Anna Einarsdottir: On Women’s Day we see scale of change needed

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EMPOWERING Women, Empowering Humanity: Picture it! This is the official United Nations theme for International Women’s Day which takes place tomorrow.

Like many UN themes, this one is not simply bold, but also ambiguous. It seems to imply that by empowering women, humanity will automatically follow. In my opinion, this is not necessarily the case.

Women are more likely to work in undervalued or low-skill professions.

Dr Anna Einarsdottir

Nevertheless, what remains clear is that neither women nor humanity have been fully empowered. While many women will have difficulty visualising this UN concept, for others, the picture may be blurred, and for the remaining few, they may already be in the picture anyway.

Another equally ambitious theme is put forward by the global information-sharing hub for the event – www. internationalwomensday.com.

Their slogan – Make It Happen – similarly implies that we (read women) have not quite made “it” happen yet. Yet what the “it” stands for remains unclear, and so is who is supposed to make it happen and how? I am secretly hoping that the onus is not on women alone – once again.

Taking on the challenge of Making It Happen and picturing empowered women or humanity on a global scale is ambitious at best, especially in contexts where many women do not have basic human rights.

Closer to home, the challenge of imagining empowered women/humanity seems less onerous. Except what are they actually empowered to do? Put food on the table? Have a roof over their heads? Access education? Independence? Feel safe in their neighbourhood? Love a person of their choice? Have a paid job? Start a family? Secure a pension? Or something else? A list with no end, yet, at least.

Focusing on work makes sense as employment has the potential to empower women in different ways.

I will start with the UK workplace, as it is currently, before I picture it as I (and possibly some others) would like it to be.

UK Labour Market figures from last month show that women are less likely to be in employment than men (68.5 per cent as opposed to 78 per cent of men). This means that over 30 per cent of women between the ages of 16 and 64 do not have paid jobs.

What we also know is that women are more likely to work part-time than men and in undervalued or low-skill professions which largely concern care and/or service.

Women are paid less than men, their career progression differs from men, and women are grossly underrepresented at senior and board level in any industry.

To make matters worse, many women feel alienated at work. They struggle to fit in with the “boys’ club” in the workplace and their professionalism can be placed at risk for as little as wearing the “wrong” outfit.

This is further reinforced by hostility towards women and the fact that they are more likely to be bullied and discriminated against in the workplace than men, but less likely to be taken seriously about it. Yes the picture is not pretty, but how can it be, when the landscape is what it is?

My picture (or fantasy) workplace is one of true equality where we, as women, have the same opportunities as men. We are valued in the same way as men and that the jobs that
we do are credited in the same way too.

While this does not in seem in any way unreasonable, it can only be achieved if people (and that largely means men) are willing 
to share some of their privilege with women.

Now this may offer part of the explanation as to why “it” has not happened yet and perhaps we have reached a point where more drastic measures may be needed.

One solution may be to reward organisations who meet gender targets (as opposed to punishing them) and to make gender diversity a viable and attractive proposition.

Another solution would be to introduce gender quotas at a board level and/or electoral quotas which have been successfully (but not without criticism) implemented elsewhere, including in Scandinavia.

Yet without proper affordable childcare provision, equal paternity and maternity leave and flexible working hours for parents, my ideal picture of the workplace will remain just that – ideal.

While the message of Empowering Women, Empowering Humanity. Picture it! is strong, it will take a great deal of imagination to picture it and even more determination and stamina to “Make It Happen” – that phrase again.

If I have seemed a little 
tough on the International Women’s Day themes, please don’t think I am unable to recognise the positives that an internationally-recognised day can bring.

The plight of displaced women, empowering rural women around the globe and ending violence against women are just a few of the previous, worthwhile themes which still need addressing.

Not once a year, but every day

You can also be sure that I am going to try when it comes to “making it happen”.

• Dr Anna Einarsdottir is a lecturer in organisational behaviour and human resource management at Hull University Business School. Her research interests include equality, diversity and inclusion, bullying, harassment and discrimination.

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