March 8 of every year is International Women’s Day, a global day celebrating the achievements of women. You can find out more about the origins of this day here. March is also Women’s History Month, a month to honour women’s contributions. You can read more about the origins here.
The theme for Women’s History Month 2021 is a continuation of 2020’s, which is Valiant Women of the Vote: Refusing to Be Silenced. The campaign theme for International Women’s Day 2021 is Choose to Challenge.
We can choose to challenge, question, and call out gender bias and inequality. We can also choose to celebrate women, lift each other up, and encourage one another.
Last year, UN Women Deputy Executive Director Anita Bhatia stated that the progress made over the past 25 years towards gender equality could be lost in just one year from the pandemic. Bhatia also stated that the areas hit most were income, health, and security. Data from the UN stated that during the pandemic, women had taken on more unpaid workloads than men and more women had left the workplace than men.
Regarding health I recall last year that Poland, which already had strict abortion laws, made it illegal to abort malformed foetuses. And on security, the UK’s Office for National Statistics stated that data showed an increase in domestic abuse cases since the pandemic started.
The pandemic appears to have stunted progress for women in what was already a challenging world. A study by Sussex University, which remains open for new participants, found that pre-existing inequalities in the home and childcare have worsened since the pandemic.
The challenges that women face are not only shown in restrictive laws and data sets. Women face social challenges every day, in a non pandemic world too. I saw a quote that resonated with me: that people expect women to have children, yet when they do they are financially, professionally, and socially punished for doing so.
Social injustices can happen before women become mothers. In a month that’s meant to celebrate women, during its main week (that includes both International Women’s Day and Mother’s Day), women have taken to social media to express their fear and anger and to share their experiences of feeling unsafe in public spaces after the disappearance of Sarah Everard. Disturbingly, police advised women not to go out alone, essentially curfew-ing women instead of holding men accountable for their actions.
Social inequalities can happen before girls become women or before girls are even born. In school, at age 7, my class was taught to yell “fire” instead of “rape” if you’re being attacked. In more recent years I’ve overheard conversations from fathers-to-be wanting, hoping, for a baby girl because they were “easier to deal with and control than boys”.
Choosing to Challenge
The Guardian wrote an interesting article, stating that for women to feel safe
“what’s needed beyond the education of individuals are urgent political solutions to counter men’s attempts to claim public spaces as their exclusive domain.”
The article lists examples of how men treat public spaces as their own: men speak loudly on phones in checkout lines, crowd women’s personal space at cash points and traffic lights, make more antisocial noises in public.
I’ve seen more men than women play loud music on buses or when cycling, take up more space on train carriages or when smoking outside establishments, and of course street harassment and cat calling.
Males taking up space in public spaces reminds me of dogs marking areas – trying to establish territory and ownership. And when a woman steps into a public space – supposedly, a male space – the onus falls on the woman to make herself safe. Men are not held accountable. Yet there is so much that men can do, and can stop doing, to help make women feel safer.
I’m also reminded of a quote by Gloria Steinem:
“I’m glad we’ve begun to raise our daughters more like our sons — but it will never work until we raise our sons more like our daughters.”
This really resonated with me. To really create safe and equal public spaces, we must grow up thinking that is the norm. In the home, in schools, in the workplace, in the streets.
Yet young men are not encouraged to pursue dancing, to become a stay at home father, to paint their nails. Young men are still beckoned to “man up” and to “not cry”.
Challenging sexism is not just about women, as the Notorious RBG put it:
“It is not women’s liberation, it is women’s and men’s liberation.”
Men advocate for maternity leave in the workplace. Women can also advocate for paternity leave in the workplace too. I feel in the workplace it starts from the top down and from the inside out: being open minded in hiring, being open in communication and having difficult conversations, and encouraging collaboration.
There is still something to smile about though. Alongside these challenges and navigating how to overcome these challenges, there are also some trailblazing women we can celebrate:
- In Sep 2020 Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died, she was the senior member of the Supreme Court, the second woman to serve, an advocate for women’s rights, a trailblazer, an icon and inspiration to a younger generation;
- In Oct 2020 Jacinda Ardern was re-elected as New Zealand’s prime minister for a second term, winning by a landslide;
- In Nov 2020 Nanaia Mahuta became New Zealand’s first Indigenous Female Foreign Minister;
- In Dec 2020 Professor Emmanuelle Charpentier and Professor Jennifer Doudna were awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry “for the development of a method for genome editing”. This was the first science Nobel ever won by two women alone;
- Dr Kathrin Jansen, Head of Vaccine Research and Development at Pfizer, led the team working with BioNTech to create a COVID-19 vaccine using mRNA. Dr Jansen also previously led the development of the HPV vaccine and newer versions of the pneumococcal conjugate vaccine;
- Gitanjali Rao, only 15, was named Time’s first ever Kid of the Year for an app that uses artificial intelligence technology to detect cyberbullying at an early stage;
- Kamala Harris became the first female, first black and first Asian-American US vice president;
- Dr Jill Biden will be the first First Lady to work outside of the White House and is the first First Lady that is also a professor;
- In Jan 2021 Amanda Gorman became the youngest poet to perform at a presidential inauguration reciting her poem The Hill We Climb, became the first poet to perform at the Super Bowl, and in 2017 was named the first ever US National Youth Poet Laureate;
- Shonda Rhimes, creating, producing, and writing nuanced female characters in very successful TV shows with diversity too;
- Zara Mohammed was elected as the first female, and youngest ever, Secretary General of the Muslim Council of Britain;
- In Feb 2021 Whitney Wolfe Herd became the youngest founder to take their company, Bumble, public;
- Seiko Hashimoto was appointed Tokyo 2020 president of the next Olympic Games;
- Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala became the first female and first African Director-General of the World Trade Organisation;
- Chloe Zhao became the first Asian female and only the second-ever female to win the best director of a motion picture award at the Golden Globes for her film Nomadland;
- Chancellor Angela Merkel who has served for 15 long years will be stepping down later in the year, she was the first female to be elected Chancellor, and is currently the second longest-serving Chancellor. Time Magazine named Merkel Person of the Year in 2015 and Forbes has named her the World’s Most Powerful Woman for the 10th year in a row;
- Christine Lagarde was the first female Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund, the first female President of the European Central Bank (“ECB”), and only one of two women (out of a 25-person) governing council of the ECB;
- Ursula von der Leyen was the first female to be appointed president of the European Commission, selected a team of 27 EU commissioners that included 12 females, and served in Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cabinet – the longest tenure of any cabinet member;
- Female led countries handled Covid-19 better, according to the Guardian; and
- Over the last 25 years, more than 50 countries have changed their laws to allow for greater access to abortion, according to Amnesty International.
For so many of these women, not only were they able to get to the top, but they were able to stay there too. Not only were they shattering that glass ceiling, but they were able to send the elevator back down to bring up other women too.
In every place that I have worked at there have been women who have inspired me, coached me, encouraged, guided, and mentored me. Every now and then, with a client, I have seen some truly amazing and hard working women who can truly stand their ground in a room filled with 95% men.
I am grateful to have worked under, worked with, and even watched these women work hard and work smart. They have shown me what can be possible. I understand that, to start, one has to work within the system.
The next step is to challenge the systemic sexism that underlies the system. In the workplace, I aim to challenge the status quo, to shine a light on inequality, to be the difference I want to see in the world.
And maybe one day, in the home, I will be a mother too – in a shared parental household. A household where we can raise daughters as sons, as well as raise sons as daughters.