This Opinion piece is by Anusuya Datta, a writer/journalist currently based in Saskatoon who has a special interest in connecting technology with sustainability issues and social causes.
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It’s that time of year again. International Women’s Day. Suddenly, as women we feel special.
There is a flurry of activity from every brand touting their “support” for women.
The promotion folders in our inboxes, and our Facebook and Instagram feeds, are full of discounts on beauty brands, heart-shaped chocolates, pearl-studded silver jewellery and T-shirts with inspirational quotes.
In 2018, McDonald’s even flipped its logo to look like a W, as if that somehow empowered women!
Given the hectic brand activities, International Women’s Day has started to feel like another Valentine’s Day, or Mother’s Day, or Father’s Day, or some other day — just take your pick.
To add to that, brands have trottted out every woman “achiever” they have ever been associated with to tout how they support gender equality and female empowerment.
Why does it take a certain day for companies to celebrate these “achievers”? What is the purpose of the great discount on makeups and salons, when gender equality and pay parity are yet to be achieved even in some of the most developed countries in the world?
Wages, opportunities for women still lag
The Economist’s Glass-Ceiling Index, which ranks conditions for working women across 29 countries, ranked Canada 12th and the United States a lowly 18th, while Britain (20th), Germany (22nd), the Netherlands (24th) and Switzerland (26th) ranked even lower.
As if things were not already unequal enough, add the socio-economic fallout of the pandemic. It is now widely established that women are more disproportionately impacted by the pandemic than men, while also facing unprecedented levels of domestic violence. The number of women in the workforce declined by 54 million in 2020, and 45 million left the labour market altogether, according to a UN report.
“Despite women’s central role in responding to COVID-19, including as front-line health workers, they are still largely bypassed for leadership positions they deserve,” the UN report says.
We aren’t just talking about the emerging economies. According to Pew Research, more American women workers lost jobs as compared to men through 2020. Similarly, a Statistics Canada study shows the impact on year-over-year employment losses during the pandemic was consistently more severe for women.
So who is International Women’s Day for? The women who will take advantage of the discount coupon to go for a cool balayage hairdo? Or the ones who will proudly use the #IWD hashtag on Twitter with an inspirational quote?
What is the message that these brands are trying to send out? What does an inverted McDonald’s M stand for anyway?
What are these but attempts to trivialize the struggles of everyday working women?
Don’t just add to the noise
International Women’s Day should not be another fancy hashtag or marketing opportunity for brands. The day originated from the labour movements in North America and Europe during the early 20th century. It’s about fighting for equality and social reforms.
In 1975, the United Nations declared March 8 as International Women’s Day with the aim “to uphold women’s achievements, recognize challenges, and focus greater attention on women’s rights.”
We have come a long way since then.
Of course, it’s good to celebrate how much we have achieved since the days of Lily Maxwell, who fought her way to become the first woman to vote in 1867. But it’s important to remember women are still barred from voting in some countries. Even in some countries where women can vote, men often dictate not only who they will vote for, but also what they will wear, who they marry and when or whether they bear children.
These are issues we can’t brush under the carpet. And things like the inverted McDonald’s M don’t help!
Brands and marketers may have good intentions, and many actually contribute to raising awareness around women’s rights and gender equality, but for the majority of them it’s just about making “the right noise.”
It’s not right. It’s just noise.
Majority of us working women may want but don’t need discount coupons for hair salons or makeup kits. Or pink chocolate cakes. And we certainly don’t want or need the inverted M!
What we need is pay parity, due recognition and a safe working environment.
Don’t launch a campaign celebrating women if you haven’t made any commitment to better working conditions for women in your organization. Don’t make a post celebrating “hard-working and committed” women workers when you don’t understand the added pressure of these same employees juggling work and home, as schools and daycares remain closed in many parts of the world.
Don’t just add to the noise.
The realization begins with understanding the roots of International Women’s Day. The realization that gender inequality still exists, even though it may not be very pronounced in our privileged social circles or in the ad industry’s blitzkrieg.
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