What started off as a march for better pay, shorter working hours, and the right to vote in 1908 with just over 15,000 women marching through New York City has snowballed into one of the most significant annual events celebrated across the globe today. International Women’s Day is an effort to recognise and acknowledge the incredible successes led by women throughout history, but it is also a reminder of the inequalities and (gender) gaps that we are yet to overcome.
This year marks the 111th celebration of International Women’s Day (IWD) and is a moment for us to reflect on the events of the past year and work towards building a more equitable future where we champion women’s rights and address the glaring inequalities in social, economic, and political life. This year, we envision a world without bias, stereotypes, and discrimination; a world that is diverse, equitable, and inclusive, and in doing so, we #EmbraceEquity. The theme for this year rightfully highlights the shift towards making workplaces equitable, empowering women from all walks of life, and forging change that drives gender parity.
Why equity and not equality?
The IWD 2023 #EmbraceEquity theme seeks to get the world talking about why “equal opportunities are no longer enough” - and can in fact be exclusionary, rather than inclusive . While ‘equality’ means giving people the same resources and opportunities without discrimination, it is often not enough to undo systemic and historical disadvantages. ‘Equity’ is the acknowledgement that people have differing needs depending on their circumstances, and giving people resources according to this need can lead to an ‘equitable outcome’.
Equity-based solutions to complex social problems can pave the way for sustainable and long-term empowerment and change as they address the root cause of inequalities- skewed social systems. So, on this IWD, we recognise that women from different social situations and backgrounds need differing opportunities and resources to achieve their potential and thus, embrace equity across all spheres of life- education, housing, employment, healthcare, politics, and more.
Reflections since IWD 2022
The past year has been somewhat of a roller coaster for women’s rights and gender equality. Worsening disparities, a widening gender gap, and global backlash on women’s rights has pushed the goal of achieving gender parity decades into the future. From conflict-induced violence against women in light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, to the resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan, the overturning of Roe v Wade in the USA, worsening levels of domestic abuse during the cost of living crisis, the spike in transphobic hate crime, and the ever-increasing violence against women instigated by the State, the past year has been marred with events that have undermined women’s rights and threatened the goals of gender parity and equity.
However, there has been marked progress too. In politics, the number of countries that have achieved gender parity doubled from three in 2020 to six as of November 2022 when, for the first time in New Zealand’s history, there were more women than men in parliament, joining countries including Rwanda, Cuba and Nicaragua. Gabriel Boric came to power in Chile in 2022 and introduced the country’s first gender-balanced cabinet and, in the US, Ketanji Brown Jackson made history when she became the first Black woman to sit on the Supreme Court. Spain passed Europe’s first paid ‘menstrual leave’ which gives the right to a three-day menstrual leave of absence, joining Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Indonesia and Zambia who all have some form of menstrual leave in their employment framework. Yet, just six out of 200 parliaments have achieved gender parity and, at the same time, we have witnessed a rollback on women’s rights that includes the overturn of Roe v Wade and state-sanctioned violence and repression of women’s freedom in Iran and under the repressive Taliban regime. For many women and girls in Afghanistan and the US, they now have less rights than their mothers and grandmothers were afforded.
We have witnessed solidarity from men and boys in 2022; in Iran, men were protesting alongside women and girls after 22-year-old Mahsa Amini died in custody of the country’s “morality police” for allegedly violating Iran’s hijab law. In Afghanistan, male students walked out of their classes in protest of the Taliban’s ban on women attending University were shared online alongside cases of male professors quitting in protest. Yet, feminist progress is often followed by a backlash and we’ve seen a harrowing rise of violent, misogynistic content online. This backlash is somewhat spearheaded by Andrew Tate who, despite his arrest at the end of last year as part of a rape and human trafficking investigation, continued to amass billions of views online, many of whom are teenage boys.
Violence against women and girls
One in three women will experience physical or sexual violence in their lifetime, according to the WHO. The Crime Survey for England and Wales estimates that 5.0% of adults aged 16 years and over (2.4 million) experienced domestic abuse in the last year and that the number of domestic abuse-related crimes in the UK has continued to increase in recent years with the latest figure 7.7% higher than the year ending March 2021, and 14.1% higher than the year ending March 2020 . This reflects a steady trend of increasing violence in the domestic sphere against women. Between 2019 and 2020, the number of gender-related killings increased in Western Europe by 11%; in Southern Europe, the increase was 5%. In North America, these killings increased by 8%, and by 5% in South America . The threat of the pandemic, the rising cost of living, and the socio-political conflict have all seen a steady rise in VAW. At such a time, it becomes crucial to focus on strengthening laws against perpetrators of violence and providing resources for survivors.
For women experiencing domestic abuse, the cost of living crisis further exacerbates their situation. Two-thirds (66%) of survivors reported that abusers were using the cost of living increase and concerns about financial hardship as a tool for coercive control, including to justify further restricting their access to money. Control over finances in the current inflationary environment further restricts the ability of domestic abuse survivors to flee and seek assistance. It also isolates women and increases the frequency of violence at home .
Women in board roles at FTSE 350 companies reached above 40% for the first time this year, three years ahead of target, and the number of female Fortune 500 CEOs reached an all time high last year, although this number still sits at just 9%. The progression of women into more senior levels of companies is promising, however also reveals the stark gaps that exist between women in accordance with their race, gender expression, sexuality, wealth and disability. This is still missing in many debates on equal opportunities, and much of the data that has been gathered is either missing this intersectional breakdown altogether, or adopts generalised and analytically reductive categories that fail to acknowledge nuance between, for example, ‘women of colour’.
Furthermore, around 2.4 billion women of working age are not afforded equal economic opportunities and 178 countries maintain legal barriers that prevent their full economic participation, as per a World Bank report . Furthermore, according to the Gender Gap Report 2022, an analysis of gender parity in labour-force participation has seen a slow decline since 2009. However, this has worsened since 2020, and 2022 has seen the lowest level of labour-force participation parity at 62.9% . Among the large unemployed global population, women are consistently over-represented, highlighting the wide gender gap in economic participation.
What does this mean for gender parity going forward?
Achieving the goal of gender equality outlined in SDG 5 has been pushed further into the future as a result of these events. At such a time, we need to look toward mobilising for stronger policy-making, legislative advocacy, and activism. This IWD, when we think of embracing equity, we must strive to fight for equity for women across the globe. For the private sector, being accountable for diversity strategies and ensuring equitable pay and representation for women through an intersectional lens can help make steady progress and improve the economic participation of women. Advocating for pro-feminist policies, stricter laws against domestic abusers, and financial aid for women in need can help improve the situation for survivors of intimate partner violence.
Gender parity is a long road ahead, however, steady steps towards the goal can help make it a reality. This International Women’s Day onward, let us strive to work towards reducing the barriers women face in education, employment, healthcare, and politics and build an equitable future.
Written by Bhuvan Majmudar, Thrive Research Hub Member