International Women’s Day has undergone quite the makeover in its 107 years of observance.
In 1909, the inaugural Woman’s Day (singular) was celebrated in the US, instigated by the Socialist Party of America. In the subsequent years, European socialists introduced the concept to Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland, with more than one million people attending rallies campaigning for women’s suffrage, the ability to hold public office, the right to work, the right to vocational training and to end workplace discrimination.
The day continued to be, largely, celebrated as a political event in socialist and communist countries (such as Russia, China and Spain) for the remaining first half of the 20th century until it was adopted by the UN as an official observance in 1977.
Different cultures celebrate International Women’s Day in a range of ways. In some countries, like Italy, it’s less of an opportunity for political rallies and more a day for the appreciation of women, where flowers and chocolates are given in a sort of Mother’s/Valentine’s Day hybrid celebration. Some nations (including Afghanistan, Angola, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Burkina Faso, Cambodia, Cuba, Georgia, Guinea-Bissau, Eritrea, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Laos, Moldova, Mongolia, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uganda, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Vietnam and Zambia) declare 8th March as a public holiday, and in others (like China, Madagascar, Macedonia and Nepal) women get the day off.
Without a sanctioned public holiday here in Australia, I tend to spend my International Women’s Days at work. However, in the last few years, I’ve been fortunate enough to be invited to attend the Aurizon Women’s Conference – one of the ways my organization marks IWD.
Last year, you may recall that I was the first speaker in the inaugural Aurizon Great Debate, but this year, I got to sit back and enjoy the day as a conference delegate.
As always, there was a plethora of inspiring and thought-provoking material presented by impressive speakers, networking opportunities and stalls, but the standout for me today was Julie McKay, Executive Director UN Women National Committee of Australia. (Unfortunately, I took the most inopportunely timed photo of her, but at least you can see her passion…)
Whilst acknowledging that gender equality is an incredibly complex issue, Julie simplified the broad solutions in three ideals:
- The provision of leadership opportunities for women
- The economic empowerment of women
- The elimination of violence against women
One of the things which I struggle to articulate well without offending practically everyone or sounding paranoid is the existence and extent of unconscious bias and male privilege. Julie, not surprisingly, had an eloquent and logical explanation, which I am shamelessly stealing.
When evaluating a potential candidate for a role, we consider past experience and future potential. Past experience is relatively easy to be objective about. However, future potential is an incredibly subjective and personal assessment. Humans, it seems, are inherently arrogant creatures. We tend to think that the person who will be most successful is the person most like ourselves. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing in itself, except when everyone who is already established in the management chain is a particular type of person (perhaps a Caucasian, middle class, straight, alpha male, although not necessarily, and not that there is anything wrong with being a Caucasian, middle class, straight, alpha male). But what this means is that you just hire lots of the same person over and over with little opportunity for anyone who is different to be considered and no hope for increasing the diversity of the workforce.
This is why we make an effort to make leadership opportunities for women. Aurizon, as a platinum partner of UN Women have obliviously been listening to Julie because we have heaps of these; you can take your pick! You can be mentored, rotated, transitioned to operations, lunched with the CEO, networked with other senior women, and these are just the official opportunities!
Career breaks have a massive impact on the earnings and superannuation of many female workers. The taking of parental leave (and other career breaks) shouldn’t only be painted as a women’s issue, but it does affect a lot of women and it does contribute to the lessened state of economic stability suffered by many women. So, what can we do about this, besides “leaning in” to get more cash?
It seems that every time I get an email from our Diversity team, it’s announcing a new game changing initiative. We’ve had the super booster which pays superannuation to women on unpaid maternity leave (after they have used up their paid maternity leave), $1500 to spend on help at home (nanny/childcare etc), and the big one this week, the Shared Care plan which will pay Aurizon dads half pay for 6 months to be the primary caregiver of a child or Aurizon mums 150% of their pay if they return to work and have their partner as the primary care giver.
Aurzion is my employer but I must say that I would be writing about these initiatives even if they weren’t. Everyone else is writing about them it seems! Have a look at all this press:
This could be something that has a major impact on gender roles and parenting norms across the world!
And whether you are a parent, planning to be one, or are not interested in reproducing whatsoever, a society in which parenting and family responsibilities are equally shared could lead to an end of deliberate and unconscious bias towards women in the workplace, completely smashing the (ridiculous and archaic) attitude that women are a risk cause they leave to have babies, because some still will, but equally, some men will do it too.
I hadn’t completely made the link between gender equality in a career sense and the elimination of violence against women until today. Obviously, violence against women is abhorrent, but also a society in which one in three women experiences violence is hardly the most nurturing breeding ground for future female leaders. It turns out it is really hard to focus on CPD when you fear for your life.
Over the past year, my aunt, Wilma Simmons, has been organizing a project called Flying Free, which aims to spread awareness and raise funds to end violence against women. Her original goal was to run workshops to make 1000 textile birds which would be sold to raise money for women’s refuges. The current count is at 1070. Here are some being prepared for the big day:
These are a few of the birds which I contributed to the flock.
Julie’s parting message was one which gave me hope. (I’d been flirting with despair all day about the state of gender discrimination in the world and this perked me up.) She said that we need to stop trying to fix women. We don’t need more confidence, or training, or programs, or anything to achieve equality. We need to exist in a society that is aware of the value that we already possess.
So, ladies, don’t go changing…
And have a happy International Women’s Day!