Every year on March 8, people all over the world celebrate International Women’s Day. This holiday is a time to observe the social, political, economic, and cultural achievements of women, and to reflect on how far we’ve come. It’s also a time to recognize how much farther we still have to go. The struggle for equality is a continuous battle and one that requires the collective efforts of everyone - not just women.
In this post, we explain the origins of International Women’s Day and share ideas on what companies can do to help drive gender parity.
How did International Women’s Day start?
A surprising fact about International Women’s Day is that its origins lie with The Socialist Party of America. This group organized the first National Women’s Day in 1909 to commemorate a garment workers’ strike that happened in New York in 1908, where women protested working conditions.
A year later, at the International Socialist Women’s Conference in Copenhagen, International Women’s Day was officially established to honor the women's rights movement and to build support for universal suffrage.
The impact of the Copenhagen initiative could be seen globally afterward: International Women's Day was celebrated for the first time in Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland, where more than one million women and men attended rallies. International Women's Day also became a way to protest World War I. In 1917, women in Russia chose to strike for "Bread and Peace,” which eventually led to the abdication of Czar Nicholas II and granted women the right to vote. All over Europe, women continued to hold rallies to protest the war or to demonstrate solidarity with other activists.
In 1975, the United Nations officially made March 8 the date of International Women's Day and popularized the holiday when it invited member states to celebrate with them. For the past few years, the United Nations has assigned themes to every International Women’s Day. This year’s theme is #BalanceforBetter - a campaign focused on how we can build a gender-balanced world.
How companies can build a gender-balanced world
Given the theme, how can companies help build a more gender-balanced world? It starts with committing to a series of small actions that lead to impactful results. Here are a few ideas to consider:
Support women returning to work. While providing generous maternity leave is a good start, this alone isn’t enough to make women feel supported at work. It’s equally important to set women up for success when they return to their jobs after time off. The transition can be daunting - with over ⅓ of American mothers not returning to work after having a baby. There are many ways to create a more supportive culture: design a ramp-up plan when they return, offer a flexible or part-time schedule and build a network exclusively for new mothers coming back to work - or, even better, ask the returning person what they would find most helpful.
Commit to salary equality. The gender wage gap is a high-priority issue that’s received significant attention in the past few years. You can make a difference at your own company by enforcing best practices around compensation, such as conducting a pay-gap analysis or finding ways to equalize performance reviews. Another tactic to consider is introducing salary transparency. While this is a tricky initiative to navigate and isn’t necessarily the end-all-be-all answer, it can be a big step forward in terms of advocating for equality. Regardless of what you choose, the first step forward is opening up the conversation.
Encourage equal leadership and board representation. It’s a natural human tendency to be drawn to people who are similar to ourselves. That’s why - without an intentional shakeup - it’s easy for leadership boards to continue being filled with white men. If you want to lift women up, fight the subconscious bias to stick with what’s familiar and create goals around having more equally represented leadership boards. For instance, in Germany, it’s required that 30% of its board members must be female. This isn’t just a number that should be met to look good on paper. There are actual benefits to having a wider range of representation, such as diversity in thought and improved decision making - not to mention it’s also good for business.
Celebrating International Women’s Day at work
Impactful changes don’t happen overnight. However, that doesn’t mean you should pass over International Women’s Day without any kind of nod to what it represents. Below are a few ideas on how to show support for this holiday at your company:
Celebrate at work. If you have ample time to plan ahead, create a whole day in the office around International Women’s Day. Bring in speakers to address important gender-focused issues, sponsor your employees to attend women’s events, or have your CEO give a presentation on what your company is doing to raise up women in the workplace.
Donate to a charity. As a company, make a donation - or several - to women’s organizations that your employees care about. There are so many wonderful nonprofits to choose from depending on which issues you’re most passionate about. To name a few: National Women’s Law Center, Marie Stopes International, Dress for Success, Kiva, and Planned Parenthood.
Use existing groups to support women. There are also ways to support women within the built-in sub-cultures at work. For instance, if you have a book or movie club, use the month of March to read books by female authors or filmmakers, then have a discussion about your learnings. Or, if you don’t have any clubs, organize a group outing to go out and support women artists or performers.
The road to gender parity is a long one. However, we should be proud of the progress we’ve made so far and should always think of ways that we - as both companies and individuals - can take initiative to further the cause. If you love learning about how to build a more balanced workplace, be sure to get tickets for our global Culture First conference in July 2019.