The trouble with International Women’s Day

Photo: UN Women/Ryan Brown


March 8th marks the return of International Women’s Day – a day that not only gives us the opportunity to celebrate the achievements of women, but to highlight the obstacles that they have had to overcome in order to be able to celebrate these successes.

That said, we should not be limiting ourselves to this one awareness day. Governments, businesses and individuals alike should make it their mission to eradicate inequalities, whether these are glaringly obvious, or invisible to the naked eye.

Indeed, inequality is still clearly rife in business. Let’s take the tech sector as a case in point – a space that has historically been dominated by men. Did you know that, to this day, only 5% of leadership positions in the technology industry are held by women? The disparity is naturally more pronounced at executive levels however, the problem runs deep; at 75%, the overall industry is overwhelmingly represented by men.

Despite awareness days and campaigns to accelerate progress, there are clearly hidden issues that businesses must get to the bottom of if they truly want to spearhead diversity.

So, where are we going wrong, and how can we fix it?

Looking beyond the metrics

When we measure progress, we naturally focus on metrics – setting mandatory boardroom quotas and ensuring parity in income are no doubt admirable goals, but perhaps they miss the mark when it comes to addressing the root of the problem.

Let’s take compulsory quotas as an example; an illustration of positive discrimination. Rather than judging each individual on their own merits, critics suggest that such measures encourage companies to promote women simply to fulfil diversity targets. It comes across as a band aid solution; one that covers up the problem without really solving it.

Instead, businesses should focus their energy on supporting women throughout their progression through a company, rather than risk their female employees feeling like they are being fast-streamed to meet these prescriptions.

Flexible working, for instance, should become the norm. The ability to work variable hours, or work away from the office, gives employees the freedom to juggle both their career, and their external commitments, without being forced to choose between the two. For women who fear that taking time off to look after children or elderly parents will jeopardise their career prospects, flexible working offers a peace of mind; indeed, a significant majority (87%) of women who have taken a career break regard this as a priority.

The importance of workplace culture

This feeds into what should be at the heart of every business: the goal of creating an inclusive working culture, particularly one where women feel just as valued as their male counterparts. Saleforce offers a great example of how this can be achieved.

As one of his first initiatives as the chief equality officer at the company, Tony Prophet created a women’s network community that helped foster a culture of support and inclusivity. Empowering schemes were brought into action, such as Women in Technology programmes, mentorship opportunities, and Lean In Circles – groups where women meet regularly to share their stories, support one another and learn new skills.

Other businesses should take inspiration, and work to foster an environment where women don’t feel like outsiders in traditionally male-dominated circles.

Don’t overlook the little things

It all comes down to this: while achieving numerical targets is important, they aren’t the holy grail. It’s important to also pay attention to the little things which can make a big difference in encouraging women to pursue, and achieve, their career ambitions.

The burden of emotional labour, for instance, should be on every business leader’s radar. For those who may not have heard the term before, it refers to invisible labour that goes uncompensated and unrecognised. Often, it refers to the responsibilities that women feel like it is their duty to fulfil, despite not falling under their job description.

Businesses must challenge certain expectations that have become ingrained as standard practice – delegating the responsibility of note-taking during meetings to women, for instance. Or expecting women to console employees who are upset… or even simply organising birthday presents.

While such tasks may appear menial, the burden is often shouldered by women who aren’t recognised for doing the work. However, the stress of carrying out these additional tasks could even hold people back from doing their best at work.

The overarching message is that, while we shouldn’t overlook the importance of International Women’s Day, one awareness day isn’t going to solve the gender imbalance. We should be constantly challenging underlying inequities that exist in the workplace, and committing to do better. Only then will we see real change.


Liza Kinnear

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