Choosing to Challenge – Women and Advocacy in 2021
This year, the theme of International Women’s Day is ‘Choose to Challenge’. When we choose something, we opt in favour of one option and against another. The freedom to choose our path in life is fundamental in the overall pursuit of the women’s movement since its inception. That we now have the privilege to decide whether we will choose to challenge gender inequality wherever we see it is a truly wonderful sign of forward progress. But with all privilege comes responsibility, a responsibility about how we use it, what we ‘choose’ to do with it.
How it started
If we think back to the origins of International Women’s Day, which arose from female factory workers in New York marching for better pay and working conditions in the early twentieth century, one could say that they chose to make a stand. But it could also be argued that they didn’t have a choice, that the alternative was so dismal that it didn’t constitute a real option.
How it’s going…
In 2021, there is much to be celebrated on International Women’s Day. Women of all different nationalities, races, ages, religions, abilities and professions have already taken up the invitation to choose to challenge. It is easy to feel overwhelmed, or small and insignificant, when we talk about working towards gender equality. But every one of us can make a difference. It doesn’t matter how small your action may feel to you right now, it is an important step in the right direction. No one got to do great things overnight. Every massive achievement began with small steps.
But, Inequities Persist
Despite all the great work that is being done in the pursuit of gender equality, inequities still persist. While equity is about fairness, equality is about sameness. So, when we speak of equality and equity, we must realise that before we can enjoy equality, equity must be achieved first. In my work, I’m a specialist in the area of intersectionality. This is a term that most people are not familiar with. The term is actually a legal one and was coined by an American civil rights lawyer, Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989. Essentially, Crenshaw’s term puts a framework around the way that gender, race, and class all intersect and play off each other. In her own words, the term captures “how certain aspects of who you are will increase your access to the good things or your exposure to the bad things in life”1. From an intersectionality point of view, gender equality is no good if it doesn’t take into account the other factors including race that work alongside it.
In Ireland a notable example of gender inequality is the difference between male and female self-employment. We know that SMEs are hugely significant to the Irish economy, employing 1.06 million people2. But in Ireland, we have the highest gender gap in self-employment in the E.U.
When it comes to venture capital funding, less than 10% goes to companies with female founders and when we drill down even further to the women who could potentially help lift those female owned businesses, only 3% of angel investors in Ireland are women3. These are areas that need to be addressed by men and women alike.
The above figures represent gender inequalities that run through the whole of Irish society. However, when we consider gender inequality in terms of under-represented voices, the numbers change – and not for the better. Women from black and minority ethnic backgrounds, women with disabilities and other marginalised groups face greater inequality than their white, able-bodied Irish counterparts. For example, as it stands there is only one full-time black professor employed in Irish academia. Recently, a woman who qualifies for a disability allowance was informed that because she was awarded an educational bursary, she would no longer qualify for the supports she needs to allow her to navigate daily life, given her disability4. These are just two examples of how women from marginalised backgrounds within Ireland must deal with inequality on a daily basis.
Are we there yet?
Unfortunately not. Yes, good progress is being made, but that’s when we look at the micro picture, perhaps our own immediate circle. On a global scale, things are different. The Global Gender Gap Report of 2020 published by the World Economic Forum predicts that gender parity will not be attained in our lifetime or that of our children. In fact, they estimate that it will take 99 and a half years to achieve gender parity5. That is a sobering thought.
Earlier this year, Kamala Harris, the first female Vice President of the United States was sworn in and closer to home, also this year, Minister for Justice, Helen McEntee, is due to become the first sitting Irish minister to take maternity leave. But, unfortunately for every good news story there are still plenty of other negative ones that stack up against women, particularly women with intersecting identities and from marginalised communities. Not just in Ireland, but around the world.
Who are we?
The question comes down to this one, who are we? When we mark International Women’s Day what does that mean? It asks something of us – to become advocates, allies, sponsors, upstanders or amplifiers. Those of us who are privileged enough to be able to believe, if only temporarily, that gender equality has been achieved are enjoying the fruits of other women’s labour, they worked extremely hard to give us the privilege. Will we just take it? Or will we say thank you by giving something back?
This month, as you think about the role of women around International Women’s Day, what role will you choose to play? Remember, equality starts with you. Choose to speak up! Choose to fight injustice! Choose to call out a lack of diversity when you see it! Choose to become a thoughtful ally!
The part you play in the story may be small today – but small actions and gestures can combine to great action over the course of a lifetime. You could support the women in your workplace somehow; or vote with your feet (and purse) in a small business run by women, it’s a very tough time for small businesses right now.
If you’re not sure how you can best support women in making a difference to challenge the status quo, ask. You can also challenge by creating of an inclusive workplace culture. There are so many ways to make a difference, starting today. There’s never a better time to act than right now.
PhoenixRize specialises in helping organisations create and sustain diverse, equitable, anti-racist and inclusive workplaces. If you or your organisation are keen to address these questions in your workplace, contact us today.