Every year, I get together with friends after marching on International Women’s Day (IWD), and I hear the same outrageous stories about what their employers did for March 8. Year after year.
One recalls receiving a voucher for a pedicure. Another describes getting a gift bag with makeup, including foundation (not in a shade that is even close to matching her skin color as one of the few black women at her workplace). Yet another shares about the time she saw her headshot, which seems to have been taken from her Linkedin profile, circulating on the company’s social media account with a quote attached to it — without ever having given her consent.
As an individual, that makes me mad. As a gender equality professional, even more so.
Why are we, in the 21st century, celebrating women by perpetuating the same stereotypes over and over again? Why aren’t many of the companies with high-level commitments to gender equality in place not following their words with meaningful action?
This year, I want to play my part in making it as easy as possible for companies to do better. That’s why, at the U.N. Global Compact, a few of my colleagues and I have teamed up to create a virtual workshop series: "Countdown to International Women’s Day." Registration is free and open to anyone that wants to gain inspiration for meaningful action, messaging and tools to leverage at least on March 8, and ideally every single other day of the year.
Beyond shallow or stereotypical gifts, here’s a quick to-do list of types of actions to avoid:
- Giving public visibility to women without consent. It’s great that you want to spotlight women’s efforts within the company on your channels, but make sure they have meaningful ways to offer feedback and approve any material beforehand. Remember that your employees’ social media profiles are private (including Linkedin!). Don’t tag anyone without making sure they’re OK with it first.
- Adding to women’s plates. So often on IWD women get asked to do extra work — for free. Whether it’s your own employees — asking them to put together an event or talk without taking off other things from their workload. Or an external expert or activist that gets invited for a presentation — but for "exposure" only without any compensation for their efforts.
- Putting women in a box. Assuming everyone has had the same lived experiences simply for being a woman, without taking into account the many identities that intersect based on their sexual orientation, disability status, age, religion, race or ethnicity. Whatever you do on IWD, make sure you are not excluding certain groups of women from your efforts.
- Sharing empty messages without KPIs. This one should go without saying, but every year slogans circulate across social media —– simply repeating the year’s IWD theme without any context or ranging from "We celebrate our female workforce" to "Women are so talented." You will be called out. Instead, tell us your action plans, targets or key performance indicators that paint a picture of what your company is actually planning to do to close its gender gaps.
- Focusing on your HQ only. If you type "work" or "workplace" into Google images it’s a very, very long scroll until you find a picture that’s not an office setting with people in suits typing away or pointing at charts in fancy meeting rooms. However, the reality is that workplaces are a lot more diverse than Google might have us think. There are female employees on factory floors, construction sites, farms, in the lab, behind the wheel or on cargo ships. Ensure that your IWD efforts benefit women across your operations.
On the flipside, what should you do?
- Report back on what you committed to last year. Last IWD, did you make a public commitment such as to the Women’s Empowerment Principles, join a new initiative such as Target Gender Equality or set yourself a new objective? Tell us how it’s going, share your learnings and pitfalls.
- Check in with your comms and social media team. Not to only create a post for March 8, but to ensure gender equality is a constant communication theme throughout the entire year, with regular awareness raising on social media and pillar across talking points at speaking engagements.
- Leverage men as allies. Without making men "champions" or poster children for gender equality, invest in their meaningful engagement to unpack common stereotypes and jointly drive behavior change. Loads of toolkits exist for this such as these by Equimundo, MÄN and HeForShe.
- Ask women what they want. Make sure this doesn’t put extra burden on them (see point 2 of the previous list), but keep it as a simple survey, for example. Provide feedback to make clear that the input was heard, and build it into your year-long action plan. This might entail increasing training budgets or investing in mentorship or women’s networks. The latter will help you gain constant insight into priority areas and keep the conversation going all year long. However, make sure such systems have meaningful budget allocated to them, and meetings can take place in work hours without needing extra volunteering from anyone involved. And if every woman tells you they want a voucher for a pedicure, then sure, go for it.
- Buy from women-owned businesses. This applies to purchases on International Women’s Day but ideally is made a priority for the procurement team all year round — ensuring you have a clear picture of procurement spent with women-owned or women-led businesses and a KPI to increase it.
Many more actions and key messaging are summarized in this one-pager available in several languages.
And lastly, the session of the IWD Countdown Series I’m most excited about is the final one on how to speak out and stand up for gender equality at the workplace. Simply put, how to become an activist in your sphere of influence if gender equality, diversity and inclusion might not be part of your work plan or if your leadership team is not yet on board. I hope to see many of you there.
So tell me, this International Women’s Day, how are you going to ensure your messaging and actions actually move the needle for gender equality?