Today on International Women's Day we celebrate the progress and achievements of women around the world. It’s also a day to unite in solidarity for further action on gender equality. Serena Williams sums up the purpose of today well in her op-ed for Fortune by saying, “"We must band together and fight for what's fair." We admire, applaud and look up to all the women like Serena who are leading the way to advance societal, cultural, economic and political realms. We need them, they are role models, they represent progress. They give us hope. Or do they?
The sad reality is that many women feel hopeless in the fight for equality. For the average unknown soul it feels too big a challenge to comprehend. Too heavy and entrenched a stone to move. A woman came up to me after I gave a speech to her company this week in celebration of International Women’s Day. She was visibly irritated. She grappled with the sheer enormity of the gender equality problem. How on earth can we as individuals solve a challenge that is so far reaching and pervasive? She described how she tries to raise her young children with gender progressive views. She reminds her son, for example, that pink is not a color only for girls, and that her daughter can look in any toy aisle she pleases - not just the aisles designated as girls’ toys. But the world around us, she argues, constantly reinforces what is socially acceptable for a boy versus a girl. “How can individuals really make any difference”, she asked?
I have met many frustrated females like this woman. And their frustrations are justified. Gender equality is a huge problem to say the least. Just this week, in fact, The World Bank released Women, Business and the Law 2019: A Decade of Reform which looks at how women’s employment and entrepreneurship are affected by legal discrimination. Essentially it examines ten years of data to determine how equal woman are in the eyes of the law when it comes to factors such as going places alone, starting a job, getting paid, getting married, having children, running a business, managing assets, and getting a pension. While the authors point out that good progress has been made over a decade, the appalling fact is that only 6 countries have perfect equality scores. And chances are if you’re reading this article, your country is not one of them.
Furthermore, a survey released this month by Russell Reynolds found that most diversity and inclusion executives lack the support from their organizations to make any meaningful change. Even amidst all the public scandals and a resulting market value drop representing on average 7 percent ($4 billion) in the last two years alone, over half of the largest US companies have not dedicated a role to creating a diverse workforce.
I could go on and on, but you get the point. Gender diversity metrics are slow to move, and programs have little teeth. There is much work to do.
Does that mean we give up? Is this the best we can do? Of course not. Ask any activist, any role model, any do-gooder who has devoted their life to change for the better and they remind us that we’re in it for the long haul. Every change starts with one person. The actions of individuals accumulate exponentially. There are many famous quotes that capture these sentiments and I’m sure you have some of them going through your mind right now. Here’s one of my favourites by the inspirational young Anne Frank.
“How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.”
And that’s what I reminded that frustrated mom to keep doing. I congratulated her on recognizing those moments with her own children to create a more gender balanced world. You must keep it up I urged her. There has been tremendous movement in the fight for equality this past year. Is it fast enough? No. But we must stop and celebrate. Celebrate the fact that employees at Amazon are fighting for extended family policies, or that Citigroup voluntarily shared their gender wage gaps numbers which weren’t pretty but set an example for other companies to do the same. Or that women on a daily basis continue to speak out against harassment and safety in the workplace such as the brave and painful revelation by GOP Senator Martha McSally of being raped while she was in the military.
These are big public examples that serve to stand up, push boundaries and break the silence. We are not all expected to make grand gestures or proclamations such as these. We just need to impact what we can in our own daily lives. Keep having conversations with children, keep reminding your colleagues that destructive comments or behaviors are not welcome, and keep reminding leaders that the expectations for inclusive leadership is now table stakes. Most importantly, keep propping each other up when we feel defeated. We can all do that. We must all do that.
Will you sit idly by and get overwhelmed by the seemingly impossible challenge of gender equality? I hope not. I hope you’ll join in celebrating the wins big and small. I hope you’ll join in making the world better one conversation at a time.
Are you all in to creating a more balanced world? Say so in the comments.
Happy International Women’s today to all women and their allies!