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Women and work: How to translate the hype of International Women’s Day into real, lasting action

International Women’s Day has come and gone.

I’m proud of all the rallies and protests that took place in several parts of the world. I’m delighted to see the art that the day spurred – art like the now famous statue of a girl standing her ground in front of Wall Street’s antagonistic charging bull, unfazed, ablaze with spirit. I’m pleased to see inspiring reminders of the many women in history who did amazing things in spite of their repressive circumstances.

However, my ebullience somewhat deflates when I see the usual roster of ‘women and work’ themed corporate events pop up.

intl women's day protest

International Women’s Day protest 2016. Photo: Dan Garrett.

I’m sure these events are designed to inspire. While they may be useful in rehashing the many areas of improvement regarding gender equality in the workplace, most appear to do little more than to regurgitate information from years past and seem to be attempts, first and foremost, to build better reputations for the corporations that sponsor them.

Here’s the deal with women at work. The issues are known.

Women are not paid equally. Promotions don’t happen equally. Corporate boards are so unbalanced, they ought to keel over. Policies like maternity leave and importantly, paternity leave, greatly impact the retention of women in the workforce if they choose to have children. Many corporate cultures look down on offering flexibility, flexibility that is desired by women who generally take on more caregiving roles and domestic leadership as compared to men. Workplace dynamics that value unpleasant traits make many women uncomfortable, uninspired, and feel undervalued. Sexism is real.

domestic workers migrant slavery indonesian

Photo: Dan Garrett.

Getting deeply entrenched centuries-old poison out of the system is never going to be easy. But when change is so badly needed, and there is already quite a bit of pageantry around the now conspicuous issues, why is progress so absurdly slow? The value of creating conversation is not to be dismissed, but we are usually stuck simply scratching the surface and hearing the same platitudes on repeat.

Real change will come from translating the talk into clearly executed policies and processes, without gaps between policies and implementation, with accountability targets, and staff that is culturally equipped to lead the way forward.

See also: We Can Do It: Hong Kong women have made progress, but the gender gap persists

Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

This is not a blanket condemnation of all corporations or people in decision making positions inside businesses. Nor is it an indictment of the many strong speakers and panelists who take to stages at this time of year. Some companies have taken active steps to start to right the imbalance.

Netflix, Facebook and a few others have started offering significant paid parental leave. Salesforce adjusted employee salaries to ensure women were paid on parity (it cost them 3 million USD to do so by the way). Still others have pledged plans (albeit, inchoate) for new or added scrutiny to pay scales and promotions. Even companies with problematic track records contain people who genuinely try to steer policies in the right direction. This is good. But we need wider and further action, to ensure change doesn’t just stop at the hands of these few entities or importantly, at all the talk.

Let all the talk lead to corporate cultures genuinely becoming more inclusive. Let it lead to confronting biases no matter how difficult that may be. Let it lead to analyses of all compensation scales and promotion methods to ensure parity, and importantly, scrutiny into the processes that led to the existing disparity. Let it lead to equal pay, without any hemming and hawing.

Let it lead to the creation of different types of work projects that will lend themselves more easily to the demands or desires of whatever life can contain, for all genders (genuinely, without penalties). Let it lead to wider discussions of the rights of all workers, not just white-collar ones. Let it lead to transparency. Let it lead to accountability to actually put positive changes into place, not just leave things at high level commitments on panels and keynotes once a year.

Women and work: How to translate the hype of International Women’s Day into real, lasting action