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What's happened to IWD?

Action – not just words, memes and social posts on one day a year – are needed to make significant change for women in the workplace


It started as a tiny whisper that has gained the sort of loud voice we approve of because it raises important issues – ‘Is there any longer any point in International Women’s Day?’

 

In its favour is that this is an internationally celebrated event that shines a light on some brilliant women. It has its origins in the early twentieth century and was officially recognised by the United Nations (UN) in 1977. In 2024 it is woven into the fabric of corporate life. Workplaces rush to do something to mark every 8th March. Firms profile their key female employees and send out inspirational quotes and hashtags that celebrate how far they have come in terms of breaking down barriers for women.

 

And here is the rub. The very companies that are busy congratulating themselves on how supportive they are of female employees are usually the ones who promote men to the top jobs and pay them more than similarly – or more – qualified women. Overwhelmingly, the barriers to female progression remain at every level. Women in the workplace are still being overlooked, underpaid, accused of being ‘too emotional’ and patronised on a daily basis.

 

Barriers to progression still exist


A Financial News Women in the City survey ahead of IWD 2024 revealed almost 60 per cent of women polled said that culture – the old boys’ club at the top of organisations – remained the biggest barrier to getting more women into senior positions. Other barriers included too few visible female role models, unequal paid parental leave options for mothers and fathers, not enough support for caregivers, and limited resources for women’s health issues.


The government-backed annual FTSE Women Leaders Review, unveiled at the end of February, suggested that progress at the very top of organisations is happening – but still not enough. Whilst women are making it into the boardroom and now occupy more than two in five seats on the boards of the UK’s biggest listed companies, just 10 per cent of the FTSE bosses are women. ‘The rate of improvement needs to step up,’ according to Penny James, co-chair of the review.

 

Given this backdrop, where does this leave IWD? For many, it seems as though it is floundering. There are fewer events in 2024, and it feels a bit jaded – as though we are going through the motions of celebrating it without really using it as a catalyst for change. ‘IWD fell to grifters, chancers and corporate fluff because we forgot that IWD is about women,’ wrote Sophie Walker in an article entitled ‘RIP IWD’.

 

Elusive inclusivity


Not even the 2024 IWD campaign theme of ‘Inspire Inclusion’ has managed to inspire much enthusiasm – or encourage many stories of inclusivity. The Financial News survey suggested that the financial services industry in particular might have invested in diversity and inclusion (D&I) to try and attract and retain female talent and boost the number of women in senior roles, but that is not translated into tangible action. Responses to the poll suggested firms are paying ‘lip service’ to D&I and treating it as a ‘tick-box exercise’.

 

Worse, one respondent said: ‘Firms want diversity, but they do not deal with the inclusion factor. As IWD comes around each year, the business wants to profile women in our sector externally, but then go on radio silence a month later when we publish our gender pay gap.’

 

The UN’s 2024 overall theme of ‘Invest in Women: Accelerate Progress’ with a focus on addressing economic disempowerment, is all very laudable – but it shouldn’t be confined to one day. What we really want is fully focused attention on reaching true equity all year round, not some corporate masking tape around one day a year on March 8th.

 

We want loud, confident voices to inspire change – particularly in the workplace – and we want words to be followed up with action. It really shouldn’t be that difficult.

 

 

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