The 2015 International Women’s Day is approaching, it’s on the 8 March.
There are women in the world who still do not enjoy even the most basic rights, who do not have access to education, no right to move around freely, and no right to make decisions about their lives. These women need a voice, and the International Women’s Day helps in making that voice heard across the globe.
On the other side of the spectrum, there are women like myself, who are free to do the same thing as the men in their countries, who have university degrees, who run companies, who work side by side with men in large corporations. Do we need a voice? We do, but maybe it’s time to review what that voice could really be saying, other than noting in offices that “Yeah, today’s International Women’s Day. Equal pay for equal work, and more women managers. Go girls!”. It’s more complex than that.
On the introduction page of the International Women’s Day official website, you can read: “Thousands of events occur to mark the economic, political and social achievements of women.” The number of events registered are indeed in the hundreds, if not in the thousands. It is impressive. The fact that English speaking countries top the list of event organisers, while France, Italy, and Portugal so far (16 February) have no events registered, is pretty discouraging though. Empowering women is an important task, and there is still work for many, many years to come, both in developing, and developed, countries.
But here is the question: is recognising achievements and empowering women the ONLY thing that should be looked at, especially in developed countries? If you want to empower women in the corporate world, in countries where there are no official obstacles to women progressing at the same speed and to the same extent as men, then you have to look at what holds women back.
Numerous articles have been written about this. One which is particularly concise is by a former FBI agent, LaRae Quy. There is also the now well known Harvard survey on women’s and men’s expectations when it comes to career, and what real life actually looks like. I wrote about this in December last year, and believe me, reality does not match the expectations.
Empowering women is not only about women. It is about society in general, it is sometimes about self confidence, but not as much as you might think, it is about the “old boys’ club”, and it is about sharing the work outside of work with Someone.
Officially, nothing holds women back to achieve the same levels as men at work. Statistically, men make it to the corporate top to a greater extent than women, even in proportion to the male/female representation in the working population.
When it comes to the old boys’ club, France for example has introduced a law to have a 40% female board representation by 2017. According to the EU, that level amounted to around 26% in large companies in 2013, giving them a fifth position after Iceland, Norway (both not in the EU), Finland, and Latvia, and before Sweden, the Netherlands and Denmark. So it seems they are well on their way. Only it turns out that board representation and leadership are not necessarily the same thing (as many of those running companies are already aware). Because in reality, only 10% of the seats in executive committees in France are taken up by women, according to a new survey by Skema. Adding to this, 16 large French companies don’t have one single woman in their excoms. So, at least in France, it seems the old boys’ club is still very much in place, regardless of what you might think and feel with the various “women’s movements” that exist there.
Then there is the Someone, with whom many women share their lives outside of work. Statistically, that Someone is a man. Again, statistically, almost 3/4 of the Harvard women in the survey above (highly educated, high achievers, and with high achieving partners) ended up handling children more compared to their partners. If this is in a society where patriarchal values are not necessarily all prevailing (the USA), then what is it like in parts of Europe (latin countries, Germany, the UK, where many women take a lot of time off as daycare is too expensive or inexistent, but also, what about the reality in Nordic countries)?
Getting back to the International Women’s Day, and empowering women. It seems more than clear today that empowering women is also about the active participation of men, and empowering men.
The HeForShe initiative by the UN with actress Emma Watson as the leading spokesperson, encourages men to stand up for women. In Australia, the program Male Champions of Change is an excellent example of men speaking for women and diversity. In the Nordic countries the support for the HeForShe initiative is proportionally fairly high: in Finland, Norway and Denmark, all with around 5 million inhabitants, between 1600-1800 men have signed up, and in Sweden, with a population of 9 million, as many as 7700 men have signed up (however, board representation in 2013 in Sweden was at the same levels as in France, so you could ask yourself whether it is all talk and no action, or if the action is still to come). At the same time, it is telling that in some large European countries, such as Germany (with a population of 80 million) and France (with a population of 66 million) only 5,000 and 8,300 men, respectively, have signed up to support the initiative, while in the UK (with a population of 64 million), this number is 27,600. It is obvious that a change in mindset is still necessary in many places if things are to change in the corporate sphere.
Then there is the question of empowering men to take on their roles as active fathers, rather than, or in addition to, the role as the main breadwinners of families or as the week end “football father”. Men are often looked strangely at, especially in conservative work cultures, if they hint that they have to mind children because their wife is working, or if it’s their turn to pick up from day care. Here, again, the French movement of “Mercredi c’est Papa” is doing a great deal to change traditional ways of looking at working fathers, and Nordic countries have a higher tolerance of this type of behaviour. If more men, including managers, could stand behind men who want to take on an active role in the handling of everyday family matters, it would probably go a long way in empowering women outside of the home at the same time.
In summary, the International Women’s Day, in the developed world, could very well be more about true Equality. It should not be limited to putting a ribbon on your jacket to empower women, hold talks about equal salary levels and board representation, or about empowering women as lone players. It is the opportunity to promote an overall change in mindset, including more men actively speaking up for women, as well as Empowering men for the benefit of both Women and Men.
Only by acting on multiple fronts at the same time, will it be possible for both Women and Men, to reach a level playing field in the corporate environment. The 8th of March can contribute to that.