International Women's Day 'unmissable opportunity' that misses every time

8:53 am on 8 March 2020

By Anna Rawhiti-Connell

Opinion - Happy International Women's Day, the unrelenting sameness of which makes it feel more and more like Groundhog Day each year.

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The gender pay gap is brimming with complexities yet it ends up being presented as a single, simple statistic. Photo: RNZ / Eva Corlett

This year's theme is 'Creating an Equal and Enabled World'. This sounds like a utopia I'd like to live in, but it also sounds like the last 44 International Women's Day themes. 'Insert hashtag', 'Insert custom emoji'.

The day is full of good intentions but rather than being 'an unmissable opportunity to mobilise global action to achieve gender equality and human rights of all women and girls', it's increasingly a depressing annual reminder of just how much hasn't changed for women.

In a bid to mobilise everyone under the same 'safe for work' banner, International Women's Day homogenises women and the issues they face.

Take the gender pay gap, a regularly featured topic of focus for IWDs gone by.

This is an issue that is brimming with complexities, some of them as structural as the rib God supposedly took from Adam to create Eve. Yet it ends up being presented as a single, simple statistic for us to get angry about over our croissants at a boardroom breakfast.

The gender pay gap isn't simply a case of men being paid more than women. It's a by-product of biological reality. Until the lion's share of human reproduction can actually be shared or we get real about not penalising women for this, women will continue to lose out and the gap will persist.

The gap is also the result of structural oppression, colonisation, discrimination and class. In New Zealand, Pākehā women earn between $3 and $6 more per hour than Māori, Pasifika and Asian women. For as long as 'more women on corporate boards' is the only solution we talk about, the gap will persist.

If we continue to retain the attitudes we have about the value of unpaid labour and refuse to examine and do something about the very nature and design of work itself, the gap will persist.

Pay parity is an important component of addressing the gender pay gap and by all means, keep on having your professional women's get togethers to discuss it.

But this year, while you're there, stop and think about who'll be cleaning the room after your get-together and whether anyone hosted a breakfast for women earning minimum wage.

Stop and think about the nature of work as it currently is. Think about whether it was ever designed to accommodate women and how much that impacts the gap.

Spend some time deciding whether the well-timed announcement about some basic effort that acknowledges some of your workforce have babies deserves applause or a question about what's next.

Ponder the very paradigm of worth that often shuts out the value of unpaid work despite the fact it keeps the world turning.

Complexity doesn't mean we shouldn't be addressing the issue but it can't be addressed if we keep boiling it down to one simple number on one day of the year for one type of woman. Being perpetually aghast that the gender pay gap isn't closing is like being surprised that mixing together a rainbow of different colours on a paint palette ends up creating an awful shade of puce.

IWD is the 'unmissable opportunity' that has missed every time. In order for it to stop feeling like Groundhog Day we need to acknowledge that in trying to serve all women, it's serving none.

It has lost the very diversity it purports to champion and in order to address big, complex issues like the gender pay gap, we need to start unpacking what's become a neatly organised kit and begin sorting through the messy and difficult determinants of economic prosperity for all women. Not just some.

*Anna Rawhiti-Connell is a digital, social media and content marketing consultant and commentator who writes about social media, digital news, politics, diversity and gender equality.