International Women’s Day Fails to Recognize Global Diversity of Experiences

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Content warning: This editorial contains discussion of sexualized violence.

In a country with more CEOs named John than CEOs that are women, the need for an International Women’s Day is clear. This year’s event centered around the hashtags #MakeItHappen and #PaintItPurple to shed light on the broad topic of “gender equality … justice and dignity,” according to the IWD website. While this effort at uniting women across the globe under the umbrella of gender inequality is no doubt well-intentioned, International Women’s Day glosses over the intersecting factors that compound women’s inequality; race, class, religion, ethnicity, ability, sexual orientation and trans status all play into how women are treated. Furthermore, safe buzzwords like “inequality” and “the wage gap” are thrown about almost to excess; meanwhile, words drawing attention to the institutional forces at play — including misogyny, patriarchy and white supremacy — are noticeably absent from popular rhetoric. Though these terms are very academic and easily ignored, their sentiment is important nonetheless.

The need for these sorts of conversations is dire, given the shaky grasp that many have on issues of gender equality. According to a 2010 Pew Research Center survey, 97 percent of Americans polled said that men and women should have equal rights, but only 64 percent of that group believed that the U.S. still needed to make changes to implement those equal rights. The phrasing “gender equality” is fairly undisputed; what is lacking is an understanding of what American gender inequality looks like. Similarly, while 97 percent of Americans polled believe that women should be able to work outside the home, 25 percent believe that marriages are best when men are the primary breadwinners. This disconnect shows that though “workplace equality” is well-supported on the surface, the actual logistics of accomplishing it — more women in higher education, more women in the workplace in better-paying positions — are opposed at a far more fundamental level.

The overly simplistic branding of International Women’s Day on social media doesn’t do much to alleviate this issue. While raising awareness through #PaintItPurple, #womenyoushouldhaveheardof and spouting various statistics, IWD organizers glorify accomplished women who have transcended barriers while failing to examine both why those barriers exist in the first place and why they are so much harder to overcome for those less privileged. Oft-touted statistics like the fact that (white, abled) women make 77 cents to every dollar (white, abled) men make are easy ways to recognize the wage gap. But the conversation too frequently ends there and fails to look critically at the reasons why women often work fewer hours or receive less pay in the first place. Only one in 25 of the major Standard & Poor’s 1,500 companies have a woman as its CEO, and women rarely take up more than one seat on corporate boards. We’ve progressed far enough to recognize that an all-male board looks bad, but it’s a rarity to find two or more women sitting on the board of a large firm. As long as prominent firms have one woman and one person of color in a senior position, they seem to be safe from criticism.

Of course, many of the problems that IWD seeks to address go beyond the tokenization of women in the boardroom, including the global epidemic of sexualized violence. However, it’s crucial to be intentional in the way in which these conversations take place. On the international level, Western countries often address and acknowledge violence against women as a problem that is more widespread outside their own borders. American politicians are quick to lament the atrocity of using rape as a weapon of war in countries such as Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia and Rwanda, and rightfully so. But condemning the human rights violations of other countries creates the wrong perception that violence against women is not also an American problem. Sexualized violence is as American as apple pie, and like in many non-Western countries, it is used as a tool to oppress marginalized groups, including women and nonbinary people. The difference is that sexualized violence in America doesn’t usually happen systematically, and it rarely follows the “stranger in a dark alley” trope that most associate with rape and sexual assault. But IWD’s generalization of sexual assault ignores the fact that most rapes occur between two people who know each other well.

International Women’s Day can and should be a productive time to reflect on the accomplishments of women throughout history and the progress we have made. But its focus is only surface-level and undermines the very real struggles that women encounter day to day, both in the United States and abroad. Misogyny is ubiquitous, but it looks different in varying geographic and demographic contexts. To be successful, International Women’s Day needs to move away from the safe political tropes it touts about the need for equal pay and women in positions of power to an emphasis on the intersecting systems of oppression that create barriers for women across the globe.

 

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