Today a big event is taking place in Leeds. For the first time, the city is hosting its own women’s conference, with the ambitious aim of changing lives. Jayne Dawson reports.
Sarah Peart’s life changed the day she was stopped by strangers on Park Square in Leeds. She was in her traffic warden’s uniform, so it wasn’t unusual for passers-by to approach her, but usually they wanted to berate her about parking issues.
But these people wanted to talk to the 38-year-old about ballet – specifically, would she like to appear in one?
“I thought it was a wind up at first, it was just so strange, but it turns out it wasn’t, “ said Sarah.
The people who had approached her were part of the production team of Channel 4 show Big Ballet, a series which won huge acclaim.
It took a group of adults, all the wrong age and size and shape to be involved in traditional ballet, and followed their progress as they trained to dance Swan Lake, tutored by Wayne Sleep. It was a touching and warm series as the women’s lives changed.
Sarah said: “ It came when I was at a low ebb, I had lost my dad and my children were grown up. I had done a year’s ballet as a child, but that was it but I decided to give it a try and it was amazing. It was the first time I had done something for myself in a long time.”
The experience inspired Sarah so much that now she wants to inspire other women, in whatever area they choose – so she is taking part in a major new event happening in Leeds today.
The first women’s conference organised for the city by the city is being held at the Civic Hall today, hosted by Coun Judith Blake, deputy leader of Leeds City Council, and Tom Riordan, its chief executive.
And make no mistake, there are big expectations.
More than 150 women – the movers, shakers and opinion formers of the city – have headed for the centre of Leeds to hear a series a speakers and to take part in workshops in an event called, to make its intentions clear, Inspiring Change.
The idea is to find ways of opening up opportunities for young women, particularly those living in less than ideal circumstances, through various means, from education to jobs to mentoring.
Those hoping to inspire other women to achieve include Emily Cummins, an award-winning inventor who has changed people’s lives in some of the world’s poorest countries with her very practical invention.
Emily came up with a design for a fridge which runs on dirty water, rather than electricity or gas, and has huge benefits for health.
Ballet dancer Sarah is taking part in a workshop about body image along with other stars of Big Ballet – and actually getting up and giving it a go is part of the agenda.
Leeds-based Olympic team GB women divers Alicia Blagg and Hannah Starling are also at the Civic Hall.
The big question being asked at the conference is: “What can we do to make Leeds the best city for women.”
Because it seems that’s the kind of city Leeds is these days – asking the big questions, going after the big prizes.
It is already trying to make Leeds the most child-friendly city in the UK, has already bagged the Grand Départ of the Tour de France and is thinking about going after the title of European Capital of Culture, a massive coup should it happen.
It’s ambitious, you could even call it gung-ho.
Coun Blake thinks this new feisty attitude is mainly a reaction to having our backs against the wall.
“We are going through a crisis in terms of the economy, so we have to start punching above our weight to get noticed. We have decided to shout about what we have and what we want to become.
“In the past we have had a tendency to not just hide our light under a bushel, but to hide the bushel as well.
“A lot of people discover Leeds by accident, then they realise what a gem it is.
“But this event is about making sure that all our facilities are available to all women in the city whatever their circumstances.”
All very laudable, but there will of course be people in Leeds and wider Yorkshire reading this article who believe a women’s conference is an unnecessary waste of time and money, because women already have parity with men.
Coun Blake shoots down such talk with a volley of statistics, pointing out that although women make up fifty one per cent of the population, only a third of Leeds councillors are women, and only 23 per cent of MPs are women.
The recession has also hit women disproportionately hard, she says. At work, many women are losing their public sector jobs, but for every 100 new jobs being created in the private sector only 37 of them are going to women.
“There is still a job to do. Girls are starting to do well at school, but women are still paid less than men. We are looking at disadvantage.
“There is an International Women’s Day but we decided that rather than have just a day we would like to do something that would help young women especially throughout the year.”
As for the cost of the event, the council has spent £800, covering the rest through sponsorship.
What will happen after the conference is still a work in progress, but organisers are not looking for a one-hit wonder.
“We don’t want it to be a one-off, we do not want to be facing the same problems for young women next year as we are facing this year. The idea is that this conference is bringing together all the sectors of the city to try and find solutions,” said Coun Blake.
Council chief executive Tom Riordan said: “We have some of the most inspirational stories to tell about the achievements of women and girls in Leeds and this conference is looking at how we celebrate those successes throughout the year.”
The conference has been timed to coincide with the return to Leeds of an exhibition of the portraits of 100 inspiring Yorkshire women.
They include well known MPs like Caroline Flint and Rosie Winterton, but also portraits of young Leeds women
The portraits came about as part of a Connecting Girls Programme, run by Leeds City Council and not-for-profit organisation Connecting Enterprising Women, with the aim of helping girls, initially in East Leeds but eventually across the whole city.
But today is all about women getting together to help other women.
Coun Blake said: “There is a risk attached to holding this conference, but ultimately there is a job to do.
“We cannot sit back and allow the life chances of young women to be passed over.
“Society is poorer if they don’t have opportunities. It’s not just about this day, we want to work every day of the year to improve women’s lives.”