International Women's Day: Worth Celebrating, or Just Another Social Media Trend?

Holly Hanau

TW: sexual violence

Promises of gender equality resound from corporate soapboxes every year on the 8th of March when the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women are celebrated around the world. I can see it now:  “We’re empowering women not just today, but every day”, says an inspirational quote from a white male CEO on his company’s social media page (which was probably written by a female copywriter who doesn’t get paid nearly enough). 

But how much of this social boasting actually translates into everyday action for these companies? When a woman has a child does she get sufficient paid leave to take care of herself and her newborn? How many trans women are employed at these organisations? What’s the pay gap between male and female employees? These are my burning questions when I see a company’s International Women’s Day (IWD) post. 

Now let’s back up a bit. 

According to the International Women’s Day official website, the holiday dates back to the early 20th century. In 1908, 15,000 women marched through New York City demanding shorter hours, better pay and voting rights; the first official National Woman's Day was observed across the United States on the 28th of February the following year. Women continued to celebrate on this date until 1913. When word of the event spread through Europe, the date was changed to the 8th of March, and women’s rights movements became more widespread in the western world. In 1975 it was officially recognised by the UN as International Women’s Day, and in the 90’s an official council was created and began adopting themes each year to re-energise the movement. 

IWD and the Suffrage Movement undoubtedly paved the way for feminism and women’s rights in the 21st century.

Without the persistent efforts of our foremothers we wouldn’t be celebrating IWD at all, and I want to take an important moment to recognise and hold so much love and gratitude for them. 

However, "Feminism and "women's rights" are terms that have vastly differed in significance over time and from country to country. Celebrating IWD with female empowerment events and social media posts may be appropriate in some societies because the issues they focus on emphasize equality in the workplace.

But in other parts of the world, women’s rights movements are fighting for safe and legal abortions and reproductive rights. Devastating regressions on abortion laws affect everyone, but are especially targeted to harm marginalised groups. 1 in 5 girls around the world are forced into marriage as young as nine years old, where they’re less likely to receive education and more likely to be victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse. Harmful practices like female genital mutilation and systemic rape culture are still commonplace in many countries. Women and girls are treated as second-class citizens, denied their human rights and valued less because of their sex. The idea that social media activism will do anything to help in these situations is almost irresponsible. 

The women that marched for their rights in the 1900’s certainly couldn’t have predicted the rise of social media and the impact it would have on society. In the virtual (and pandemic) world, IWD events are mostly online, consisting of panel discussions by female thought-leaders aiming to empower women in the business world. I think IWD is a great time to hold these events, but the discussions about diversity, intersectionality, rights and inclusion need to continue throughout the year, and more awareness needs to be brought to issues outside of the workplace. Social media does have the potential to spread powerful messages to global audiences, and activism is much more influential today than it was before we were constantly connected. Where I begin to doubt the effectiveness is when the fundamental message gets lost in all of the “challenges”, posts, and social media hype. 

Read more: Breaking Up with the Patriarchy

I’ll never forget my first “official” IWD celebration: I was in Madrid and it was by far the largest and most empowering march in which I’d ever taken part. There were drums beating, creative signs and dress, and feminist chants swallowed in a sea of violet. I walked away from that event energised and ready to take on the world, but I was left wondering exactly what tangible changes came from such a movement. Sometimes we only remember that it’s Women’s Day when we see it on an Instagram story "celebrating the women in our lives". Is it just another social media trend, or is there real work going on in the name of IWD? How often are we all doing the work to celebrate the incredible and magical women in our spheres not only for their career achievements, but also for the people they are? 

We all deserve respect, human rights, and the freedom to live without fear of violence regardless of our career and economic value. Yet, women still make 77 cents to every dollar earned by men for each hour worked, and in some countries that wage gap is substantially higher. Include women of colour, disabled women, trans women, and indigenous and migrant women to the statistics and those pay gaps widen even more. Globally in 2022, women still perform the majority of unpaid labour that is crucial for both households and economies to function. Since this work is mainly administrative, service and emotional labour, it too is overlooked, and COVID-19 has only exacerbated these unpaid labour burdens. 

Unfortunately, none of us will see full gender equality in our lifetimes and neither will the next generation. 

This is a pretty discouraging piece of information, I know. The women marching for voting rights in the 20th century weren’t certain about how much their efforts would actually pay off, but they did. Thanks to their relentless activism, women today have more rights than ever before. Although we won’t be able to enjoy the full fruits of our labour, and although the patriarchy continues to dominate life as we know it, I think that International Women’s Day still deserves to be celebrated. Our foremothers didn’t get to enjoy their efforts but would be thrilled to see women in politics around the world continuing to fight for women's rights today. 

When we become complacent and succumb to getting lost in another social media trend, that is where the danger lies. We must still fight for women around the world who don’t have the same level of equality. Every time we stand up to sexism and lend our voices to the fight for health, safety and independence for all women, we take a step in the right direction. When you’re posting on social media for International Women’s Day this year, don’t forget the brave and incredible women that came before you, and don’t forget to continue to fight for the brave and incredible women that surround you and will come after you.

Holly Hanau

"What makes the human experience so incredible is that we have the power to heal one another. By sharing our stories and embracing our differences we can confront the topics and paradoxes that make life both interesting and challenging. I love learning from and working with a diverse group of women from around the globe — we can embrace the unknown and explore the unfamiliar as we all navigate this world together."
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