International Women’s Day is a time for action not corporate lip service

International Women’s Day is too often punctuated by businesses parroting empty platitudes. If organisations truly want to make a difference, they need to take action and improve awareness

Iwd International Womens Day

Birthed from frustration at rampant inequality, International Women’s Day started back in 1908 when 15,000 women marched through New York demanding shorter hours, fairer pay and voting rights. It was a day to advocate and fight for women’s rights – and it sent a clear message to the world that women were going to be vocal in their demand for change. 

116 years later and it feels we have lost our way. Increasingly, activism is being replaced with empty celebration. In the lead up to 8 March, I have seen an endless stream of self-congratulatory campaigns and posts that do much to “champion women” but are all-too happy to glaze over the, frankly unacceptable, challenges women still face. 

If companies want to celebrate women on International Women’s Day, they should be clear on what they’re celebrating. When I look at the current figures on women’s participation in leadership, there’s little cause for celebration. Just 26 countries have a female head of state or government, according to the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women. And only 10 women hold a CEO role in the FTSE 100.

In addition, women are far more likely to be victims of violence. The World Health Organisation estimates that one in three women aged 15 and older have been subjected to either physical and/or sexual violence in their lifetime. At least 200 million girls and women alive today have undergone female genital mutilation (FGM). And 52% of British women have experienced sexual harassment, according to a YouGov survey.

The women I know and have spoken with recently do not want a meme and a heart emoji to tell them they “have the power”; they want action and accountability. They do not appreciate being patronised about their “worth”, but they do want to know what progress has or has not been made towards making our streets safer, protecting against assault and domestic violence and achieving equal representation in business and government.

Time to open up discussion

International Women’s Day should be a day to talk about these difficult topics, not avoid them. One of those difficult topics, which I doubt you will see emblazoned across the average #IWD campaign, is the ‘motherhood penalty’. 

This is exactly the kind of issue we need to be talking about – loudly – because, in 2024, women continue to miss out on career opportunities simply because they are a mother. 

Industry heads must be reminded of their responsibility to support the other half of the population

In the early 1950s, American activist and author of The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan was fired for being pregnant. Her employer opted for dismissal over granting her maternity leave. Some 70 years later and women are still being penalised for having children. 

Research by the Fawcett Society last year revealed 250,000 women in the UK have quit their jobs because of the challenges that come with balancing work and childcare duties. The working world is failing working mothers and that is not good enough. 

It is easy to dismiss the motherhood penalty as an ongoing, unsolvable problem. This is lazy thinking. It ignores the systematic issue that we expect working parents (although the onus falls largely on mothers) and those caring for others, to be available round the clock, both at the office and at home – which is an impossible expectation to meet. 

It also ignores the fact that limited flexible working arrangements and a lack of affordable childcare options create much of the problem. Deeply old-fashioned prejudices and assumptions that keep women in low pay, low responsibility roles add to that problem further still. 

This results in a negative cycle. Lower salaries make already expensive childcare unaffordable; mothers move out of the workforce to care for their children; therefore there are less women at the top to show the way, meaning that no meaningful change is made. 

Employers need to make a difference

Government policies are important but have limited impact if companies don’t substantiate those policies with genuinely family-friendly workplace cultures. Continuing the status quo isn’t going to get us anywhere – companies need to be much more open to listening to their employees, then reviewing and updating existing parental policies accordingly. 

Expressing elementary truths in 2024 feels a bit out of step but industry heads must be reminded of their responsibility to support the other half of the population. 

In my experience of leading HR teams over the last 25 years, it is absolutely true that HR can and should lead programmes that support returning mothers and working mothers more widely. But the leadership team and line managers also have to take ownership for mentoring and supporting the mothers in their team to reintegrate after their leave, help them gain promotions, log off on time to collect their kids and work flexibly. 

Supportive policies combined with supportive leaders are the only way to create a culture shift. 

IWD risks becoming nothing more than a corporate gimmick

There’s no quick fix to the motherhood penalty, but we should be using the 8 March as a moment to push for action to address it and ask those in positions of power to highlight the problems. 

If we allow International Women’s Day to continue on its diluted trajectory, we risk it becoming nothing more than a corporate gimmick. Boards, CEOs, companies and governments wanting to show they practice what they preach should think hard about how to use this day as an opportunity to drive awareness of the inequalities women face and to find solutions to address these systemic issues.

It’s high time we take International Women’s Day back to its roots as a catalyst for tangible change, not just a day of token celebration.

Amanda Rajkumar is an experienced, board-level HR practitioner with a career-long interest in fostering inclusive, motivated workforces. Her most recent role was as Adidas’ executive board member overseeing human resources, people, and culture. From 1998 onward, she has held senior HR leadership roles at JPMorgan Chase and BNP Paribas, including as chief human resources officer for the Americas region.

Amanda will be writing a regular column for Raconteur on the biggest challenges facing HR leaders today and providing guidance on how HR teams can better support their people.