Posted by: estellepetrie1 | March 9, 2016

It’s International Women’s Day but let’s not get complacent

How very fitting that my internship with an international women’s rights organisation should fall in the same period we mark International Women’s Day. It has been celebrated since the early 1900s, with a theme selected for the day since the mid-90s. This year the theme is #pledgeforparity, although the hashtag that seems to be trending on twitter is actually #internationalwomensday (in three languages).

What better time for a little reflection on women’s rights than today. The IWD website about page notes that in 2016 greater presence of women in the workplace, politics, education and other areas of life might lead to the view that ‘all the battles have been won’. Add to this that many countries have enacted laws to prohibit discrimination against women and there is at least a seemingly greater awareness of issues such as violence against women or gender pay gaps, to give examples.

If I wasn’t already highly critical of this kind of complacency around women’s rights, the experience of attending the CEDAW session has reinforced my complete conviction that gender equality is a long way from being achieved, for both developed and developing countries.

Rights instead of Flowers, Tbilisi Georgia, photo David Mszinarishvili and Reuters

Rally to mark IWD in Tbilisi, Georgia. Photograph: David Mdzinarishvili/Reuters

Consider Japan, with its developed economy, where 42.9% of women are ‘working poor’ (reported by Japan NGO Network for CEDAW) and the gender wage gap according to the OECD in 2013 was 26.6%, 10 percentage points higher than the OECD average. In Australia is was 18% in 2013, also above OECD average.

Japan also uses a management practice which creates categorises employees as either ‘main career track’ or ‘general track’. Main career track work longer hours, are expected not to refuse transfers but are also considered more for promotions. Women are overwhelmingly general track workers, the long hours and transfers impossible to balance with home and caring duties. In Japan and countries across the world labour segregation is a persistent issue, both horizontally and vertically. As Eva Cox writes in this piece on The Conversation, the wage gap is also a result of biases and irrational assumptions about the value of certain types of work, so that industries which are highly feminised are not generally well paid.

However, should we really be complaining, surely the fact that women can work today is a hard fought victory for women’s rights we must celebrate. I am reminded of a chapter in Annabel Crabb’s The Wife Drought which details the law against married women working in Australia, and its eventual dismantling.

Certainly, the gains give us hope, but improvement in women’s access to education, health, employment and political representation is perhaps both an asset and a hazard. As women’s rights “enters the mainstream” (ridiculously to think gender equality was ever a fringe idea) we must guard against both complacency and simplistic or reductionist approaches to women’s rights.

Harriet Minter wrote in The Guardian today bemoaning the IWD theme of ‘pledging for parity’. Instead of seeking to reach parity with men, we should be aim to ‘progress’ and improve the lot of men and women. Whilst arguments which counterbalance women’s disadvantage and discrimination with examples of men’s hardship can be irritating (ignoring that women are victims of centuries of structural subordination), I do agree with Minter insofar as ‘parity’ as a defining theme for IWD is a little simplistic.

Women are working more than ever today. However, issues such as horizontal and vertical labour market segregation, management practices which cause de facto discrimination and greater numbers of women in part time or low paid work cannot be cured with a swift pledge to ‘gender parity’. The IWD website encourages businesses to ‘help women and girls achieve their dreams’ or ‘challenge conscious and unconscious biases’ amongst other things. These are worthy initiatives to raise awareness and change cultures.

However, perhaps what is missing is a concurrent discussion of concrete actions and numbers, such as effective discrimination complaint mechanisms or legislated quotas to ensure more rapid advancement towards gender equality. Consider Iceland’s structured parental leave scheme which allots 3 months of non-transferable leave to each parent and has resulted in over 90% of fathers taking parental leave since 2007 (according to the Icelandic Women’s Rights Association and Icelandic Human rights Centre report to CEDAW). Such an uptake of parental leave was not achieved through PR campaigns and feel good posters, but government action.

So whilst I am excited we can celebrate International Women’s Day let’s make sure it is not just a celebration but a call for concrete measures and actions to advance gender equality.


  1. International women day is a significant day for women. It represents their hard work, their participation in development and their rights.

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