Happy International Women's day 2018! That peppy exclamation mark denotes both my enthusiasm for the day (Go, women!) and a feeling of outrage (Online abuse! Maternity discrimination! Jacob Rees-Mogg!). As ever, being a woman is a contradictory existence: you wouldn’t change it for the world but, lord, you’d sure as hell change a lot of things about it. And that’s what we remember on 8 March every year – look at all the things we've done and all the great things we are, but just look how far we have to go.
This year the theme is #PressforProgress, chosen to reflect both the fact that gender parity is over 200 years away (!), according to the World Economic Forum's 2017 Global Gender Gap Report, and that we’re in a mighty moment of activism and advocacy, particularly thanks to the high-profile Times Up and #MeToo campaigns. Let’s ride this wave, the organisers suggest, and make something happen.
But where is this strange space that we’re in right now – one where women have never been louder but there’s two whole centuries to go before we close the gender gap? And how do we press on from here? I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. I was reminded that the head of state, government, judiciary, police and fire brigade in the UK are all women – progress, I thought. Except I thought a bit harder, and remembered they are all white and able-bodied and our female PM’s policies disportionately impact women, specifically women of colour, women with disabilities and women on low incomes.
And it’s a familiar pattern. While the film industry has called out sexual harassment in the workplace and is raising money to help women fight their corners, Ryan Seacrest was given a 30-second delay on the red carpet at the Oscars in case anyone mentioned he’d been accused of sexual harassment. Mainstream TV shows like Big Little Lies and Call The Midwife win praise for their depiction of crimes against women, like domestic abuse and FGM. Yet one in four women will still experience domestic abuse (that goes up to a shocking one in two for disabled women), two women a week are still killed by their current or former partners and there’s still not been a single conviction for FGM in this country.
We're in a strange space right now – one where women have never been louder but there’s two whole centuries to go before we close the gender gap
There’s an increased drive to get women into STEM subjects. Yet we know that even if they excel, trying to have a family in those professions is a whole other battle, and one that women are losing if you look at the post-baby drop-off rates. Young women, like Ambika George, are using social media to find their voice. But when they are using that voice, they are telling us that one in 10 schoolgirls in the UK cannot afford sanitary products. We’re seeing a diversity of body images in our media. Yet fat shaming online is a heinous sight to behold. And Serena Williams is the world's greatest athlete, Michelle Obama was the world’s first African American First Lady and Ava DuVernay is making some of the most important films of our times – huge progress. But the need for the Black Lives Matter movement is more urgent than ever.
So, how real are our victories? And when we do press for progress, who is this progress really for – and who have we left behind? Who’s expected to do all this heavy pressing? And, without sounding all Mrs Bennett, where are all the men?
The other thing about IWD, of course, is the marketing opportunity it presents to a lot of confused brands. Take BrewDog’s “Pink IPA beer for girls” – a “sarcastic” poke at sexism in the beer industry – that inevitably backfired; or Tinder announcing they have given $100,000 to UN women this IWD despite being the unofficial home of unsolicited dick pics. Or Johnnie Walker’s whisky, which has rebranded as Jane Walker. Brands profiting off International Women’s Day leaves me with a heavy heart (not least because it was, in part, founded by Clara Zetkin, a German communist in the early 1990s who wanted to raise awareness about the condition of women workers). We’re dangerously close to “woman” becoming a buzzword like “authenticity” – a momentary cultural zeitgeist that is open to exploitation.
So, where does that leave us? Firstly, judge a brand, or indeed a human being, by their actions not their hashtags. And keep your eyes open: this empowered, feminist moment we’re in is deceptive. Fine, a Californian woman is declaring they are a #GirlBoss because they’ve just made their first million, but men are making apps that “remove” women’s make-up and young girls’ self-esteem is worryingly low. Plus: listen, read, watch, learn. The only way to embrace an intersectional-feminist future, and to leave no one behind, is to hear the concerns and experiences of others, both present and past. And, a final note: this year’s theme is press for progress not pontificate in the pub for progress, or at least not that alone, as great as that can be.
So, Happy International Women’s Day! And interpret that exclamation mark as you see fit. Remember what those before us have done, celebrate who we are today and keep moving forward. We’ve got a lot to do.