Is International Women’s Day doing more harm than good?

Happy International Women’s Day!

This awareness day was originally established in 1911 to celebrate women’s achievements and campaign for gender parity. In recent years, businesses have used today to enthusiastically talk about the moves they’ve made towards addressing gender gaps and pledge to work towards equality for their staff.

And yet absolutely nothing has changed.

In fact, we’ve gone backwards. During the pandemic, women (and especially women with children) have been the first to be sacrificed. Globally, 31 million women have lost their jobs because of Covid-19, compared to 13 million men. It turns out that, despite turning their logos a patronising shade of pink once a year, organisations still consider women to be expendable.

The government’s attitude to women was also exposed as painfully outdated in everything from their lack of consideration for childcare services to the defunding of domestic violence services at a time when women were trapped with abusers to penalising women who had had children with their Self-Employed Income Support Scheme.

If you have logged in to Twitter this morning, you’ll have seen a slew of people denying the experience of a pregnant woman who says she was subjected to racist and misogynistic treatment until she became suicidal. When women speak out about their abuse, society continues to automatically shout them down and insist that it never happened.

It’s reassuring in many ways that Piers Morgan is back to form – the world felt decidedly off-kilter when he briefly moved over to the right side of history. Seeing him this morning railing that Harry and Meghan’s interview is a betrayal of the Queen was quite something, and a timely reminder for all of us that the monarchy is an institution built on misogyny, racism and classism.

Given how the last twelve months have shown that society still treats women as lesser beings, particularly if they happen to have darker skin, is it time to conclude that International Women’s Day is doing absolutely no good whatsoever?

Pink washing

In fact, could International Women’s Day, and similar awareness days, actually be harmful?

Every year on this day, businesses fall over themselves to change their logos, put up pictures of any females they can find in the office and host panel discussions about what great progress they’re making on gender equality. Except that saying pink represents women is so patronising I could scream, the female employees they find to post about are rarely in senior leadership positions and are usually in the minority in the organisation, and a staggering number of the panels debating the issue are mostly or entirely made up of men.

I highly recommend checking out Sian Norris on Twitter for an analysis of the businesses supporting International Women’s Day whilst perpetuating gender pay gaps:

International Women’s Day actually seems to be giving businesses an opportunity to cover up their failings – making a token gesture to suggest they’re doing something, whilst giving them an excuse not to do anything at all. Or carry on actively discriminating against women. “Hey, we used the #IWD2021 hashtag, what more do you want?!”

I was asked to write a blog once for an agency I worked for as their token IWD gesture. The agency was a toxic environment for anyone who wasn’t a white, straight, cis male, so I was incensed at being asked to cover it up. So I wrote a blog about how the agency was proud to have a workforce that was mostly female and a senior management team that was very partially female. I sent it to the MD for approval, expecting to be called into his office to be screamed at. But instead he just sent me a quick email back – “Looks great, let’s get it up.” His belief that men should be in senior positions was so entrenched that he hadn’t even noticed that there was a problem with these stats.

We need more than just one day. We need to be pushing for change all year round. We need to not allow organisations to make token gestures and pay lip service to equality. We need to recognise the impact of intersectionality and stop pretending that the experience of all women is the same – white, straight, cis feminists need to do more to support women with even less privilege than themselves.

So what next?

For this year’s International Women’s Day, we wanted to do something different. We spoke to our friend Rachael Dines from Shake It Up Creative, who was fed up with the standard IWD events that were either exclusively attended by women just preaching to the choir or were empty gestures designed for talk and no action. We wanted to do something different.

On Thursday, Watch This Sp_ce, Shake It Up Creative and our sisters at Brighton Digital Women are co-hosting an event aimed at bringing people who don’t usually engage with equality discussions into the conversation. We want to challenge stereotypes and encourage people to confront new ideas. You can join us by booking your free ticket via Eventbrite.

But one event on one day is not enough. We want to see movements towards meaningful change from all organisations. We want to see a commitment to take equality seriously every single day. We want to keep the pressure on and want everyone to insist that organisations do better than a pink logo for one day.

It’s time to stop celebrating – the last year has shown there’s little to celebrate. It’s time to get angry, and to channel that anger into a demand for change.

From here on in, until gender penalties are abolished, EVERY DAY is International Women’s Day.

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