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Choosing to Challenge – reflecting on the importance of International Women's Day 100 years on

Zoe Kennedy

08 March 2021

International Women's Day not only celebrates the achievements of women, but highlights the persisting gender inequalities around the globe and continued need to address these.

The global awareness day was first honoured in 1911 in Germany, Austria, Denmark, and Switzerland where women were campaigning for changes such as better working conditions, better pay, voting rights, and the right to hold public office.1 In 1975, the United Nations first celebrated International Women's Day on March 8, representing the day when Russian women began striking for “bread and peace” in 1917.1

Despite the incredible progress made since the first International Women’s Day over 100 years ago, it is important to recognise that the society we live in still has deep-rooted and complex social structures that, whether consciously or unconsciously, continue to form barriers that limit the success of certain groups. The resulting inequalities impact our ability to progress to a world where opportunities are given to those who deserve it, rather than those of a certain race, religion, or gender. At its core, this patriarchal white-supremacist system that is built into society continues to enable predominately white men to progress into positions of power.

These surprising facts demonstrate the inequalities that continue to exist in the world today:

  • Women serve as Heads of State or Government in only 21 countries.2
  • 119 countries have never had a woman leader2
  • There are more CEOs named Peter leading top U.K. companies than female CEOs3
  • 16% of executive positions in South African corporate entities are held by Black individuals even though the Black population makes up 79% of the total population4
  • World Economic Forum has estimated that it will take until 2234 (213 years) to close the global economic gender gap5
  • There are more than 19,000 professors in UK universities; only 6,345 (27.8%) of these professors are female6 and only 35 are Black women7
  • Only 5 women were invited to join WHOs Emergency Committee on the novel coronavirus.8
  • There are only 2 female members of the US Coronavirus Task Force despite women holding 70% of global health and social care jobs.8

This year, the theme of International Women's Day is ‘Choose To Challenge’. As the Culture, Diversity and Inclusion Lead at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience (IoPPN), I choose to challenge both the conscious and unconscious comments, beliefs, and actions that seek to undermine women every day. And I feel privileged to work for an organisation that not just accepts my ‘choice to challenge’ but encourages it.

The IoPPN has been choosing to challenge structural inequalities for almost a decade. Over this decade considerable progress has been made and the IoPPN has been recognised by several key organisations that celebrate inclusion and diversity, including Athena SWAN Charter, Race Equality Charter, Disability Standard Audit, Stonewall Workplace Equality Index, and ALBA Declaration on Equity and Inclusion. In 2014 it was noted that many junior researchers were unaware of the IoPPN’s internationally renowned female professors, leading to the ‘Inspiring Women’ initiative which celebrated the achievements of female professors and highlighted how their work shapes the IoPPN. The photos and achievements of our female professors now welcome our students, staff and guests as they enter our largest lecture theatre. Although a commended welcome at many of our (in person physical) events, it highlights that our racial and ethnic diversity amongst our most senior academics is not good enough.

There is still much more we need to do in order to ensure we provide an environment in which everyone is equally enabled to thrive. Intersectionality is crucial to this; we will never achieve meaningful change by looking at gender today, race tomorrow, and disability next week. To achieve meaningful change, we need to look at the whole person and the whole structure right now. We can all choose to challenge. We can all choose to call out and address inequality. Together we can challenge behaviours, practices, and policies that hold some of us back due to our gender, race, religion, disabilities and other characteristics. In order to change a deep-rooted system of inequality, it is everyone’s responsibility to work towards removing both the visible and invisible barriers that reinforce the existence of the current system.

Reflecting in March 2021 it is clear that we still have a long way to go. The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated just how fragile the progress we have made can be. As schools closed it was primarily women who picked up the additional workload and responsibility, yet more than 7/10 women who applied for furlough in January 2021 due to school closures were not approved.9 Higher rates of transmission and death amongst underrepresented racial and ethnic groups highlighted pre-existing inequalities and structural racism within health care provision.10 Priorities for recovery are skewed towards male-dominated sectors, and women are over-represented in those ineligible for statutory sick pay.11

However, COVID-19 hasn’t all been ‘bad’; the pandemic has opened up opportunities to challenge old notions of working cultures and patterns. The previously believed myth that we need to be in the office 40 hours a week has been well and truly debunked, with many people who were previously denied flexibility now proving it can be more effective. The new ways of working have opened up space for people to participate, engage, and share in ways unimaginable just 12 months ago. The clear health inequalities brought to our attention as a result of COVID-19 have also led to increased focus on racial inequalities in equality, diversity, and inclusion work, as well as in research.

When we all choose to challenge the inequalities within society, creating an inclusive world where our chances of thriving aren’t dependent on our gender, race, and religion is finally within our grasp. This is why International Women’s Day is still so important. It reminds us of the progress made so far and encourages us to continue to push for greater and more persistent changes that challenge the deep-rooted inequalities that exist in society. So, will you choose to challenge?

Oh, and for those of you wondering when International Men’s Day is – It’s the 19th of November.












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