International Women’s Day is a worldwide event held on 8th March every year with the purpose of celebrating women’s achievements, whilst also highlighting the issues we continue to face regarding gender inequality. From loss of employment to a spike in domestic violence, the current coronavirus crisis has exacerbated existing gender inequalities, suggesting that IWD is more relevant to us than ever.
For context, the first National Women’s Day celebration was held in 1909 on the 1st anniversary of a strike in New York City, when female marchers protested against poor working conditions, unequal pay and sexual harassment in the workplace. It became an international movement for universal suffrage in 1910, thanks to the work of socialist campaigner Clara Zetkin. News of this spread to Europe, with the most notorious demonstration taking place in Russia in 1917, when the country was in the midst of huge political turmoil. Female workers chose 23rd February, International Women’s Day and the Russian calendar’s equivalent of 8th March, to walk out of factories in demand of food and better working conditions. The strikes gained momentum, attracting male workers and soldiers and paralysing Russia.
Over the past 100 years, gender equality has made huge strides. In the majority of countries, women can now vote, hold property on the same terms as men, and are entitled to equal pay - none of which were allowed in 1917 when the workers first striked. This progress is monumental and on International Women’s Day it’s good to reflect on how far we have come in the last century or so.
However, the fight for equality is far from over. Women are still more likely to be paid less for the same work, become victims of sexual and domestic violence, and become homeless after retirement. In developing countries, the gap is even starker. Activists in the global South are still focussing on more basic issues, such as providing equal access to healthcare and primary education. 64 million girls are still forced to work in child labour, girls have less access to education in 40% of countries worldwide, and women aged 25-34 are 25% more likely than men to live in extreme poverty.
This year’s IWD theme is #ChooseToChallenge. Clearly, gender equality is unfinished business in every corner of the world, and it’s an issue for all of us. As individuals, we have the power to commit to ending inequality through our everyday actions. Here are a few ways both men and women can choose to challenge gender norms.
Share domestic responsibilities
When it comes to unpaid chores at home, women are still doing 40% more than men on average. Because more women are working, they are now required to uphold paid employment, whilst remaining responsible for the majority of household tasks. The time and effort that goes into doing chores acts as a barrier to women’s economic empowerment; the ONS found that women would earn £259 a week on average if unpaid work was remunerated!
Husbands, sons, brothers… Picking up a few more chores around the house won’t only make for a more caring and equal household, but it’s also a great way to challenge gender stereotypes in your day to day lives.
Read, watch and promote feminist books and films
“We must create a world where a woman is as likely as a man to be a decision maker. We must create a world where watching films written by women and directed by women and produced by women is completely ordinary and mainstream.” - Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Challenge your perceptions of the female experience by choosing a book or film written by a woman. Cultural mediums can be an extremely powerful tool, allowing women to convey their experiences and centre the female voice. However, despite an equal number of men and women graduating from film schools, women are significantly under-represented in key creative positions - only 1 in 5 films is directed by a woman, and only 16% of funding goes to films directed by women.
Female characters written by men are commonly one-dimensional or highly sexualised. The best way to combat this is to watch, listen and read the media produced by women. Here’s a list of 12 feminist books to get you started!
Include men in the conversation
Gender equality is not just about women. Although women have been, and still are, marginalised and discriminated against for their gender, feminism is also about redefining masculinity. From a young age, boys should be taught to respect women, the meaning of consent, but also that it’s okay to be vulnerable. That it’s okay to show emotion, that they can be whatever they want to be when they grow up, dress how they want to dress, and that they, too, can escape the gender binary.
An equal world will benefit us all, so it only makes sense that we work together!
Approximately 80% of garment workers are women, due to the gender discrimination which runs through the industry. Gender-based violence is common in factories, there is little to no health and safety protection and, despite the global fashion industry turning over £1.2 trillion annually, the garment workers work for poverty pay.
A lot of brands target female consumers on IWD, convincing women to treat themselves by purchasing clothes or jewellery… But it’s always worth considering if the brand is treating their female workers right! Doing your research and checking that the company has policies in place to protect workers and pay them a fair wage is a good start to making more ethical choices.
Kimberle Crenshaw who coined the term ‘intersectionality’ explains that “all inequality is not created equal.” Some people are subject to several inequalities, based on gender, race, class, sexuality, immigrant status etc.
Using an intersectional lens means recognising the historical contexts surrounding issues, which have created deep-rooted inequalities. We shouldn’t talk about women’s right to vote, for example, without acknowledging that indigenous women in Canada only got the right to vote 53 years after the first white woman. Delving deeper, listening to and amplifying other female experiences which differ from our own is essential to ensuring that we don’t further perpetuate the erasure and oppression of other communities.
Women of colour, disabled women, LGBTQ women etc do not experience sexism in isolation. We #ChooseToChallenge all forms of inequality to make sure that we’re campaigning for a better world for all.
To quote Audre Lorde, "I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own.”