Are we still talking about gender equality in 2021? More than a century since the first celebration of International Women’s Day, we are. But the nature and the quality of the conversation has changed. To appreciate this change, we need to go back to the beginning.
In the early 1900s, the world was in the throes of great unrest and critical debate. The Wright brothers were testing the first controlled flight in the skies, the Boers were surrendering to the British in South Africa, and the first World War was brewing on the horizon.
Oppression and inequality was spurring women to become more vocal and active in campaigning for change. In a series of events that started in 1908, a new conversation on, about, and for women was starting to surface.
Frustrated, in 1908, 15,000 women marched through New York City demanding shorter hours, better pay, and voting rights. This first swell of a new conversation would give rise to the Conference of Working Women in Copenhagen in 1910, where the women present passed a resolution to have a day to officially acknowledge issues that women wanted to shine the spotlight on. This step would set the western world alight with women in different countries in the Northern hemisphere celebrating this day.
It would take more than half a decade more of conversation for the United Nations in 1975 to officially include 8 March in the global calendar and, by doing that, marking this a global day and putting into focus the issues that colour the female experience all over the world.
By the new millennium, in 2000, International Women’s Day had all but run out of steam. Gender parity had not been achieved, and many of the issues that ignited the need for the day, remained stubbornly in place.
2011 was an important year for the global conversation on women. Not only did it mark a full century since the birth of International Women’s Day, but because achievements had been made in all societal spheres, with a renewed energy to improve the lived experience of women. Females in the arts, science, politics, community leadership, and every sphere imaginable came together in conferences, gatherings, rallies, marches, and in every formation to start a new and more urgent conversation.
So where is the conversation today? Patriarchy remains in place, with systemic oppression still the reality for many women. But there has been some progress. Women have more than just the vote, we have more equality in legislative rights across the board. Women are slowly making their way to the helm of political structures and organisations. With history accounting for less than 10 women heads of state, the journey to the highest political office is still a navigation in the dark.
Women and girls are in school and, in fact, dominating throughout numbers. Women are taking up leadership as chiefs in rural communities and reimagining rural life. The abolition of female genital mutilation, as an example, required women to rise to these critical positions of leadership to bring to an end a cultural practice that scarred women in more ways than one.
But 2021 is not the year we start celebrating. We’re still fighting for equal pay. We’re still fighting cultural constraints that hold back girls from going to school – which need to be broken. We’re still fighting against unconscious bias in the workplace. We’re still fighting gender-based violence and harassment.
If we were getting complacent, COVID-19 has exposed the breadth and depth of the work that still needs to be done. We need to have conversations about structural inequalities in the economic sector that place women in the most precarious and most vulnerable work. We need to have conversations about what we’ve learned from women leaders and how they have handled the COVID crisis, and what we want that to mean for global leadership broadly. We need to respond to the call to build back better in our boardrooms for stronger and more resilient organisations.
And perhaps the most important thing that we can do is to keep celebrating International Women’s Day, because when we do, we are commanded to confront the gaps that still need to be closed, and in turn we can command the resources, support, and partnerships for change.
Nozipho is a conversation strategist moderating global conversations that are designed to have measurable outcomes. As the CEO and founder of the Conversation Strategists, she has successfully moderated conversations for global and African institutions including leading multinational corporations, business schools, and civil society organisations.
Nozipho is also an award-winning financial markets broadcaster lifting the African business story through the lens of leadership, performance, the political economy, development finance, gender mainstreaming, and youth development. She graduated from SOAS with an MA in International Studies and Diplomacy in 2008.