Another International Women’s day has been and gone. Progress?

‘Happy International Women’s day’ was the text my sister sent me on WhatsApp last Friday. She lives in Canada, so we truly are international. It has become a thing now, something you wish people, like ‘Happy Mother’s Day’ or ‘Happy Anniversary’. I must say this is the first year that I noticed that women were wishing each other a ‘Happy International Women’s Day.’ I may have been living under a rock or not paying attention but last year, as it was the one-hundred-year anniversary of women’s suffrage, I could understand why International women’s day seemed a bit more zeitgeisty. This year however, it seemed to have got even louder and before we knew it, everyone was embracing this year’s slogan ‘balance for better’.

I for one am thrilled at how we now stop to celebrate International Women’s day (IWD) all over the world, rather than something that happens in the background. I was with the ACCA in the Amba Hotel in Charring Cross, and our event was one of many IWD events happening there that day.

IWD was first celebrated in 1911 by over a million people internationally. It is a public holiday in some countries and largely ignored in others, but let’s not get into that here. Suffice to say, it is getting harder to ignore these days, what with the diversity and inclusion getting higher on the agenda of any self-respecting organisation.

So 101 years since the women’s suffrage, how far have we come? 108 years since the first IWD, how far have we really come?

The Global Institute for Women Leadership at King’s college published some figures just before IWD about global attitudes toward gender equality and some of the findings are quite interesting to say the least. What stood out most for me though is that the top issues still facing women today across the world are:

• Sexual harassment
• Sexual violence
• Physical violence
• Equal pay
• Domestic Abuse

Of the above issues, to me, the easiest one to fix is the equal pay issue, as it can be easily regulated and monitored. How hard can it be? If a man and a woman do the same job, pay them the same amount. Why is that so hard? It is illegal not to so why does the pay diverge? Most organisations have pay grades/scales where you start on one and progress accordingly. So you start at the entry level and all your graduate trainees, for example, start on the same grade (male or female). Things start to get more interesting as people start to progress, where it becomes a subjective experience as to how quickly they ascend through the scales; and somehow the men seem to overtake the women.

Of course, there are a myriad of reasons why this happens with one of them being the fact that women take time out to have children, which slows their ascent (odd to be penalised for raising the next generation). But what is unforgivable is when a man and a woman are practically doing the same role and the man earns significantly more than the woman.

A BBC analysis in February showed that 4 in 10 private companies that had published their gender pay gap figures showed that the gap is widening compared to last year. The deadline for everyone to report their figures is 4th April, and I for one will be eagerly anticipating what the remaining 90% of organisations report, as only 10% have reported so far. When last year’s figures were published, there was a lot of indignation, but where exactly did it get us if a year later the gap seems to be widening? Are we going to keep celebrating IWD with companies paying lip service to diversity but then carry on as usual and underpay women? When are we going to reach the critical mass of women being represented on boards? Forget 50:50, 30% will do for any critical mass!

We lived through the marriage bar when women couldn’t work after they got married in the 1900’s, and in some cases as late as 1975. Now, we can continue working even after marriage, but even though we are being allowed back into the workplace after marriage, are we still being penalised? Will there ever be a level playing field?

It is not all bad mind you. Diversity is now the buzzword and any self-respecting organisation is trying to prove how diverse they are, because at the very minimum, they understand that it makes good business sense. That said, change is never easy and lasting change is never quick, so sometimes even though the political will is there to do the right thing, other competing and less difficult to implement initiatives can and do get in the way.

That is why we need celebrations like IWD to keep piling on the pressure and to ensure that we are not stuck here for the next 100 years, fighting the same issues of sexual harassment and the gender pay gap.

I was with the ACCA on IWD being interviewed about my book Octopus on a Treadmill: Women, Success, Health, Happiness. It was a posh affair. Complete with waiter service, starched white linen and I think it was called Champagne afternoon tea. What a classy way to mark IWD. I am very proud of the ACCA, whose student body is balanced with 56% being female and the ACCA Executive and Council are also gender balanced. Not that many organisations can lay claim to that. The icing on the cake is that the first accounting body to allow a woman to join their ranks was, drum roll please… the ACCA! Her name was Ethel Ayres Purdie and she campaigned tirelessly for women’s rights.

For someone like me who is passionate about women’s advancement, I couldn’t have thought of a more fitting place to be on International Women’s day.