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International Women's Day: Why We're Still Talking and What Needs to Change

 



 

Every International Women's Day – which meanwhile will last the entire month of March – I get this mixed bag of feelings. On one side, there’s this genuine excitement of, "Yay, we're shining a light on all things inequality," sparking discussions aimed at paving the way for an equitable future. But also this frustration of, "Seriously, are we still not past these conversations?" and “Why are we still here, repeating the same conversations like a broken record?”

 

It's been decades since I first stepped into the corporate world, and here we are, still hashing out the same issues. Although I do agree that we have advanced a bit with more female leaders in corporate life and politics, it still feels like a never-ending déjà vu.

 

One of the first observations that strikes me each IWD is the demographic disparity in these conversations. And this time, it is the men who are under-represented. It's heartening to see a growing number of men attending IWD events, acknowledging their role in championing gender equity.  Yet their presence barely scratches the surface of what's needed for meaningful change. The imbalance in conversation participants underscores a larger issue at play. Engagement and understanding across genders are crucial for meaningful progress, yet we’re falling short.

 

And then there's the speaker lineup. I’m very sure that their intentions are pure, but the criterion for selection often boils down to gender alone. Why are we asking a woman to talk just because she fit the gender bill – she’s a woman? Being a woman does not mean you are a subject matter expert on gender equality.

 

You can rather compare it to seeking automotive advice from a dentist simply because they own a car. If my car broke down, I wouldn't go asking my dentist for advice, right? Unless they moonlight as a mechanic, but what are the odds?

 

It’s an absurd analogy, and I think it perfectly encapsulates the current scenario. Expertise should be a non-negotiable, yet here we are, settling for representation without depth. Why do we, on a day dedicated to advancing gender equity, settle for speakers whose primary qualification is their gender? This practice undermines the depth and complexity of the issues at hand.

 

The impact of placing inexperienced speakers on the podium cannot be overstated. When someone shares their personal narrative of unimpeded success – however well-meaning – claiming that sheer determination was all it took, it can inadvertently overshadow the systemic barriers that many women face. For instance, a narrative emphasizing personal success without acknowledging these barriers can dilute the lived experiences of many, suggesting that individual effort is all that's needed to overcome systemic challenges.

 

Their perspective, while inspiring to some, risks invalidating the experiences of countless others who face obstacles far beyond their control. Often women don’t get the same opportunities to be promoted, whether they are being discredited subtly for not being leadership material by not be given stretch assignments, or are focusing too much on doing a good job rather than building networks and making impressions, or because we – according to research – promote women for experience, and men for potential – or the many other obstacles that women face.

 

A senior female leader on stage telling women to “Just speak up”, “Take a seat at the table”, “Ask for it” may be well-meant advice, but it fosters a dangerous narrative: if one person can do it, why can't everyone else? And this oversimplification ignores the complex, layered challenges that obstruct the path to equity for many.

 

I have written a book about the many ‘narratives’ that we are telling and retelling at work. These are the stories that we keep on repeating without stepping back and thinking critically, and (or!) ignoring existing research. I witnessed one such narrative on one of the IWD panels 2024.

 

A woman on stage said she hired an all-female women’s leadership team and quickly discovered that they were working against each other. Like so many others, her deduction is “Women can’t work together.”

 

In my book, I dissect these narratives. Let’s think critically about it.

 

First, I know many women leadership teams who have worked wonderfully together. Anecdotal evidence is used to feed further into the myth that the X-chromosome somehow genetically possesses a anti X-chromosome collaboration gene. When we see two women not working together, we further feed into the narrative – our bias has been confirmed.

 

Second, if you get individuals to work together who do not have the required collaboration skills and mindset, they are not likely to work well together. I have worked with many leadership teams whose productivity suffers from infighting, and this is completely gender unspecific.

 

Saying that “Women can’t work together” glosses over the critical elements that underpin successful teams according to various studies: diversity, psychological safety, clarity, and a shared meaningful vision. To attribute team dysfunction to gender is as absurd as blaming the outcome of a recipe on the colour of the pot used. It’s a simplification that ignores the richness of dynamics and the essence of teamwork.

 

The truth is – it is difficult for PEOPLE to work together.

 

And that is the response that we should all give when we witness someone saying that women can’t work together. It is difficult for PEOPLE to work together.

 

In my book, I dissect many more narratives. I shed light on whether it is true that “Women are not really interested in a career”, or “Women are too emotional”, and “Women leaders are bossy”. And spoiler alert: It’s not true. These are narratives that we repeat ad nauseum without looking at research and reality.

 

So, what's really at stake every International Women's Day? It’s about cutting through the same repetitive dialogues and focusing on the heart of the matter. Bring new perspectives. Everyone has to join the conversation and it's not enough to have conversations; we need to ensure these conversations are informed, nuanced, and led by individuals who bring more than just their gender identity to the table.

 

If you’re invited to speak on a panel or participate in a discussion, consider it a call to action. Dive into the research, understand the historical context, and equip yourself with knowledge. It's astonishing how a little preparation can transform perspectives and foster a more informed dialogue. This isn’t an insurmountable task. A few research papers, some insightful books, and expert commentary can illuminate the complexities of diversity and inclusion, offering a richer, more accurate picture of the societal changes we need to advocate for.

 

 

International Women's Day should serve as a catalyst for action. Not just for conversation but for tangible, actionable change. We need to move beyond acknowledging the issues to implementing strategies that address them head-on. This requires a collective effort, transcending individual experiences to tackle the systemic barriers that hinder equity for all. It's about crafting policies, changing cultural norms, and reshaping societal structures in a way that empowers everyone, regardless of gender.

 

The essence of International Women's Day is not in the celebration itself but in the momentum it generates towards building a more inclusive, equitable world. It's a day that reminds us of the progress we've made and the long road ahead. Yet, its true value lies in the actions it inspires, the conversations it catalyses, and the commitments it fosters towards making equity a reality for all.

 

As we look towards the future, let's envision an International Women's Day that is less about lamenting the need for its existence and more about celebrating the strides we've taken since its last observance. Let's aim for a day where the discussions are not repetitive but reflective of the progress made and the journey ahead. It's time to elevate the discourse, ensuring that those who speak do.

 

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