Today is International Women’s Day, a day to celebrate women’s achievements and to issue an annual call to accelerate gender parity.
I am happy to celebrate how far we have come, and delighted to praise the brave and bold who have raised their voices and broken through the ridiculous barriers of the work world in many ways – a world, which we must note, continues to suffer from deep-seeded bias, design flaws, clear disparities, and entrenched systems that keep it all that way.
To the many women in my life, a high five for surviving the constant systemic nonsense that stands in our way. Besides the notable things so many of you accomplish, that – in itself – is an achievement.
This day also brings a flood of posts on platforms like LinkedIn, of workplaces celebrating women, and a deluge of events sprinkled through the month to commemorate the day. What is common among many of these celebrations, conferences, panels, and posts, is a proclivity for prescriptive and non-confrontational socially sanctioned language, high praise for any sponsor or host companies, and the willingness to serve as a platform for these organisations.
Of course, it would be rude not to throw this year’s alliteratively catchy ‘balanceforbetter’ hashtag into everything, so that ends up on a banner somewhere to signal a non-committal commitment.
If I sound sceptical, it is because I am. And I am not alone. I hear from so many who share the scepticism, across industries and geographies, who understand these dog and pony shows for what they are, including people who are themselves invited to these panels and stages.
A lot of female empowerment events consist of the same sort of anodyne messaging, a deeply fatiguing regurgitation of platitudes, and self-congratulatory behaviour. Many of them cleverly elide real issues and avoid insisting on real goals and accountability.
All of this turns into a culture of its own – so much so that any critical thinkers in the audience at these events don’t feel comfortable voicing their opinions and may even withhold incisive questions. That is because of the very real conformity bias everyone deals with, because it feels odd to stand up and critique the corporate sponsor of the event they may be attending, or to speak about their own employers or say anything that could make a mentor or boss uncomfortable.
Many events consist of people representing large companies who have a PR department-approved message about vast and unaccountable commitments to diversity and inclusion to share, each representing the employer that pays their salary, who may have paid for them to attend the event.
Sure, amongst them are some wonderful individuals who try to go beyond the drivel, but their individual sparks are often lost in the blanket of pretty sounding nothingness that has become the claustrophobic norm.
This is the precisely the type of event that constitutes the “constantly shifting archipelago of conferences at which values are reinforced and disseminated and translated into action” as Anand Giridharadas references in his recently published book, Winners Take All. The action mentioned is the sort to maintain the status quo instead of calling systems into question.
Events of this type serve up more of the same, with the “right amount of stimulation while worrying absolutely no one” as Giridharadas puts it, leading to nothing more than a “cult of consensus.” Some drift into the territory of even more obvious nonsense and tone deafness.
I have scraped my dropped jaw off the floor at an event ostensibly geared towards a celebratory female empowerment goal, after one of the speakers told the audience they should absolutely consider using personal branding specialists who could guide us silly ladies into what clothes to wear in the workplace.
I have watched aghast as a certain traditionally successful business leader threw red herrings on the stage about how he had such a rough time trying to hire – wait for it – men. I realised that he was referring to low-paid service jobs, which – no surprise – in certain countries, are occupied by women.
I have sat through speeches by executives from large companies proudly stating how they became awake to women’s issues after their daughters were born. The pre-existing wives, mothers, sisters, or female friends in their lives, and their many female employees didn’t deserve that recognition before, one supposes.
I have borne witness to these executives waxing poetic about the minor decency of finally offering sensible parental leave to employees while ignoring questions of how labourers in their employer’s factories in badly regulated environments are treated.
For the world of work to actually work for women, the status quo has to change. If we want a balance, it may have to mean those in power have to cede privilege to accommodate it.
It means creating environments where critique is welcome, not environments where everyone falls in line with the newest terminology and learns to drop it into conversation ad infinitum without walking the talk.
It means organisations showing true and measurable progress, not speaking in generalities. It means we all have to ask ourselves, our colleagues, our bosses, and our employers exactly how we are going to get to the elusive “there”, define it, insist on it, and tackle each bias, each design flaw, and each discrepancy honestly until we improve.
It means creating sharper conversations, being brave enough to ask pointed questions of power structures, and not let opportunities to celebrate, change, and gather, turn into just more public relations that propagates the system that needs to be changed. It means pushing back against patter and the overwhelming environment of polite claps that serves to silence real talk.