Over the last eight years, supporting and empowering women has been at the forefront of Inspiring Change Manchester. We are now in the final year of ICM and so this will be the last International Women’s Day we will be celebrating. We wanted to thank all the strong, creative and inspirational women who have made ICM and Women’s Voices what it is today.
I only joined the ICM team last year and was immediately welcomed into this empowering way of working and introduced to the Women’s Voices Groups and our two Women’s Workers. After discussions with these women I learnt that one of the reasons the Women’s Voices group is so successful in supporting and empowering women is because it is a dedicated women’s only space in a mixed gender service. This can be hard to find as support services are often male dominated.
I wanted to build on these discussions and explore more about how women only spaces, like Women’s Voices, are viewed by the group. We set up a workshop with members of the two women’s voices groups to join us for a conversation about the importance of women only spaces. Previous informal discussions had considered what these spaces should look like, feel like and how they should be staffed. In order to explore these conversations further we based the research on three questions relating to these topics.
The key themes that came up from this discussion is that having these spaces allow the women accessing them to feel safe, understood and that they would not be judged. I found it really interesting that everyone immediately began calling women only spaces ‘safe spaces’ and I think this shows how the women involved in these discussions inherently felt safer in a space that did not include men. The ONS found that 1 in 4 females have experienced some form of gender based violence, which indicates why many of the women involved in Women’s Voices may feel safer and therefore more able to engage with support in single-gender spaces.
Similarly, the women also expressed that they often didn’t feel they could speak freely around men. Especially about negative experiences they may have had with men in the past, because they would be worried about offending men or being judged. Whereas, if they were speaking in a women only space they felt there was a stronger sense of understanding. Both around topics or issues that are typically seen as gender specific and also in the ability to understand and make an emotional connection with each other.
The most important thing to remember when creating these spaces, is involving the women who will be using them in the decision-making process. Everything we found is based on the women we spoke to, so it is not representative of all women. By consulting with the women you are looking to support you can most effectively meet their individual needs. While Women’s Voices is open to anyone who identifies as a woman, it has been almost exclusively attended by women who identify as the gender they were assigned at birth. So, it’s worth noting this conversation doesn’t reflect the opinions or experiences of transwomen.
Overall, we found that having a women only space is something that is really valued by the people who access them, but we recognise that creating this space isn’t always easy to do. Alternatives could instead include women’s only activities/sessions or ensuring there are a representative number of female staff available so there is an option for a female worker. Also making sure that even if female staff aren’t available, everyone has had good training on gender informed approaches and the unique support need of women so that they feel they are being understood. It is essential to always think about unique barriers to accessing these spaces that women may face, such as safety considerations or childcare commitments.
If you want to read our full report on The Importance of Women Only Spaces you can do so here. We have also coproduced a Working Well With Women Guide which helps groups and services better support women, based on our learning from Women’s Voices.