International Women’s Day has been observed since the early 1900s, when women in the United States and Europe started striking and taking part in public rallies for voting rights, better pay and working hours. Women like Sylvia Pankhurst and more recently Malala Yousafzai are household names as suffrages for women’s rights. We can be proud that many women have made it to become prime ministers, presidents, CEOs of companies and be represented at C-suite level in boards. My own favourites have been people like Angela Merkel, Jacinda Ardern, Christian Lagarde, Sheryl Sandberg, Michelle Obama, Indra Nooyi and Kang Kyung Wha. In fact, the United Nations has a tall order of achieving the sustainable development goal for gender equality and empowering of women by 2030. It is heartening to see that in recent years, increasing numbers of organisations globally have adopted inclusion and diversity policies to recognise and reward women in the workplace. The number of women in C-Suite positions is gradually increasing. It seems that there is so much being done to bring women to the forefront and to present them with equal opportunities at work.
However, COVID 19 had exposed the real vulnerability faced by women. There were a plethora of articles and media news that highlighted the suffering of women around the world during the pandemic - women as front liners, embroiled in domestic violence and carers for elderly parents. McKinsey 2020 reported that women were much more susceptible to job losses when compared to men during COVID 19. Although women make up around 39% of the global workforce, they make up for 54% of job losses (Mckinsey). The gender equality, pay gap and promotional prospects between men and women is increasing further, and may worsen. During the pandemic, it was obvious that women were taking the brunt of childcare, as carers and still taking the lion’s share of domestic chores. But women’s roles and contribution to house chores is still completely ignored as a share of GDP. Many women had to give up their job, or were furloughed for these reasons. But this is not a new problem. The pandemic has only aggravated and highlighted these issues. Generally, although most women take on a lead childcare role for a household, organisations still discriminate and refuse to be flexible in allowing women to keep their jobs and at the same time help raise balanced families for long-term positive human development.
Breaking the “glass ceiling”
At the same time, if conscious effort is not made, women in high skilled jobs will continue to struggle to ‘break the glass ceiling’ and gain entry to senior positions in their organisations. The representation of women in C-suites and at board level is still negligible. The opportunities are worse for Black, Asian and Ethnic Minority women. In some countries like Bangladesh, Vietnam and Philippines, women make up a large proportion of the workforce in the low skilled and low paid jobs in manufacturing, textiles, domestic helpers and restaurants. Despite being significant contributors to the overall economy, these women are still trapped in very poor working conditions, low wages and long working hours. The pandemic has worsened the situation for them and increased their vulnerability manifold.
The International Women’s Day must be used to reinforce the role of women, to reflect their contributions to their families, workplace and society. ‘Behind every man is a successful woman’ but ‘behind every successful woman there must be a successful man and other women too’. It is not enough to just celebrate this day and to send each other greetings and wishes. What can we as a society do to help alleviate the position of women and give them a better life? What can policy makers and business leaders do to ‘walk the talk’, and lead policies in their organisations to empower women, to create diversity and encourage inclusion.
Time for change
First, organisations that actively promote women through diversity and inclusion policies should be rewarded through strong government incentives such as tax breaks, grants for women’s continuous education and women’s scholarship for young and budding women in the workforce.
Second, men at work who sponsor, mentor and promote women should be rewarded and promoted due to their conscious effort to embrace diversity and inclusion.
Third, men who sponsor and promote BAME women should also be rewarded and promoted for their awareness.
Fourth, women in the workforce should also be given legal protection and the right to a voice. Human Resources departments in organisations must provide special training to women on making them aware of their rights and benefits.
Finally, every nation must invest in educating their women; and every female child should be given the opportunity to go to school. A highly educated woman is an asset to a nation’s economy and society.
Find out more about International Women’s Day here.