One wet weekend in January, when a group of colleagues and I were half way through planning an internal event for International Women’s Day and grappling with how to present it to the firm, the importance of celebrating the day became crystal clear to me.
I was attending a massage course (a Christmas present) and the conversation turned to politics over lunch. A complete stranger gave me two examples of politicians they felt let their ambition drive them above all else, sacrificing morality and public service in the process, Hillary Clinton and Theresa May. This really struck me.
For context, this was the day after the President of the United States signed his (first) executive order banning nationals of Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen from entering the US. These were not tighter immigration controls based on real data, but a blanket ban based on nationality disproportionality affecting Muslims. This was also the day after Holocaust Memorial Day.
Needless to say I suggested that perhaps we have been socialised to perceive certain qualities differently in women and men and when women demonstrate ambition, confidence and self-belief they are perceived negatively whereas the same traits in a man are seen as strengths. To be fair to the man in question, yes, it was a man, he seized the point with interest and we had a good, friendly, stimulating discussion about it.
And this is why we should celebrate International Women's Day. Not because we need to celebrate women (although we are of course worthy of celebration!) but because millennials (and I can say that because I just about am one) need to remember our history and need to reflect on our present. The first woman was elected to the House of Commons in 1918; women were allowed to enter the legal profession for the first time in 1919; women were given the right to vote on the same terms as men in 1928; it was recognised that women should be paid the same wage for doing the same work in 1971; women first controlled their ability to reproduce on a meaningful scale in 1974 when the contraceptive pill started to be distributed by family planning clinics; a woman was appointed Prime Minister of the UK for the first time in 1979; the concept of rape within a marriage was first recognised in 1991; the first woman was appointed to the Appellate Committee of the House of Lords (now the Supreme Court) in 2004…This is our history. We, who walk around with this privilege, must remember those who fought for it and must use our privilege to help others.
We must also tackle questions such as how in practice can we demand and achieve gender parity? Can we really demand gender parity but be blind to other causes? Can we even achieve gender parity if other forms of discrimination continue to exist? These are big questions, which could be the subject of many more blogs.
The point here is that there is plenty of evidence that we have not yet achieved gender parity - the gender pay gap, the lack of female judges and women on boards, the lack of female business angels, the kind of attitudes described by Jo in her blog and Katie in her blog and even little comments like the one I heard over that weekend.
I am not saying that we must have all the answers. I still, as a woman, struggle with these questions often. Can I have it all? Should I feel I need to? Are women innately less confident than men? Is our society designed in such a way that it benefits (white) men to the exclusion of others? Are quotas/positive discrimination a solution or does that take away from merit? Is it possible to achieve gender parity while many of our most influential institutions contain people from a limited range of educational institutions and social backgrounds?
I'm not expecting to have all the answers, just asking for a conversation. So let's have a day of the year reserved for that, Happy International Women's Day.