The real issues at stake this International Women’s Day

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What's really at stake on International Women’s Getty Images

International Women’s Day has been celebrated globally for more than a century. It’s supposed to be a focal date for the women’s rights movement, bringing attention to everything from the gender pay gap to reproductive rights and domestic abuse. But increasingly, it feels like that message is being lost amid a deluge of pink beer, branded merchandise and tokenistic campaigns trying, superficially, to align themselves with the cause.

Unfortunately, these gestures often reduce IWD to a slightly kitsch, forced concept, instead of what it should be: a very necessary, yearly reminder that we still have an awfully long way to go when it comes to gender equality. Instead, I’d suggest we make the day meaningful, rather than meaningless, by highlighting the issues that really matter – and asking the experts what we can all do to action change.

A recent report by the Trades Union Congress has revealed that women in the UK work for free for nearly two months of the year, thanks to a 15 per cent gender pay gap. That gap has only widened over time: it was 14.4 per cent in 2021, and the year before, it was 12 per cent. The latest analysis found that the gender divide on pay was the widest for older women and for women with children, with women of colour also disproportionately affected (research by management consultancy firm McKinsey found that for every 100 men promoted from entry level to managerial positions, only 87 women are promoted – and only 82 women of colour). The problem is particularly bad in the financial sector: last year, banking behemoth HSBC reported a shocking mean gender pay gap of 45.2 per cent across its UK operations.

“Tackling the obstacles faced by women is essential for organisations to close gender pay gaps and improve the retention and progression of female talent,” says Joy Burnford, founder and CEO of Encompass Equality Ltd and author of Don’t Fix Women: The Practical Path To Gender Equality At Work. “Midlife women in particular can often face a perfect storm of challenges, whether that’s caring for children, looking after elderly relatives or dealing with difficult menopausal symptoms.”

Undervaluing women in the workforce, especially older women who are currently losing out on senior positions, has been proven time and again to harm the companies that do so. Data from the House of Commons shows that firms with female leaders outperform those dominated by men, yet only nine women – and no women of colour – are currently employed as CEOs in the FTSE 100. “Organisations need to adapt and change now,” says Burnford. “It’s not about fixing women, but developing truly diverse and inclusive cultures where every single individual can thrive. And it will benefit everyone.”

Until the underfunded childcare sector is addressed and women’s midlife concerns aren’t dismissed, it can feel like there’s little each of us can do to move the dial. But, says Burnford, there are meaningful changes we can make. “Creating a culture of allyship in organisations and, indeed, in the home, is fundamental,” she says. “Actively support someone in a minority group, using your voice on their behalf – such as sponsoring them for a promotion, a project or greater visibility. Call out what you see others do (both positively and negatively). Be curious about your own attitudes and assumptions and educate yourself, perhaps by attending an event where you’re in a minority, or learn about your peers’ challenges.”

A key point Burnford stresses is that men need to be involved in the conversation. “If you live with a man, ask how he feels about gender equality in the home and at work. If we all take one small action today, we can start to create a ripple of change.”

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It’s not just in the workplace that women face what feels like endless discrimination, both major and minor, making everyday life more challenging than it should be. According to Action Aid, one in three women over the age of 16 in Britain were subjected to at least one form of harassment in the year to November 2021. This increased to two in three for women aged 16 to 34. Transgender women are particularly at risk, with transgender people twice as likely as cisgender people to be the victim of a crime, according to the ONS. It's easy to see the proliferation and trivialisation of violence against women in figures like Andrew Tate, whose views that women are men's property, belong in the home and should "bear responsibility" for rape, populate social media.

“Above all, women want safety,” says barrister Harriet Johnson, whose book Enough: The Violence Against Women And How To End It dissects the problems in our policing, laws and culture. “We want to be able to walk down the street without having to check over our shoulders, or carry our keys, or pretend to phone a friend. We want to be able to turn down a proposition from a man without his response becoming violent. We want to be able to celebrate our relationships without knowing that the man we love is statistically also the man most likely to kill us. And, when we can’t have those things, we at least want to be taken seriously by police when we go to them for help. How can we possibly expect women to feel safe in a world that offers so little protection?”

Johnson is referencing the recently revealed, institutionalised misogyny in our police force, which led to an officer making jokes such as “getting a bird into bed is like spreading butter, it can be done with a credit card but it’s quicker and easier to use a knife” in a work WhatsApp group last February. In January this year, police officer David Carrick pleaded guilty to 24 counts of rape over two decades – and that’s not even touching on the outrage and grief that still lingers after the death of Sarah Everard two years ago, at the hands of another police officer, Wayne Couzens.

The government’s response is, all too often, laughable. After Everard’s death, it responded with more money for streetlights and advised women who felt unsafe to “flag down a bus” – so it’s no wonder we’re tired. “In terms of safety, women already know what to do. We do it instinctively, and all the time,” says Johnson. “As campaigners, women’s voices are often the most powerful, but the expectation on women to change things is often an unfair one when so many women are carrying the burden of the trauma they’ve experienced.”

Johnson’s number one piece of advice? “Silence is complicity. I’d like to see more consistent allyship from men, whether that’s in calling out sexist jokes at work or in active campaigning.” All of us can talk to the men in our lives, question their attitudes and off-hand comments, explain our day-to-day experiences and ask for their support. Violence against women is not something for women to fix – but it is something we should all be talking about.

Deniz Uğur, deputy director of the End Violence Against Women Coalition, agrees. “The last two years in particular have brought women across the country to stand together against male violence,” she says. “We know that violence against women and girls is not inevitable, and a different world is possible. But in order to end this in the long term, we need to see transformational prevention work.” She suggests watching and sharing the organisation’s film about sexual harassment at school, signing its petition calling for women and girls to be protected online, and joining its campaign to resist the government’s new laws which threaten women’s rights.

There are some bright spots on the horizon. Under a new domestic abuse register law, violence against women will be treated with the same seriousness as terrorism. A new £4million investment by the Mayor of London will help vulnerable women and girls at a greater risk of violence, due to the cost of living crisis. Labour says it will urge UK firms to publish menopause action plans, offering paid time off and temperature-controlled workplaces. Overall, the UK ranks fifth globally in terms of gender equality, according to social enterprise, Equileap.

Of course, women’s rights aren’t just for 8 March, they’re for life. But to those people who argue that we shouldn’t celebrate women on only one out of the 365 days of the year – that International Women’s Day is, essentially, no longer needed in a progressive world – look at the facts. We need it now, more than ever.

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