International Women’s day is a key date within the wider Women’s Rights Movement. It is also a polarising issue. Some love it for the opportunity it provides as a platform for celebrating and increasing women’s visibility doing great things in the world. Many are jaded and frustrated with the increasing prevalence of big businesses using the day as a vehicle for performative feminist allyship. Others see IWD as unjust by condensing women’s diverse experiences worldwide into a mere day of recognition. Others hate it. That it’s very existence, or moreover, that the need for it, prevails in 2021; is frankly depressing.
And for many, including us, the feelings towards IWD are all of the above. (Personal anecdote on that one at the end of this page) Late one night, when putting the world to rights (as we so often do), we began questioning if things are actually getting any better for women in the workforce? Is women-washing next on the agenda for multinational corporations, and has IWD played a role in this?
International Women’s Day, Then.
International Women’s Day was born out of an uprising of female garment workers in New York City back in 1908. Women took to the streets, successfully campaigning for freedoms surrounding pay, working hours and voting rights. These events inspired what would later become International Women’s Day as we know it.
Fast-forward to the twenty-first century, and, come March, our screens are dominated by girl-boss podcast episodes, female-fronted marketing campaigns and brands pushing feminist-themed merchandise. From the comfort of the social media bubble, it *almost, sometimes* feels as though women are finally being championed, represented and listened to.
Have the original sought-after freedoms involving pay, working hours and voting rights been attained?
Voting rights (as far as the UK goes) pretty much. The topic of anti-unionisation is huge in its own right, so keeping it within the sphere of civil liberties, we’ll tick that one off the list.
The simple answer is no. The gender pay gap is alive and well. Only in 2017 did the UK government make it compulsory for companies with more than 250 employees to publicly report on the parity of pay within its workforce. The pervasiveness of the gender pay gap is best illustrated with the present-day situation for female employees of high-profile garment retailers.
Pretty Little Thing is a UK based fast-fashion retailer. Their website boasts about campaigns fronted by ‘aspirational and powerful females’ and a commitment to ‘giving people the equal opportunities, support and respect you’d expect from a modern and fast-paced brand’. If Pretty Little Thing are truly as committed to empowering women as their website and social media wants us to believe, why do men occupy an excruciating 93.5% of the highest-paid positions in the company? Why do their female employees earn 71p for every £1 that male employees earn (in terms of median hourly wages)? To top it off, the company is part of the Boohoo group, who – if you hadn’t already heard – were recently found to be selling clothes made by garment workers in Pakistan who were being paid 29p per hour. 80% of garment workers are women.
Sadly, Pretty Little Thing is no anomaly. Recent statistics released by the TUC show that, with the average gender pay gap being 17.3%, women essentially work for free for two months of the year compared to the average man. This means that the day when the average woman starts getting paid compared to the average man is March 4th, just four days ago (today being March 8th). As outrageously damaging as this is in the first place, it only compounds to become even more detrimental when we consider long term effects. A gender pension gap and a gender wealth gap ensue from the gender pay gap. If women are earning less, they simply cannot accumulate a comparable capital wealth level as their male counterparts. The latest research from the trade union Prospect shows that the gender pension gap currently stands at 40.3%, more than twice the gender pay gap. At present, there is no attempt from the government to produce statistics around the gender pension gap and no policies in place that address it. For as long as the government continues to deprive this issue of attention, mobilising change will continue to be a huge challenge.
For most, working hours remain rigid despite increasing calls and evidence that a more flexible approach to work is better for all. Lack of flexibility at work is (once again) disproportionately affects women. So many are reluctantly dropping out of work or minimising hours after having children or due to unpaid domestic or caring responsibilities.
Denying women the opportunity to work flexibly perpetuates the narrative that women should take on self-sacrificing, domestic roles while men should remain the empowered breadwinner. A recent survey of 50,000 working parents conducted by the TUC revealed that 71% had their furlough request denied by their employer during the latest spell of school closures. 78% had not been offered furlough throughout the entirety of the pandemic. 93% of survey respondents were female, revealing how the pandemic has facilitated yet another huge injustice against women. The mental health impacts of such a situation are compounding; the TUC found that 90% of working mothers have seen anxiety and stress levels increase significantly during the pandemic.
International Women’s Day, Now.
So, over a century on from the events that sparked IWD, the issues affecting those radical women in 1908 prevail. Yet, we are inundated by celebratory female empowerment slogans, often by the big businesses who can implement change but choose not to. Who are instead packaging up our feminism and selling it back to their female consumers under the guise of empowerment.
International Women’s Day states that it is a celebration of women’s achievements and a call for visibility. But, the ease with which companies have been able to exploit this seemingly positive message is problematic. For example, the fast-fashion brand Missy Empire is pushing an IWD range of clothing. Think t-shirts adorned with the slogan ‘boss babe mode’. Meanwhile, the company website provides no information regarding its supply chain or production process and has hundreds of items on sale for less than £5.
Given that the biggest victims of fast fashion are female garment workers in the Global South, Missy Empire’s claim that ‘everything we do is for the female and we’ll continue to empower you by the power of clothes’ seems, well, insert your own adjective there.
Were big, influential brands to be as progressive as their marketing activities would suggest, the women’s right movements would have a strong ally to call upon, an ally committed to positive change. ‘Feminist marketing’/women-washing, such as that of Missy Empire’s Boss Babe Mode Tee, is camouflaging a blatant lack of basic dignity for a company’s female workforce. Big business functions to perpetuate the reasons we still need an IWD in the first place.
Where do we go from here?
Use your voice. Search social media, and you will find hundreds of campaigns dedicated to calling out dishonest businesses and calling on them to make change. By liking a post, publicly messaging and signing petitions, you can be part of a movement to affect change.
Use your £££. Consumer power is real. If you disagree with a businesses’ practices, do not support them financially. Instead, use your resources to support positive change by shopping with ethical companies that are transparent in their supply chain and operate with triple bottom lines.
Use your powers for good. Most of us can’t infiltrate the BooHoo Board of Directors and persuade the company to do a 180 on their business model, but we can all use our powers for good with jobs that help make the world a better place. By putting our powers, whether they’re in Marketing and PR, operations, sales or finance, to use with businesses working for the common good, we’re improving the chances of ‘better’ happening.
When comparing notes on our various experiences of International Women’s Day,
“I was in the shampoo aisle of a supermarket in Dakar, Senegal. A company rep in a Dove t-shirt offered me a free waist trainer with the purchase of a few bottles of shampoo, to ‘celebrate International Women’s Day’. This is Dove, as in Unilever. The company that shouts so loudly about its commitment to people and planet. Also the same Unilever that failed to protect their tea plantation workers and is still refusing to give reparations to the victims over ten years later. And the second-largest palm oil buyer in the world. Offering free waist trainers. To celebrate women’s rights.”
Have any anecdotes of your own of ridiculous International Women’s Day marketing you came across?
Let us know if the comments!