• Jane Chen

International Women's Day 2020: Gender Equality Must Serve Everyone

Picture this: it’s February 1908, in New York City. Thousands of women are marching through the streets, hollering for change. Most are garment workers who’ve left their factories to go on strike. Tired and angry, they fill the air with demands for shorter working hours, higher wages and the right to vote. In doing so, they kickstart a revolution — a movement we now call International Women’s Day (IWD).

A century later, IWD is still commemorated, though it does look rather different in form. It is a day now marked less by angry protest and more by early morning breakfasts (for those who work nine-to-five jobs), panel discussions (for those who are highly educated), and awards nights. While I’ve certainly attended and enjoyed many such events, grassroots activists are increasingly taking issue with they have described as the ‘watering down’ of IWD — the co-option of the gender equality movement by capitalist actors looking to score corporate social responsibility points and generate profits.

It’s a concern I share, even though I’ve seen incredibly valuable conversations take place during IWD. Often, IWD events are a veneer rather than a genuine commitment to true gender equality. For example, it’s hard to miss the hypocrisy of events that claim to champion inclusion but cost $100 a head: exclusive afternoon teas and gala dinners held in fancy hotels and offices, welcoming only to sharply dressed women in stilettos. In fact, many IWD campaigns are convened by organisations which, some might argue, are inherently anti-feminist — for example, cosmetic and fashion conglomerates which most likely pay their employees, who are disproportionately women, less than a living wage.

Although some might argue that there is still value in having businesses take up a gender equality cause, even if only for the good PR, these companies need to do more than use buzzwords like ‘empowerment’, or a ‘diverse’ set of models, in their adverts. Taking action towards gender equality must be more than a once-a-year grand gesture. It requires a gender lens to be applied to the policies, cultures and values that govern organisations every day.

I’ve also observed that certain gender equality issues dominate IWD, whilst other remain unacknowledged. In particular, you’ll hear plenty about chatter about women’s representation in leadership, the (corporate) workplace, male-dominated industries and the media. These issues that affect many women and are very much worthy of action. However, they’re also causes that will mostly benefit only certain kinds of women … women leading white-collar, professional careers, who are likely well-educated, White, able-bodied, and so on.

We take up these particular issues because they’re accessible and palatable (and because they advance a neoliberal agenda … but more on this another time). However, in doing so, we cast aside the more uncomfortable conversations about gender inequality — about how Aboriginal women are the fastest growing population in Australian prisons, for example, or how family violence is likely to increase after this summer's bushfires. These distressing facts are shoved to the margins because they're too difficult to spin into a feel-good story about women breaking stereotypes or ‘sheroes’. As a result, gender equality becomes centred around the interests of a narrow subset of women, to the detriment of women as a collective.

Having more women from very specific (and relatively privileged) cohorts thrive in boardrooms, government and entertainment will be meaningless if we are not also going to demand justice for the many other people who have skin in the game. In fact, it is many of these other people who bear far more of the costs of gender inequality.

‘You want to talk about boards? I want to talk about how some women can't get a job.’ — Santilla Chingaipe

My final major qualm about IWD is that it wrongly equates the fight for gender equality to the fight for women’s rights. I attended the Victorian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission’s (VHREOC) #EqualityTalks panel event last week, and I was most struck by a statement by Nevo Zisin, a non-binary, transgender activist and writer. Nevo described the ‘death by a thousand paper cuts’ that they experience when they attend events and hear the audience being addressed as ‘ladies and gentlemen’. They challenged us: ‘Where are we in your conversation?’ Where are non-binary and transgender people in our conversations about gender equality?

It’s a question I have to ask myself constantly: can you truly be advancing gender equality if your language and objectives are structured around a binary opposition between men and women? “We’re here to achieve fifty-fifty representation.” “We aim to balance the playing field for people of both genders.” “We serve to remove barriers to participation that hinder women from achieving as much as men.” These statements champion women’s abilities and needs, and yet they also reinforce a binary construction of gender that denies the existence of people who don’t fit neatly into this false reality.

What’s especially ironic is that this binary construction of gender is the foundation of the social norms that have undermined and been weaponised against women’s rights in the first place. The conceptualisation of the human race as distinguished into two categories, each ascribed with certain roles and characteristics, has formed the basis of the stereotypes and rigid standards of behaviour that have prevented women from accessing economic opportunities, healthcare, leadership positions and financial independence. We need to tear down this paradigm if we truly want to liberate women, and yet we still rely on it even in our calls to build a more gender-equal world.

IWD has become marked by complacency and myopia. It is fixated on the manifestations of gender inequality that are easy to take issue with, but serve the interests of women, and specific groups of women, only. Thus, as we come to the close of a week of IWD discussions and events, I think it is crucial that we reflect on the work that still needs to be done to advance gender equality — work that needs to continue beyond March 8, but moreover, be more inclusive.

Gender equality can’t just be about enabling some women to acquire greater wealth and political or economic power. Gender equality needs to also ensure justice for those who need it to be able to live, and be free from poverty, violence, incarceration, economic instability, illness and more. Gender equality must serve everyone.

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