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International Women’s Day: We could have it all

by Ashleigh Weeden
in Leadership
March, 2023

After receiving the wonderful invitation to write this feature story for International Women’s Day, my thoughts bubbled up, less like a sparkly glass of celebratory champagne, and more like a toxic bog of simmering skepticism. So, I turned toward the women I respect and cherish and asked how I could make writing this piece an act of love.

I asked them their thoughts on the global theme for International Women’s Day 2023 – “Embrace Equity” – and Canada’s theme – “Every Woman Counts.” Our conversations ranged from ambivalence to outright anger because we know from our lives and work that the world remains absolutely unwilling to move beyond these motherhood-and-apple-pie statements in even the smallest of practical ways.

They are nice words but the evidence is overwhelming that, while society may like the proverbial apple pie made by women’s hands, hearts, and minds, it definitely does not love women. Loving women, it turns out, requires dealing with reality, not parroting slogans.

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The biggest issue seems to be that we love the idea of women, but we do not love real-life, actual women in ways that matter.

We like the idea of women winning seats in power, but not the reality of what women’s presence might mean for changing the way institutional power works.

We like the idea of women achieving higher education and bigger titles, but not the reality of matching those achievements with appropriate compensation or changing working environments.

Herein lies the rub: ideas are great, but they require nothing from us until we get to executing them, and that is where we don’t just stumble, but fall off the edge of the glass cliff entirely.

If we really wanted to embrace equity or we really believed that every woman counts, our world would look a lot different than it does now.

Unpacking the False Empowerment Rhetoric

Loving the idea of women and succumbing to the easy route of empowerment rhetoric instead of doing the work to materially, meaningfully, and durably change the reality of women’s lives has resulted in contemporary culture stewing in something called “choice feminism.”

We have been stuck here roughly since the last Spice Girls tour bus disappeared over the horizon. A phrase, coined by Linda Hirshman in 2006, is that choice feminism is the lukewarm-yet-dangerous line of thinking that argues any and every choice a woman makes is feminist.

It represents the total divorce of feminism from its core political goals of liberation, equity, and justice. It presupposes that women actually have any real choices by assuming an equality that we know does not exist. It is a narrative stunningly bereft of any deeper analysis across any axis.

Promoting this false feminism erodes solidarity and elevates individualism, effectively removing any of the teeth from a feminist movement that could and would actually challenge and change the status quo. It sells us the idea that we all have the same hours in the day as Taylor Swift or Beyonce and that women’s success comes down to self-discipline, self-care, and self-belief vis-a-vis Instagrammable quotes. This attitude not only betrays the central political goals of feminism, it is also a package of straight up lies.

“We could’ve had it all,” a line from Adele’s song “Rolling in the Deep”, rings through my ears when I think about the cognitive dissonance between the false rhetoric that often underpins celebratory International Women’s Day messages and what we know to be true about women’s experiences in social, economic, political, and cultural life.

The Women’s Secretariat of the United Nations estimates that, at our current rates, gender equality in the highest positions of power will not be reached for another 130 years. Yes, you read that right: we’re more than a century away from really embracing equity.

Women who do reach positions of power are routinely pigeonholed in what some public administration research calls “pink ghettos” – critical but undervalued portfolios that most often relate to social services, women and gender, or family and children.

A 2022 report from the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario shows that women make up just 39 percent of full-time faculty in Canadian universities. This is despite the fact that women are now, on the whole, outpacing men in educational attainment. And, according to Statistics Canada, after they earn those degrees, the pay-gap for women starts right out of the gate, with women earning on average 12 percent less than men one year after graduation and 25 percent less than men five years after graduation. Apparently, a woman counts for about three-quarters of a man.

Women cannot and should not be left to carry the weight of correcting their own oppression alone – not as individuals and not as a “women’s issue.”

Embracing Reality This International Women’s Day

A number of years ago, I attended an International Women’s Day breakfast where the man who was at the top of our institutional hierarchy arrived late, said some self-congratulatory and generally stereotypical nothing-burger words about his women colleagues, and then was roundly applauded for making time to be at the event. I am not joking (men, if you have done this: reflect, atone, and never do it again).

I wish that every woman in that room had met this farce of a moment with stony silence. The bar that society has set for men’s participation in women’s liberation is so low it might as well be subterranean. It is insulting to everyone involved. It was a blip in time, nothing more than a papercut on the top of the greater wound of inequality, but it represented everything that the women I know and love have come to resent about International Women’s Day and the rhetoric that goes with it.

What happened at that breakfast is the same kind of flippant dismissal that happens every time a working mother asks for flexible working arrangements, every time a Black woman is called angry or aggressive, every time an Indigenous woman is tokenized, every time a disabled woman is talked to like they are a child, every time someone is misgendered by a colleague – interactions that may appear less outright threatening to life and limb than the physical harm that women face just for existing but which are every bit as vile and insidious.

It is all connected and it is all inexcusable and it is all exhausting.

We face threats to our bodily autonomy, we face violence at every turn, we earn less despite having higher credentials, and we are often told it is our own fault for all of these dynamics. And when we say “enough is enough” and either call out the perpetrators and permissive bystanders or opt out of the system altogether, too many people call us bitter, angry, or weak.

Is this embracing equity? Is this showing women that they matter? One need only look at the responses to the announcements by two powerful women – New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern and Scotland’s Nicola Sturgeon – that they were stepping down from their roles as head of government largely due to the toxicity of contemporary political culture, to really see that we have not, actually, come a long way, baby.

Accepting Responsibility and Moving Forward

Now comes the truly difficult part: what are we really going to do about this? Maybe you think that you, as an individual, did not break things. But guess what? You are absolutely responsible for fixing them. Particularly if you belong to a group that has benefitted from privileges gained at the expense of subjugating others. (Yes, I’m looking right at you, men, but I am also looking at my fellow white women, at people with generational wealth or landowners, at able-bodied people, straight and cis-gender people, to name a few.)

Broken things fester when left alone and heal when set to rights. So, I will alter the usual refrain to “hire, elect, pay women” to say that we must do more than just put more women into broken systems. That alone is not enough and leaves us in danger of choking on the sparkly stew of “gatekeep, gaslight, girlboss” as a way to “live, laugh, love” our way out of the real work ahead of us.

We must champion and support explicitly feminist leaders, workers, and practitioners.

Elect feminists. Give them the reins to handle portfolios like infrastructure or defense or engineering and make violent rhetoric politically, economically, and socially expensive by creating real consequences for those who perpetrate hate.

Hire feminists. Ask potential employees to share evidence of their ethical commitments to equity and inclusion, and follow their lead when they incorporate flexible work arrangements, job sharing, and intersectional evaluation metrics in their reinvention of corporate culture.

Pay feminists. Make sure pay scales are transparent and equitable, openly discussed, and attached to performance outcomes that reflect an approach to life and work that respects a holistic view of the person and their work.

Believe feminists. End the “what about-ism,” the excuses, and the insistence that there is nothing that can be done to fix what’s very clearly broken.

In the end, I don’t particularly care about whatever slogan was painted over this year’s posters. What I care about are the women I know and love and the world we are building for each other and everyone who will follow. We could have it all.  MW

Municipal World Insider and Executive Members: You might also be interested in Tyjondah Kerr’s article Inclusion, equity, and diversity is for all of us.

Ashleigh Weeden, MPA, is an award-winning community engagement practitioner and whole-hearted public servant who works with creative leaders to produce positive, meaningful change in ourselves and our communities.

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