On Sunday 8th March, people across the globe will celebrate International Women’s Day. In some places it will be a day of protest, a chance to challenge ongoing gender bias. In other areas, it will be a day that celebrates womanhood and female achievements.
There’s been lots of progress in equality in recent years, but we still have a long way to go.
What does International Women’s Day mean in 2020?
International Women’s Day began at the 1910 International Socialist Women's Conference where working women were honoured. The day has been celebrated ever since by suffrage movements, socialist movements and the United Nations.
But what does International Women’s Day mean in today’s world? Is it a chance to celebrate the achievements of women who’ve won? Is it a chance to reflect upon past and ongoing injustice?
In this article, we take a look at both ends of the spectrum as our Founder and CEO Maria Hvorostovsky and our Commercial and HR Director Zia Paul-Birabi explore what this day means to them.
What does International Women’s Day mean to you?
Maria: For me, this day reminds me of my childhood. We celebrated 8th of March in Russia where I grew up. There was a tradition where the boys would make a card and gift it to the girls in their class.
This was always a positive and uplifting day, similar to St. Valentine’s Day, which wasn’t really celebrated in Russia at the time.
For me now, International Women’s Day remains a celebration of a different sort. It’s a day to recognise the achievements of women, a day about mothers, daughters, career women - everyone. It feels wonderful to have a day to be appreciated.
Zia: Honestly it brings mixed feelings. On the one hand it’s a great opportunity for women to champion and shout about the achievements of others.
On the other hand, we seem to be making limited progress when it comes to equal pay, lack of flexible working opportunities for working parents, number of women in senior roles etc. etc.
Too many women are still faced with an all or nothing decision to return to work, or struggle to get back on the career ladder having taken a career break to raise kids.
Having worked and lived in other parts of the world such as Nigeria, I am also only too aware that much greater gender inequalities exist outside of Europe, where women are still considered subordinate and only as homemakers.
What taboos have women broken to allow them to achieve success?
Maria: I think what has made an impact is that women have created their own networks and are now more than ever willing to help each other.
This allows issues that were once private and not spoken about to come to the surface so that women can see the issues and work together to resolve them. If no one says anything, everyone assumes the problems are unique to them.
I am also happy to see more and more women using their strengths, talents and individuality to succeed. Retail is in a bad way at the moment and brands I see doing well often have their own style of doing things, many of which have women at the helm.
Another taboo that seems to have been broken is that women are not having to behave in a way that’s not natural to them, not having to adopt an ‘aggressive’ style if that’s not them, or having to be ‘pleasant’ if they have a more direct communication style.
I love hearing stories of when women break down the labels given to them. For example when a petite softly spoken woman walks into a boardroom (usually dominated by men) and takes everyone aback by having killer arguments in a negotiation without having to raise her voice. That’s yielding your power in your own way.
Zia: I agree, it doesn’t make you arrogant for congratulating yourself for your victories. And the more often people speak up, the more success stories there will be to inspire a new generation of strong women.
However, I still think it’s taboo for working women to admit they feel overwhelmed or worry that they can’t have it all. They are often still viewed as ‘weak’ - and our harshest critics are often - surprisingly - other women. Sometimes we are our own worst enemy.
I think the culture of women raising up other women is fantastic, but we still need to eradicate pitting women against each other or diminishing their achievements.
Looking forward: What advice would you give to those in leadership roles with the ability to affect change?
Maria: Speak up, give voice to those who don’t have it. Encourage women to step out of their own shadows.
At work, allow for more flexibility. As Zia mentioned before, there are numerous difficulties mothers face when juggling their family life and careers. Flexible hours and home working will not just help those dealing with children, elderly parents or housework. They will help productivity too.
Oh and I can’t believe I’m still saying this in 2020, but the gender pay gap needs to close!
Zia: Yes! And we should all be flexible when thinking about what being “productive” looks like.
Offering a flexible way of working massively increases loyalty - I have friends who’ve stayed for years in jobs that don’t necessarily advance their careers because they can fit work around their family.
Leaders should also lead by example and leave the office at a reasonable time - I’ve worked for companies before that created a toxic, long hours culture because no-one wanted to leave work before their manager.
What advice would you give to women starting out in their careers to achieve their potential?
Maria: Focus on your strengths. Support other women. Build meaningful relationships with both men and women. And most importantly, carve out your own path.
Zia: Think outside the box. What do you really love doing?
Things have changed significantly since I entered the job market 20 years ago. The number of jobs people have in a lifetime has massively increased, and opportunities exist for people to pivot their career at any time.
While university used to be the most conventional route into work, many entrepreneurs have avoided this and are now making significant strides, while their peers stack shelves in supermarkets and try to pay off their student loan. Do what is right for you.