The problem with International Women's Day

How do I really feel about International Women’s Day? Underwhelmed.

Here is my confession. I do not like International Women’s Day. I find it overwhelmingly underwhelming.

I am overwhelmed by the prevalence of women’s “issues” in the first week of March. Everywhere I look there are breakfasts, politicians, newspaper features, lunches, business leaders, television programs and events all dedicated to celebrating the day of women. Shining the light on the myriad factors that contribute to the entrenched gender gap, here and overseas.

Which would be terrifically inspiring, if these initiatives amounted to anything substantive to shift the dial for women.

The interest and resources, it seems, available to be expended on events held in early March to examine the barriers that limit women and the solutions we need to embrace, are limitless. Beyond early March, where does that money, that urgency, that goodwill, that human firepower go?

On the one hand, I don’t for one moment, bemoan any attention being paid to the systemic discrimination of women. It’s been overlooked for so long, the fact it has prominence isn’t nothing.

But when that ‘prominence’ consists of popping on a suit, ducking to a breakfast or lunch, and dishing out platitudes? It feels cheap. And desperately inadequate.

Which brings me to my overwhelming sense of underwhelm.

Over the past week, in anticipation of interest ahead of International Women’s Day, several reports have been released relating to the equality of women. The individual findings are alarming: collectively they are diabolical.

In the best cases women are underpaid, under promoted and held to impossible standards. In the worst, they are subject to sexual harassment and blatant discrimination.

Women managers are earning $93,000 less than their male peers.

“We found that women are twice as likely as men to receive feedback indicating they need to show ‘more confidence’ to be ready for promotion,” say the authors of the Advancing Women in Australia: Eliminating Bias in Feedback and Promotions report from Chief Executive Women and Bain. “Women in this situation also face a double bind in which they are often criticised for coming across as too assertive, as this goes against ingrained feminine stereotypical behaviours. Executive female respondents had been told to ‘toughen up’, ‘be more likeable at the expense of efficiency’ and ‘temper [their] enthusiasm’.”

The number of women in key leadership positions in the ASX200 has fallen.

“To be a captain of Australian business you are 40 per cent more likely to be named Peter or John than to be female,” Conrad Liveris says. “Straight, white, able-bodied men aged 40-69 years, which represents the majority of Australian leadership, are 8.4 per cent of the population.”

We are on the brink of changes being made to paid parental leave that amount to a reduction in entitlements.

Australia has slipped backwards in the World Economic Forum’s gender gap report for 5 consecutive years.

The pay gap isn’t budging.

The representation of women in politics isn’t budging.

The prevalence of sexual assault isn’t budging.

Domestic violence continues to devastate Australian families and support services are being cut.

Childcare reform is overdue and the proposed changes place the most vulnerable children in peril.

“I think that probably one of the most surprising and concerning findings was just how prevalent the opposition to advancing gender equality is,” the federal sex discrimination commissioner Kate Jenkins told The Guardian when discussing the findings from a 6-month long investigation. “Some people are adamantly opposed to proactive initiatives to improve gender equality.”

It might seem unbelievable given the focus that gender equality now attracts but how else to explain the World Economic Forum’s prediction that it will be 2186 before we achieve global gender parity in Australia?

Do we need to wait 169 years because we lack the capacity to fully engage half the population? Are we expected to believe that?  Equality does not remain out of reach because we don’t have the solutions to close the gap. It remains entrenched because we don’t have the intent to change it.

There is a vast chasm between the rhetoric and reality on gender equality and it is never as starkly apparent as it is on International Women’s Day. In recent years the fanfare around IWD has ballooned: am I alone in wishing it corresponded with a measurable improvement in women’s equality?

If your interest in the liberation of women arises on a single day each year, that is, I suppose, better than it never arising. But if it’s a “once-a-year” special, I’m afraid you are part of the problem.

For everyone who sees equality as a long overdue necessity Anne Summers has issued a very specific call to action.

“We need to fight. We have to have a watertight plan, with specific goals, and a timeline. And we need to do it together. A fragmented movement will not win,” Summers says.

By 2022 Summers says we need to achieve four significant reforms. “Legislated equal pay for all women in all jobs, decriminalisation of abortion in New South Wales and Queensland, specialist domestic violence courts in every state of Australia and gender quotas dictating women make up 50 per cent of all parliamentarians, all cabinets and other ministries and directors of all public company and government boards.”

Imagine if everyone who participates in an International Women’s Day event today committed to making that happen? That would be overwhelming.

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