computer Science and Technology at the University of Durham and founder of Tech Mums, the award-winning organisation that holds computing workshops for women. Sue Black’s discussion, If I Can Do it, So Can You, was extremely motivational, where delegates learnt not only of her working achievements but personal struggles, too. Having already achieved her PHD, launched the British Computing Sciences Women Network for women and worked as a Professor in Computing Sciences; Sue also led the renowned campaign that ultimately saved Bletchley Park (the home of code-breaking during WWII). After such a significant achievement, Sue found herself in search of another project that could benefit society. From this, came Tech Mums. Since Tech Mums began running its workshops, it has won several awards, including the BIMA Award for Diversity and Inclusion. Sue Black remains teaching, researching and incredibly humble.
Dr. Alison Gardner – leader of the Communities and Society Research Programme at the University of Nottingham – led the first keynote speech on Saturday. Her talk, Building Slavery-Free Communities, discussed the modern slavery and human trafficking that occurs each day in the UK and what we can do to tackle this problem. Dr. Garner provided clarity over what the definition of modern slavery is and debunked any myths that state it doesn’t affect British society. “Human trafficking is definitely a global problem,” she stated, “but most people believe it is not an issue that impacts them directly.” Dr. Gardner answered many questions usually left unanswered, including how we can work towards preventing this exploitation. Building community resilience is essential and this resilience is split into four key areas: Prevention, Discovery, Respite and Recovery and Sustainable resilience. Although there are no definitive signs of modern slavery, Dr. Garner emphasised how crucial it is to shop local and look after our environment. There is a key link between exploitation and the two.
The second – and final – keynote speaker was radio and documentary presenter, Jane Garvey. Her talk, titled Speaking Up, saw Jane delve into her early career and the world of media. Having begun presentational work in her local radio, Jane slowly worked her way to the top of BBC radio – which was arguably even more difficult than it is now. She currently works as the Presenter of BBC Four’s much-loved Women’s Hour, where “no subject is too trivial or too serious” to be discussed. Jane has been an influential figure for many women, as Women’s Hour provides a safe and empowering space to discuss all things affecting women. Although Women’s Hour was created “as a companion” for women, 57% of the show’s audience are female; meaning both men and women appreciate tuning in. Jane will be leaving Women’s Hour in December this year, but paves the way for new and equally driven talent. She remains passionate about gender equality and women’s rights.
The weekend of SIGBI conferencing ended with a traditional closing ceremony. Next year’s conference will mark a huge celebration for Soroptimist International, where they will mark their 100th year.