Why I (still) hate International Women's Day: A confession

Confession: I (still) hate International Women’s Day

International Women's Day
Back in 2017 I confessed to not particularly liking International Women’s Day. I said I found it overwhelmingly underwhelming.

Last year I went further and reported that my distaste was hovering somewhere between seething resentment and simmering rage.

This year? I’m still there which is why we’re republishing this, an edited version of the story I wrote last year.

Why hate International Women’s Day?

To be clear it’s not the platform itself I dislike: it’s a critical and important reminder that women remain desperately unequal to men all around the world.

My dislike is borne from the misappropriation of the day that makes IWD feel like the equivalent of Valentine’s Day … blatantly artificial.

During the first week of March every year if you were to cast your eyes through my inbox, you could be forgiven for thinking women are at the pinnacle of every industry and endeavour imaginable.

You could be forgiven for thinking that the pursuit of gender equality is front and centre for every institution, organisation and leader in existence.

Given the rhetoric that abounds around IWD about the extraordinary respect women garner you might be tempted to believe the occasion is redundant.

But it’s not.

In substantive terms, very little is actually changing in the twelve months between the annual ‘celebrations’ to recognise the remarkable achievements of women and the barriers they continue to face.

According to the World Economic Forum’s 2018 Global Gender Gap Report we remain 202 years off gender parity. Two hundred and two years. That is up from 169 years they estimated in 2016, and down from the 217 they estimated in 2017.

In 2018 69 women were violently killed in Australia, the vast majority by a current or former partner. This year, already, that number is ten.

In Federal parliament the representation of women in the government has plummeted and after the next election it is possible there will only be a handful of female politicians representing the Liberal party in Canberra.

In politics the past 12 months have been particularly ugly in what it’s revealed about the treatment of women in Canberra.

We’ve witnessed Sarah Hanson Young not just be told – in the senate no less – to ‘stop shagging men‘ but to also face the indignity of her peers discussing her sex life on television and radio.

We saw another female politician, Julia Banks, rebuked for not being ‘tough enough’ to cut it in Canberra when she spoke out about the unacceptable conduct she witnessed.

Another experienced and popular MP, Julie Bishop, was entirely overlooked by her party for leadership.

We saw the Prime Minister use the term “our women” when discussing domestic violence. A male MP openly say ‘biology’ is the reason women cannot have careers in politics as readily as men can. We had a minister, an aspiring PM no less, qualify that despite his wife working she is still a good mother.

We had an opposition leader in NSW resign when it emerged he had not just placed his hands down the dress and underwear of an ABC reporter, but that he lied about taking responsibility for it too.

None of it creates even a whiff of credibility around the idea that women in Australia in the year 2019 are widely respected.

The National Community Attitudes towards Violence against Women Survey sadly illustrates this isn’t limited to politics. The study which canvassed the views of 17,500 Australians aged 16 years and older found that a fifth of Australians believe that ‘a lot of what is called domestic violence is really a normal reaction to day-to-day stress and frustration’ while 32% believe that a female victim who does not leave an abusive partner is partly responsible for the abuse continuing.

It found that a third of respondents believe men commit acts of rape because they can’t control their sexual urges and 40% of the young respondents believe it’s common for women to make accusations of sexual assault to ‘get back at men’ – even though false accusations of sexual assault are statistically rare.

In 2018 we saw Catherine Marriott and Eryn Jean Norvill both have their confidential confessions of unwelcome sexual advances by powerful men used against them.

In business the picture for women at the pointy end is not much better. New research released last week shows parity for men and women at the CEO level is still 80 years away.

As it stands 93% of CEOs in the ASX200 are male.

Just over one in two women in Australia faces discrimination in the workplace while she is either pregnant, on parental leave, or returning to work after a baby. One in five Australian women  experienced sexual harassment in the workplace.  Only 1 in 5 make a complaint and of those 18.2% decided to resign with no job to go to afterwards. Almost 75 percent of women who did complain to their employer were not satisfied with the outcome.

And this is in Australia, where in relative terms, women and girls are ostensibly fortunate.

There is no universal starting point for women and girls globally and the extremes vary wildly.  What constitutes the most pressing violation of a girl or woman’s rights varies enormously from place to place, from day to day.

There is not a country in the world where women enjoy equal rights to men but the extent to which they are less equal, and the manner in which that inequality manifests, varies dramatically.

Education is virtually guaranteed to girls in Australia, a right that is still denied to millions of girls around the world.

Sex trafficking, poverty, dowry abuse and sexual violence are among the many live concerns for millions of women and girls globally.

Consider Rahaf Mohammed Al-Qunun the 18 year old who had to barricade herself in a hotel room in Bangkok to avoid being deported back to her family in Saudi Arabia, where members of her own family were openly threatening her with violence. Had she had her phone confiscated, rather than her passport, her story and fate would have remained unknown.  How many Rahafs are in the world?

How could the world possibly be moving backwards in terms of gender equality given, we are told, that closing the gap is supposedly a paramount ambition? Given there are scores of brilliant, clever, talented women as far as the eye can see?

The short answer is because eradicating inequality isn’t a paramount ambition.

Speaking at the National Press Club last February, the president of the Global Summit for Women, Irene Natividad said making gender equality a reality isn’t difficult.

“What government and companies need to do to make this happen is obvious… Address the pay inequity. Enable women to integrate, work at home and work at work, root out sex discrimination in hiring, promotion and in relations in the workplace. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist.”

Closing the gender gap is not beyond the capacity of any country, company or leader, unless it’s an immaterial ambition in which case the status quo will continue to flourish.

This is unpalatable on the best of days but for a person committed to the objective of achieving equality, on IWD, the gap between rhetoric and reality is too much. It’s indigestible.

And do you know the real kicker? As the fanfare around IWD has ballooned in recent years – which it really has without any commensurate improvement for women – so too have the expectations on women on the day.

Do you know who is doing the legwork to get the myriad IWD events, breakfasts, lunches, dinners, seminars, cocktail parties off the ground? Women.

And do you know what they’re getting in return? In plenty of cases, very little.

For many women, organising, attending, facilitating, events on IWD is another unpaid duty, to add to the extraordinarily long list of their unpaid responsibilities.

Certainly, in the 12 months since the 2018 IWD, change is underway. The momentum of Women’s Marches, of #MeToo and #TimesUp can’t be discounted but nor have these conversations delivered a new dawn in outcomes.

“As hopeful as this new climate of resurgent women’s voices may seem, it really frankly doesn’t change the reality of women’s lives,” Natividad told the National Press Club in February. “We are not in charge, women aren’t in charge, whether it’s of countries, companies, religious institutions, you know, universities – you name it – government agencies. We’re not there.”

That needs to change and concrete actions to allow women to #BalanceforBetter, as the official theme asks, in this realm are needed far more than tokenistic events that put women on a pedestal for a single day.

Women don’t need a pedestal for a single day, they need equality. Every day.

So if you really want to celebrate International Women’s Day take action. Consider taking any (or all!) of these steps. Whether you do it in your capacity as an engaged citizen or an employer (or both) doesn’t matter. What matters is that you do it.

  • Conduct a pay audit or request your employer does. And ask them to publish the results to show employees, shareholders, customers and other stakeholders that it doesn’t just care about inequality, it wants to help fix it.
  • Use your vote – at Local, State and Federal level – to support people and policies that are focused on closing the gender gap.  It’s not going to happen by accident.
  • Lobby your local member for better representation of women, for adequate funding for domestic violence services, for universal childcare, for better paid parental leave.
  • Offer paid parental leave. Less than 50% of the organisations that report to WGEA offer their employees paid leave when a baby arrives. The business case was sorted in the 80s and hasn’t changed.
  • Introduce a zero-tolerance policy to sexual harassment and intentionally build a  culture that supports it.
  • Get an all-male team to organise future IWD events.
  • Pay the women you expect to participate in your IWD events. (The gap in unpaid work between men and women is exactly why IWD is needed. Don’t add to it.)
  • Set a target (even better be bold enough to call it a quota).
  • Boycott all-male panels.
  • Do more at home (if you’re a man).
  • Do less at home (if you’re a woman).
  • Don’t wait for the 8th of March each year to think about gender equality.

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