'I kept breaking glass ceilings': The Edinburgh woman working for international women's rights

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When Pat Black was at teacher training college in the 1970s, she had a conversation with a group of male colleagues that shaped her future career.

"I remember vividly a discussion I had with a group of young male colleagues when the 1976 Equal Pay Act was going through Parliament,” she says.

“They absolutely argued against that happening, because they said men were the main breadwinners, that I would only be in teaching for a couple of years before I had a family and that was my role in life. I didn't have the right to have equal pay. That was the sort of thing that's been there right the way through my life.”

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Since that day, Ms Black has dedicated her life to women’s rights.

Pat Black has been appointed to the W7.Pat Black has been appointed to the W7.
Pat Black has been appointed to the W7.

In January, Ms Black, who lives in Edinburgh and is the past president of women's rights group Soroptimist International Great Britain and Ireland, was appointed into a year-long position on the W7. The high-profile international group brings together women's rights advocacy groups from the G7 countries. Their role is to push forward women’s rights issues, as well as holding to account decisions made by the G7 which affect women.

The incident at teacher training college was not the first discrimination Ms Black had come across. Ironically, it was sexism that had sent her to teacher training college in the first place.

At school, despite being a high-achiever, she was told she should not attend university and instead apply for college, which she says was seen as a “lesser route”.

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Once she started work, Ms Black found herself being told women should be in “support roles”, while in one job working for a local council, where she had a key role in the building of new schools, men in meetings often assumed her male assistant was the one in charge.

“It's all very textbook stuff,” she says. “Ever since I was told as a teenager that I couldn't do something, I decided women could do things. Then I kept breaking glass ceilings and moving onward. I passionately believe every single person on this earth is a human being with the same rights as every other person. That is my fundamental belief.”

Ms Black is to attend the W7’s international summit in Berlin on May 24, where the organisation will hand over a report from the W7 Dialogue – the result of months of discussions and meetings between members – to the German Chancellor and G7 president Olaf Scholz, ahead of the leaders’ summit next month.

"[It is about] ‘how do we monitor it, how do we hold the G7 leaders to account for all the statements they've made over the past?’” she says. “Last year, the UK, leading the G7, came up with a final statement in which they were promising all sorts of things that would be taken forward, not just for women, but generally.”

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Women's health and maternal care, especially those aspects which have been impacted by the pandemic, are top of the agenda, as well as access to education for women around the world. Education for girls and women – particularly in nations where women’s education is restricted, but also in western countries, where education has been hit by Covid lockdowns – are also a major priority.

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Ms Black references Afghanistan, where the Taliban has shuttered girls’ high schools.

"It is very sad,” she says. “Over the past 20 years, education, particularly for girls, but right across the board in Afghanistan, had run right up to the top of the global index, because they had put in so much effort. They want education and they're so keen to have education. It is tragic we are going backwards in a country like that.”

Ms Black knows, however, education for women is not equal outside of developing countries. She is involved with UN House in Edinburgh where she works alongside university students on internships to promote the values of the United Nations.

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“The aspiration levels across many of the young women in Scotland are in themselves very high,” she says. “What is critical, is we still have families [in Scotland] where education is curtailed because of a whole range of community issues like poverty, hunger and health.

"So it isn't completely a rosy picture. We still have to work hard to counter the challenges for young women who want to take any of the STEM subjects – science, technology, engineering, maths. That's still a huge issue across the UK.”

Ms Black has two main aims during her year on the W7. One of her major concerns is that gender equality issues, which had become a major talking point pre-pandemic, could be lost in the background of issues such as post-pandemic regeneration, the war in Ukraine and climate change.

“For me, one of the most important things is keeping the gender equality issue on the table,” she says. “It would be so easy for that to slide away, particularly in the current environment with political issues that hang on to the time and resources that politicians have. And so what we don't want to see is gender equality, or any other form of equality for that matter, sliding down the scale. We've got to keep that up there and in the forefront of people's awareness, particularly governments.

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"On a personal level, I'd like to see education being promoted in terms of a means of economic recovery. It's very clear from the attitude of so many different countries that they still don't recognise the value of women in their societies. They don't see that women can actually be a part of the economic regeneration of their nations, they're still looking at unpaid care work."

Ms Black points to images of peace negotiations between Ukraine and Russia at the beginning of the conflict.

"I've been interested to see the pictures of the peace talks, where there isn't a woman in sight,” she says. “Even though there are a lot of Ukrainian female politicians, you don't see the women at any of the peace talks.”

She is optimistic, but realistic, about the future of women’s rights.

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"We'll get there eventually, but I doubt it will be in my lifetime," she says. "Certainly, we are going backwards in lots of different ways.

“The students often ask me ‘where do we start? What can I do? How can I make a difference? Will I make a difference?’ And I have to say to that, you start from where you're at. Look at your local circle, look at your local community. Because there are changes that can be made there that you might then be able to share with others. And it's the little drops of water make a mighty ocean syndrome, isn't it?”

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