From flowers and re-gendered brands to marching sisters’ fists and mass striking: International Women’s Day showed a vast variety of initiatives. Their impact depended on how well they acknowledged their context: Some did, others didn’t. An analysis describes how helpful or harmful activities can be.
On International Women’s Day, major companies feel that pressure is ‘on’ and hence want to be creative in what they do. They also aim at being inclusive and involve female colleagues (or formalised networks) in the project development process. Communication campaigns and events seem to be the natural outcome and in addition, we see more and more colourful activities each year. Unfortunately, we also see rolling eyes, raised eyebrows and frowning incomprehension over some of these initiatives – particularly when they seem to be out of synch with their context.
Understanding where we are in the journey
The purpose of IWD seems to be different for different stakeholders: Many want to celebrate the political, social, economic and cultural contribution of women while others focus on addressing persisting gender gaps in a number of fields. Either approach can help to #PressForProgress if the initiatives take into account context and audiences.
Two examples are quite particular when seen against their regional backdrop:
- A communication campaign in Switzerland, where women did not have the right to vote until the 1970s, portrays iconic female role models from various decades. As most of them were or are International achievers, the campaign delivers a pro-Swiss message as much as a pro-women. It almost feels as if Switzerland was a core region of gender heaven…
- Meanwhile, in Spain, a country that ranks quite high on International gender indices, a huge strike (including the areas of employment, care and consumption) was organised to promote changes in order to achieve real equality and address persisting abuses even in the middle of society. An estimated 5 million women participated, including the (female) mayors of Madrid and Barcelona…
At a first glance, these examples may look a bit odd in their respective contexts but a closer look reveals their relevance. In Spain, the recent crisis, modest perspectives and slow changes have created discomfort among the young generation which was a key driver in making the strike happen (and become big).
Generally, background information and data are key to understanding where an organisation or society is in its D&I journey and where case for change is most significant.
(No) New data from Politics or pressure groups
In post-truth, alternative-factual times, data can unfortunately be problematic and it is actually questionable, if the increase in gender studies, statistics, indices, rankings and ratings is helping the gender agenda. Key issues around data include
- Biased presentation of data (including micro messaging) when the publisher has their own agenda or interest, e.g. ministries that report a decreasing gender gap, calling it ‘slow’
- Data noise generated by large numbers of (opinion or perception) surveys the results of which are often confused with insights from robust studies or primary data. Quite a few of these opinion survey are carried out by large consultancies in order to create communication opportunities (NB: these firms traditionally rely on male dominance and networks and can be seen part of the problem in the first place)
- Frequent changes of how data is framed, e.g. pressure groups that in year 1 criticise the low number of company boards with any woman, in year 2 the low number of company boards with 2 or more women and in year 3 the low number of female CEOs (‘never enough’ phenomenon)
- Double gender standards, e.g. flagging out the high risk of group think in all-male groups while this is not reflected for an all-female research team or editorial board (this form of bias has recently been observed quite a bit in the gender area)
Once we are aware of and observe these potential pitfalls, the large amount of available data is extremely helpful to understand the existing situation as a result of past developments (root causes) and to describe realistic scenarios. Just the week prior to IWD2018, numerous report have been made available from official sources including
- EU Parliament (gender equality in digital and media sectors),
- EuroStat (decreasing pay gap, ‘slow’)
- EIGE (women and men in ICT, women ‘only’ 17% of ICT specialists without providing a baseline figure)
- OECD (women in politics, pay gap, both reposted from 2017, paid and unpaid work / time use by gender).
These and many other reports reveal a strong or sole focus on representation figures, a notion that can be seen as a direct offspring of the political ‘quota debate’. Research shows, however, that in a business-context any diversity framework should include additional metrics (e.g. about recognition or inclusion) in order to cover the paradigms of the D&I value-creation process.
Such more holistic data also provide a robust base for systemic – and eventually sustainable – change (as opposed to simply meeting representation targets). IWD could and should be the place for such wider perspectives.
#IWD2018 messages that support systemic change
Instead of moaning about inequality, outstanding IWD communication highlighted existing biases and hence uncovered some of the key dynamics that perpetuate inequalities.
From a D&I change perspective, messages that focus on strengths or double standards have a much higher potential impact than shaming campaigns. This year, some strong messages were placed through quotes or personal pledges from female and male stakeholders:
- “Feminism isn’t about making women stronger. Women are already strong. It’s about changing the way the world perceives that strength.” G. D. Andersen
- Using selfie cards that contain pledges how male and female leaders will press for progress (challenge stereotypes and bias, maintain gender parity mindset etc.)
- Reverse traditional assumptions: „So, female leaders, embrace your bossy, b*tchy, difficult, forceful, and aggressive selves: It’s our vernacular that needs to change, not you.” L. Elting @forbes
Reversing assumptions is a powerful tool in the D&I field and can be used to provoke men as well: An Austrian drugstore wanted to encourage men to engage in household chore offering a 25% discount on cleansing material, showing a man in the ad. Despite this inverted messaging, the initiative was disliked due to its direct link with IWD. However, a number of other events could have been criticised more harshly than this gender-reversed marketing move.
Major international fails on IWD – and borderline cases
The race for creative and publicly admired IWD activities has prompted more and more brands to (re)position themselves vis-à-vis gender – mostly just for a week or a day and not an easy terrain to navigate: If your brand is male/mainstream-focused, the move might not be credible and when your brand is already diversity-friendly, it will be too obvious or even obsolete to create an extra gender profile. Three examples that did not quite meet the original intention include
- A McDonald’s location in California turned its trademark upside down so that the golden arches usually forming an M became a W (for women). It has remained unclear if it was just a gag, but the reactions from online communities were quite clearly irritated.
- The whiskey brand Johnnie Walker introduced a limited ‚Jane Walker‘ edition, including a female iteration of the brand’s striding man logo. The temporary nature of the offer and the company’s additional communication about workforce diversity achievements added to the overall negative perception of the move.
- The German drugstore chain Rossmann changed its name to Rossfrau (rossMAN à rossWOMAN) as part of a wider ‘release the woman’ campaign around International Women’s Day 2018, which also included discounted offers of beauty and cleansing products… For experts, it was no surprise at all that the initiative resulted in a significant shitstorm. The company even removed its original press release from its website.
For the D&I community, it is quite astonishing that such predictable fails still occur – after decades of Diversity awareness, communication and education, or in a world where basic gender marketing expertise is available to large companies and their ad agencies. On the other hand, even within the D&I community, IWD initiatives can, at times, feel a bit out of date or out of context.
From women support programmes to gender-equal diversity stakeholders
While an increasing amount of companies have realised that the era of dedicated women-only support programmes is over, many still organise IWD events that reach out specifically to women. Efforts to include men sometimes result in inviting one male supporter who may happen to be a feminist, hence confirming opinions and assumptions while not shaking up the room. In these cases, the level of inspiration might not be particularly high, but it also does not do any harm to IWD. This probably happened in one case we found, where the all-male management board waited at the entrance door to welcome each woman with her personal flower and congratulate them on IWD.
Such gallantry is already considered outdated and inappropriate on Mother’s Day – how can the degrading nature not be obvious on International Women’s Day?
Time is Now: Rural and urban activists transforming women’s lives
One result of an overview of International Women’s Day 2018 seems to be: We still have a long way to go and continue to influence, educate and eventually change people’s perspectives and perceptions of women and gender issues. The United Nations had taken this broader perspective in their run-up to IMD 2018, when they set the motto for this year: Time is Now: Rural and urban activists transforming women’s lives.
And it seems to be the reason why even in Spain, where gender equality is – by global standards – fairly advanced, some 82% agreed in a national poll that there were valid motives for the Nation-wide strike for equality.
What might be needed on future International Women’s Days is more awareness on the devastating situation of women in many countries around the world – where they would not be allowed to strike and where no one would even think about a poll about equality.