6 Mar 2023

Four reasons why we still need International Women's Day

11:53 am on 8 March 2023

Every International Women's Day (IWD) there is always, inevitably, a reaction from a man (or more than one man) objecting to the very idea of a day devoted to women. Instead of asking 'how can we help?' they wail: why do we need this? Women's stuff already gets so much more attention than men's stuff! Look at breast cancer vs. prostate cancer! When's our special day?

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Photo: Unsplash

It's extremely tempting to respond that every day, really, is men's day. Even though we have made amazing strides in society towards equality, we still have a very long way to go.

The theme for this year's IWD, 'Embracing Equity', highlights this. What it's saying is that for women - as with every other group of people who face disadvantage, discrimination and bias - equality is not enough. It's also acknowledging that women - just like men - are not one homogenous group: there's intersectionality at play here, too. Giving everyone a pair of shoes is one thing; making sure everyone has a pair of shoes that fits is another.

In Aotearoa today, women still don't have equity. Here are four places where that plays out (and what we can all do to start to fix this).

At work

Want to know one simple trick to earn more over the course of your lifetime? Have a penis. This is the obvious one of course: 50 years after the Equal Pay Act was passed, women still, on average, earn nine percent less than men. The penalty we pay for being women gets worse as we get older, and Asian, Māori and Pasifika women have an extra disadvantage; for the latter it's a shocking 27 percent.

It's a complicated issue (and emerging evidence shows a similar gap for transgender and non-binary people), but the usual objections used to dismiss it: women take time out of careers to have babies, women choose careers that are by nature low paid, etc. - are nonsense, and there's evidence to prove it: the people at Mind The Gap have done the legwork and have a handy de-bunking section on their website.

What we can do about it:

Interviewing for a job? Whatever your gender - ask about the organisation's pay gap. If they're not reporting on it, ask why. If you're a leader: start reporting. It's really not that hard, and you can't change what you don't measure. Mind The Gap says overseas evidence shows pay gap reporting can reduce gaps by 20 to 40 percent. And we need that money for period supplies and other pink-taxed items.

At the doctor's office

It's thousands of years since Greek and Roman philosopher physicians considered women's bodies 'deformed' versions of the ideal male physique, but medical misogyny remains.

While we no longer consign women to mental asylums for hysteria and melancholia, women still face considerable bias in the medical system. For example, there's a growing body of evidence that women's pain is treated differently than men's. Women are less likely than men to be given adequate pain relief; they wait longer for pain relief and are more likely to have their pain explained away as psychological.

Author Niki Bezzant's new book about menopause is called This Changes Everything.

Niki Bezzant Photo: Reuben Looi

Nowhere is this more evident than for gynaecological conditions. Endometriosis NZ says on average women in Aotearoa with this common painful condition suffer for eight years before being diagnosed; they are frequently told their pain is 'normal' or in their heads.

The same is often reported by women with debilitating symptoms of perimenopause. My own research survey showed 60 percent of women had sought help for menopause symptoms, and 44 percent of those women were not satisfied with the response they received. I'm still regularly told women have been offered antidepressants by their doctors rather than (best practice) hormone treatment.

What we can do about it:

We're on the verge of a major development here: A Women's Health Strategy was included in the Pae Ora (Healthy Futures) legislation in 2022, thanks to great advocacy from Gender Justice Collective and others. It's something we've never had before, and it means women's health issues - and crucially health inequities - will get some attention. There's still time to add your voice to what is in the strategy and how it works: submissions close on 17 March. Learn more here.

In the bedroom

The pay gap may be the least of our worries as women: there's an orgasm gap, too. Depressing evidence shows women in heterosexual relationships experience fewer orgasms than men, and less satisfying sex, for no real physical reason. It's more likely this is down to ingrained social and cultural conditioning that minimises female pleasure and teaches women to expect and be satisfied with less in their sexual interactions with men.

What we can do about it:

Women and those having sex with women can get across the pleasure gap. Start by following Orgasm_Equality and learning more. While you're at it, familiarise yourself with the true anatomy of the clitoris, the wonderful and widely misunderstood organ that exists solely for female pleasure.

In the boardroom

Yep, those seats at the table are still mostly filled by male, Pākeha bottoms. Governance NZ reports women make up only 25.9 percent of directors on private company boards and only seven companies have achieved gender equality. Public sector boards have reached 50 percent, but there's still a way to go on ethnic diversity (there's that intersectionality again).

What we can do about it:

This starts right back at school: how do we create a pathway all the way from education to corporation that offers truly equitable opportunities to all people to step into board positions? Experts say existing boards need to make a true commitment to embracing diversity. The Women on Boards organisation exists to increase gender diversity on all boards; its reports are a useful way to get up to speed on this issue.

Niki Bezzant is a writer, speaker, journalist and best-selling author focusing on health, wellbeing and science.

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