The recent weeks saw another celebration of International Women’s Day (IWD). Generally, I get what IWD is about and why we (still) need it. I get that most people involved with it hope it will be a historical oddity one day but I also understand that a day dedicated to celebrating women probably means a lot more elsewhere on this planet than it does in my neck of the woods. So I try to do my bit to mark the day.
This year, however, IWD gave me reason for concern. It may have been mere coincidence and not a representative sample of debates and activities but almost everything I heard or read on IWD 2016 called for more strong women, for role models, for women who work, achieve and compete confidently and on par with men, rewarded like men. I understand where these calls are coming from but they do concern me.
Firstly, the focus on achievement. The IWD website’s strapline for IWD 2016 was “Celebrate the social, economic, cultural and political achievement of women.” Again, I get it, I know how important role models are, I promote and write about them myself. But what I saw on IWD 2016, intended or not, was an over-emphasis on women whose power/personality/motivation/dedication [delete as appropriate] had led them to overcome challenge and achieve, either on par with men or at least comparatively, more than other women.
To be clear: I do not want to diminish anything that the various women featured have achieved. I fully understand how important many of their achievements are, for them personally and for society. But I am concerned that linking gender equality too closely to personal strength and achievement communicates to others that equality has to be earned. That you need to prove yourself worthy. That would be fundamentally wrong: equality is a basic right. You may lose basic rights if you misbehave. But they are not an optional benefit or an incentive to spur you into applying yourself to something.
At work I don’t just want parity of pay for women in top positions or equal opportunities in promotion, I want every woman to be able to do her job without experiencing gender (or indeed any other) discrimination. I don’t come from a family of female CEOs, suffragettes or Nobel Prize winners. We’re a bunch of ordinary women with ordinary lives full of nice stuff and challenges, the latter sometimes more and sometimes less admirably dealt with. But that does not mean we are any less worthy of equal opportunity than Sheryl Sandberg, Rosa Luxemburg or Marie Curie.
It is undoubtedly the reality that women often have to put extra effort in to earn opportunity and reward on par with men. But I think that we are at risk of girls and young women thinking that extra effort is a fair requirement in exchange for equality. If that is what they understood, who could blame them if, given the many other real and perceived pressures of modern womanhood, they decided to trade a little less opportunity and reward for a little more time and energy to just enjoy life. There comes a point at which emphasising women’s achievements, even with the best intention of improving gender equality, turns counter-productive.
Secondly, I don’t want what men have. At least not what many men have. Yes, I have walked into 9am meetings with male senior colleagues and envied how their composure and concentration were clearly unobstructed by just having dropped off a screaming toddler at nursery. I have looked in disbelief at extremely impressive male CVs and felt small in comparison.
But given the insanity I see in the world of work, the pressures, the tired eyes, the lack of sleep or personal life, the mental health issues, the hollow phrases and tireless self-promotion efforts – do I really want my fair share of that? I don’t, and I think many other women – and men, actually – don’t either. Which is why I am extremely conscious that so much of what I saw and read on IWD 2016 encouraged women to strive for equality in ways that emulated men and that would essentially reproduce the malaise of modern life.
I don’t want what men have. I want better, more meaningful, and I know I’m not alone in that. We need women and men (or as I’d prefer: people, of whatever ‘gender’) to find new and better ways of living their individual and collective lives. So where there is an opportunity to promote change, let’s be careful that the picture of the change we promote is based on a proper new sketch and not just the rushed adaptation of a flawed old blueprint.
I support IWD, and I support other initiatives like, in Higher Education, Athena SWAN, HeForShe or Aurora. I do so because I recognise that these initiatives give much needed visibility to the pursuit of gender equality and that they send important signals, to men and women, young and old. But especially thinking of the young ones: let’s make it the right signals. Here’s to hoping what I saw and heard on IWD 2016 was just coincidence. We deserve better.