• cynthiaccheng

IWD or Why-WD? Perspectives on International Women’s Day

As a woman, I sit with unease on International Women’s Day.


While IWD is a great opportunity for women around the world to advocate for their rights and celebrate their achievements, International Women’s Day is not a be all and end all, and certainly should not be lauded or marketed as an achievement in itself. This day should be used as a valuable opportunity to ask some difficult questions and make long-lasting actionable change, yet all too often it is flooded with marketing gimmicks, performative feminism and half-baked progress statements.


Before you start brandishing labels of anti-feminism, hear me out.


#BreakTheBias


This year’s theme for IWD is an important one, “break the bias”.


While it’s great to make a public statement about how awesome women are and what more needs to be done, certain communications may be masquerading some actual deep-rooted issues that need to be tackled. It’s all well and good to brazenly declare on social media our endorsement for IWD, celebrating achievements of significant women in our lives, applauding how many senior female leaders we have in the company. But if we take a step back, what is really beyond the glossy, slogan-adorned endorsements?


In other words, what is concretely being done to #BreakTheBias? The value of IWD is relevant only if we ask some challenging questions and take some real steps, however big or small, to tackle them. For starters:

  • How much do female colleagues of your seniority make respectively? Have you wondered?

  • How many of your female peers are subject to sexual harassment but are too afraid to speak up or think they should "let it go" because they are being "too sensitive"?

  • How many of your female colleagues are still too embarrassed to speak openly about menstrual problems, menstrual pain and ask for sick leave quoting that reason?

  • How many of your female colleagues are concerned that getting pregnant would jeopardise their career advancement?

  • How many women leave your company when they reach a certain level of seniority, and why?

These are the issues that we need to speak and hear about on IWD - bearing in mind that these are only first world gender issues at the tip of the iceberg. We need to be cautious not to fatigue our audience with performative feminism before we even begin to tackle broader gender issues faced by women globally - such as right to education, sex trafficking, domestic and gender-based violence, female genital mutilation…the list goes on.


We need women to speak openly and honestly about what issues men are causing women, but also what other women are causing women (toxic femininity is a real thing). We also need men to truly see the relevance and be part of the change, not just throwing in obligatory congratulatory messages on IWD to earn a badge of honour whilst internally rolling their eyes. And for that, I think we need to be actively inclusive of men at women’s events, men sitting in on women’s network meetings, and men responsible for making some changes. We need enough men to truly want things to be better for their female peers, and care enough to do something about it. The battle can’t be won on our own.


Manels


And then there is the issue of “manels”. In recent years, there has been a lot of controversy around #manels, or panels made up exclusively of men. While calling out of “manels” is an important and legitimate first step – it should not stop there.


On the important assumption that women are not actively and systematically excluded from or disregarded for such opportunities, I would argue that having an all-male panel once in a while is not an issue in itself.


Calling out any “manel” that we see may just be blowing a horn to draw attention to the differences between genders, instead of focusing on the fact that despite those differences, men and women can equally achieve specialised expertise (and therefore an all-male panel is just as valid as an all-female panel). It’s also simplistically undermining the range of diversity that we humans embody. A same-gender panel may still afford a broad diversity and representation – we have racial, socio-economic, religious, age, sexual orientation, to name just a few. Gender is one, albeit very significant, aspect of diversity.


I would personally hate to be invited to speak or join a panel or a board for the sole reason that I am a woman. I want to be invited because I know what I am talking about, because I am well-qualified and because I offer a unique point of view.


The whistleblowing of “manels” does raise some awareness for the better, but has also led to panel organisers being hyper-aware for the wrong reasons, and picking any token Asian or token women for “representation”. This behaviour just exacerbates the gender parity issue and delays real progress in achieving equality. In situations where we are really finding it challenging to put together a truly diverse panel, let’s then ask the right question: why is this the case and what can be done in your industry to address this systemic under-representation?


From the perspective of an Asian woman, by all means please do pick the Asian woman to join the panel. But not because her face adds an extra tonal diversity to the palette of the LinkedIn post that you will publish after the event. Choose the Asian woman because she is the right person to be there, because she has something to say, and because you know she will absolutely smash it.


Last thoughts


In my lifetime, IWD will still hold its significance due to the huge gaps in gender parity that still exist across communities.


But one day, I hope IWD becomes a day that is like any other. Because on that day, women around the world will hold equal rights and opportunities. We will have full rights to education, will have claimed our sexual independence, will be in charge of our own bodies, will enjoy equal pay, will sit on boards and run companies and do whatever we wish to do because we had the opportunities to help us get there and feel empowered to do so without shame.


On that day, women will not need to wear ribbons or wave banners or chant slogans to advocate for our rights, because we will unquestionably and undeniably have them. We will not need one designated day to showcase or celebrate our achievements, because we will do that any day and every day.


But for today, 8 March 2022, happy International Women’s Day - let’s use it as an opportunity and reminder to ask the right questions.