Sonya Barlow, Founder, LMF Network

Sonya Barlow is an award-winning entrepreneur, founder of the LMF Network, diversity and inclusion coach, TEDx speaker, LinkedIn changemaker 2021, radio host of the BBC Asian Network’s the everyday hustle, and author of Unprepared to Entrepreneur.

 

I remember watching Bollywood movies as a child and noticing the critical dialogues placed on educated girls, the push given by their families to finish their studies and the celebrations at the end. Thinking back to movies such as KKHH, there’s an iconic scene when Rani Mukerjee enters college looking cool. That was a reflection of “education is cool”. In KKKG, Kareena Kapoor drove to her university, which looked like an ancient empire, with her friends, which seemed to spark the dream of attending a big, bold university and being a part of a larger community.

As a young girl, I must admit that these education instances, regardless of the more expansive storyline (which many didn’t understand, aged 9), motivated me to study, look fantastic and attend university. The concept of education and girls being educated has been embedded into our culture, movies and society. And yet, the UN states that females have a 42% lower chance of receiving elementary education than males in India’s poorest districts. This disparity widens when other factors such as religion and caste are considered. Experts also estimate that the COVID-19 pandemic has put 10 million girls at risk of dropping out of school.

So, why don’t we encourage education and forward-thinking and yet don’t make the path to such resources easy for girls and women? Why do we restrict them with ability, finances, regulations and out of the ordinary customs, as if men being educated will ever do the world any better than another woman?

I was fortunate enough to attend school, college and university in the United Kingdom. I appreciate that my parents migrated from South Asia to give us a “better life”. You don’t always realise the betterment of that life at a young age, and so you need adults or elders to encourage and empower you to do so. Mainly because the world is challenging without the right or relevant qualifications. Education made me confident. Maths made me silently satisfied because I could problem solve and gain marks for logic – a great technique I have since taken into my entrepreneurial life. English gave me the skills to dissect information in interesting or relevant ways, a talent we often take for granted, and sciences allowed us to think of the world outside of our bubble – essential for this article. And yet, I witnessed multiple girls and women being taken away from their education to trade such tools for marriage; and others being the eldest children so having priorities on their families rather than themselves. The point is, how can we be okay with our girls handling such significant worldly responsibilities and yet not give them the box of tools required to do so? As a society, we aren’t even setting them up for success.

As I entered my line of corporate work, I saw the confidence that education had given me and the passions it evoked. It turns out; my strengths are to listen, learn and share – that’s what makes me a leader, a public speaker and an author; on the other hand, I saw the discrimination one can face in the workplace and how this can break you – it’s for that reason, I founded LMF Network and am launching the education technology arm of our esteemed organisation.

Why? Because to build equitable futures, we must provide our girls and women with the tools, resources and community required to build confidence, capabilities and careers.

Otherwise, it’s similar to giving an army a mission without the right tools for the field. We are setting them up for failure in the most tragic way.

Our 2021 research found that 50% of women need a mentor to progress their careers versus 5% of men, a stat we take dearly, and so we launched the most extensive mentoring program in the UK in 2021 across 24 countries, which we are integrated through technology for our next cohort. In addition to that, we know from our 2021 research that women feel they can’t access such spaces due to a lack of confidence and career knowledge, both areas we will be working to demystify through masterclasses, live events and meaningful conversations with members globally.

Equal and equitable access to education is key to establishing a progressive society. It creates opportunity and is often the most critical factor in upward social mobility. Research suggests that when 10% more girls go to school, a country’s GDP increases by 3%. And every year of schooling increases a girl’s personal earning power by 10 to 20%, while the return on secondary education is even higher, in the 15 to 25%. However, gender disparities in learning continue to persist.

The benefits of education are endless;

  • New information
  • Understanding the society
  • Change of perspective
  • Inclusion and accessibility
  • Ability to use such tools and resources for a better future
  • Gender equality
  • Increase in confidence
  • Access to finances

In 2022, the need of the hour is to enable faster, seamless implementation of these reforms. Investments are required to boost further the adoption of technology and the creation of a more vital digital learning ecosystem. “One of the major paradigm shifts in 2022 is the role that online universities will play about massifying higher education in India.”

As a south Asian woman, it’s my dream and pledges to give back to the community that birthed me – and given my understanding of education, privilege and people from the westernised society, I know that if brown girls are given the right tools, resources and guidance, they can be the smartest, most hard-working and passionate of them all. This is about representation and reforming the current climate, in which the data tells us that girls are more brilliant and more capable, but we limit their chances.

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