International Women’s Day was first celebrated in 1909 to honor the 1908 garment women’s strike in New York. The women were protesting their horrific working conditions. The purpose of the holiday wasn’t simply to celebrate women, but instead, to recognize and educate people about the inequalities that women experience across the world.
I grew up in the former Soviet Union, where women gained suffrage in 1917. By the time I was growing up, International Women’s Day was still a national holiday, but it had lost all of its original meaning. Instead, it resembled Valentine’s Day—a day to celebrate women and give your mother and your wife flowers. It turns out that it’s a lot easier to give flowers than it is to talk about ongoing inequality and figure out how to drive permanent change in the future.
Meanwhile, women still struggle with inequality, and this year, COVID-19 has only exacerbated the problems women face in the workforce. In fact, more than two million women have left the workforce since the pandemic began last spring. International Women’s Day has never been more relevant than it is now, and it’s my conviction that we need to return to its original purpose: uplifting women, collaborating with women, raising awareness about the challenges women face, and taking action to make women’s lives better.
What Women’s Day Means Worldwide
Truly inclusive leadership means not just talking with our people, but also letting them do much of the talking. So, I asked some of our employees what International Women’s Day means in their home countries, and here’s what they had to say.
Sharon now lives in Canada but is originally from Ireland, and she noted that in Canada, “International Women’s Day is marked by government statements and events reasserting women’s rights and Canada’s values of equality. Many businesses will also mark the day with events highlighting achievements by women in the organization. NGOs and other groups also shine a light on where Canada has failed to live up to its values, especially in the area of First Nations (Indigeous peoples) and women in poverty. The day celebrates what has been accomplished while also reflecting on what yet needs to be done.” In Ireland, she explained, “International Women’s day tends to be more somber given the historically poor treatment of women by the state. It tends to be a time of activism and accountability.”
Alina, who’s from Ukraine, reported, “In Ukraine, International Women’s Day is very popular and is a public holiday. It started back in 1914 as an official holiday which celebrates the achievements of women in political, economic, and social fields. Nowadays, the holiday has changed its meaning a bit to celebrate, recognize, and remember women and the accomplishments they have made to society. Now, in Ukraine, it’s normally celebrated with family and friends. Men try to treat nicely and pay attention to every important woman in their lives: mother, sister, grandmother, wife, or girlfriend. Sometimes women receive marriage proposals this day, which makes this date memorable. But after all, to show attention to a woman, men do not need a special day—a fairy tale can be created daily. :-)”
Melanie, who is from the United States, noted, “In the US, I don’t feel that International Women’s Day is widely known. In fact, I was not familiar with it until I joined InfoTrust and started being involved with our LeanIn circle. Which, I think is a shame because we are missing an opportunity to discuss issues and celebrate how far we have come.”
Taken together, these perspectives show that while International Women’s Day is, in fact, international, its commemoration takes a different shape in every country.
My Perspective as a CEO
My third-grade son recently showed me this graphic, and it blew me away. I had no idea that many women in the United States couldn’t have a bank account in their own names or couldn’t get their own credit cards until 1974.
This is such a powerful image because it really helped me put some things in perspective: women’s rights are not a battle that was fought in the distant past. Women in my own generation have battled discrimination, and women in my daughter’s generation will continue the fight. These inequities are ongoing.
I strongly believe in women’s rights, and some of the decisions that the government has made in regards to women are unfair and counterproductive to women’s equality. For one, I’m a firm believer in a woman’s right to choose. Why have we accepted the idea that any government official has a right to dictate women’s reproductive choices? Middle-aged white men—or any government official, for that matter—should not make such deeply complicated, intimate, and personal decisions.
Unfortunately, this same unfair dynamic is replicated at the business level. Many executives and CEOs are men, and they are the ones who make policies regarding parental leave. So many CEOs have a limited perspective on parental leave, seeing it only as a nuisance or inefficiency. Women often face awkward conversations, financial hardships, or lost opportunities simply because their bosses have a shortsighted eye on their bottom line. As I’ve argued elsewhere, leaders would be better served by seeing parental leave as an opportunity, not a stumbling block.
Employers wield further authority over women’s reproductive choices due to the fact that employers choose their workers’ health plans, including reproductive health coverage. Just because I am a business owner, does that give me a right to decide what healthcare benefits women in the organization should receive? I feel that it’s fundamentally wrong for me to decide whether women in our company will be able to afford expensive fertility treatments or IVF.
In the words of Jen, our finance manager, “Generally, fertility treatments are not covered by health insurance carriers for fully-insured medical programs. Self-insured employers may choose to cover such treatments, because the employer is the one paying the claims. However, most fully-insured carriers offer discounts on treatments.” Therefore, employers have a double bias not to include fertility treatments in their coverage, due to the additional high costs and the perceived disruption if an employee becomes pregnant.
Finally, many women find that meaningful inclusion in a company hinges on how easily they can juggle the demands of being a working mother. When leaders pretend that those demands don’t exist or that they’re irrelevant, many women will not feel welcome. Companies need to focus on policies that support women, like flexible work schedules or training programs for promotion-related skills.
These are just a few examples of how deeply gender inequalities run. Even if we don’t have a solution for some of these problems yet, it’s important to be mindful of the fact that, even in 2021, women are still grappling with such issues. Fortunately, more and more top leaders are beginning to understand that women face particular challenges in the workplace and that companies benefit when they actually acknowledge and accommodate those challenges.
How You Do Anything Is How You Do Everything
My six-year-old daughter is a natural feminist. Right before the pandemic hit, we took her to a University of Cincinnati Bearcats men’s basketball game..“This isn’t fair,” she protested. “Only boys are playing.” I realized that she was right, so when we got home, I bought tickets to a UC women’s basketball game. Our whole family went, and to my daughter’s delight, UC completely decimated East Carolina University.
The women’s game was in March 2020, so it was the last game before the lockdowns started. Because my daughter wanted to watch girls play sports, we were all able to experience the joy of one last live sporting event. In other words, when we tried to make her experience better, everybody benefitted. The same goes for women’s equality more generally. When we make the world a better place for women, we all benefit.
The world is not fair, and nobody is going to make it fair for you, but we all have the opportunity to try. After all, how you do anything is how you do everything. This year, I encourage both men and women to take a moment to see what change they can make in the world. Do it now, not just on March 8th. And, yes….you should still send your mom flowers. You can never go wrong with sending on your mom flowers on March 8th—or any day of the year!