Beware the corporate “pinkwashing” of International Women’s Day

This column first appeared in The Western Mail in March 2022

I write this on International Women’s Day. It’s a day that increasingly makes me feel torn.

I mean, in principle, I’m glad such a day exists. 

After all, we make up half of the world’s population, and it’s nice of the patriarchy to let us have a day – one day – that’s just for us. Not a birthday, not a day celebrating us for the role we play in someone else’s life, just a good old-fashioned 24-hour period to celebrate the badass women we are, we know and have known. 

What would be even better if it was a bank holiday. A day where women everywhere – from kitchens and school canteens to corporate boardrooms – downed tools to demonstrate just how much the world would grind to a halt without our paid (and unpaid) labour. A sort of peaceful strike, if you like, where we spend the day pursuing and prioritising pleasure. A long walk, a day on the sofa, cooing at dogs in the park, whatever floats our boats. Sounds radical? Good. Because sometimes, the radical option is the only way to affect change.

The women of Iceland were all over this way back in 1975 when 75,000 women left their jobs, children and homes to participate in a general strike dubbed “women’s day off”. Their flyers said, “We march because the work experience of a housewife is not considered of any value in the labour market”. For Icelandic men, this day became known as the “Long Friday”. With no women to staff desks and tills, banks, factories and shops were forced to close, as were schools and nurseries. Fathers had no choice but to take their children to work. Sales of sweets and crayons soared. Sausages (the easy-cook-tea for time-pressed parents everywhere) sold out. Forty-seven years after the Women’s Day Off, Iceland has ranked top in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap report – an index that examines educational opportunities, life expectancy, pay equity and the average time spent on housework – in 13 of the past 16 years. 

Icelandic women owe their mothers and grandmothers a debt of gratitude; that’s one clear example of harnessing a day in the calendar to fight for lasting, meaningful change. 

And that’s what I fear is becoming lost in the cupcake and prosecco-infused fug of International Women’s Day. Celebrating inspirational women is one thing. But we have a bloody long way to go when it comes to equality, and we’re in danger of the message becoming lost in coffee mornings, and well-meaning events attended mainly by women. Suppose we want to reimagine an entire social system (patriarchal capitalism, say) and push back the tide of thousands of years of history? Do we get there by politely organising fringe events with good buffets?

That’s not to say those events don’t have merit (and I speak as somebody that has spoken at such events and left many feeling enlightened and inspired). I’m a big believer in the importance of role models – that you can’t be what you can’t see. It’s great to see women lifting other women, of course. But it takes much more than that to shift the dial. 

And I fear IWD is becoming yet another opportunity for brands and public sector organisations to indulge in the feminist-bandwagon-jumping behaviour known as “pinkwashing”. Where they indulge in the bizarre practice of pushing out beautifully-designed social media posts showcasing the women in their teams (“Look! We employ women! Progressive, huh?”). Yet the same organisations shy away from committing to anything more meaningful, such as tackling the gender pay gap or removing structural inequality and bias in recruitment. Or identifying why women are under-represented at the most senior levels and taking steps to change that. Why bother with all of that when you have some slick pink-and-glittery graphics and empty platitudes?

This pinkwashing sticks in the craw somewhat because while we have come a long way, Wales remains an inequitable place to be a woman.

In 1975 (six years before I was born), the Sex Discrimination Act made it illegal to discriminate against women in work, education and training. Yet Wales’ gender pay gap (the average difference between the remuneration for men and women who are working) has increased to 12.3% this year.

There has been an overall increase in unemployment amongst women, and a shocking 72% of working mothers work fewer hours (and cut their earnings) due to a lack of childcare during the first lockdown.

Because only 29% of councillors are women, decisions about schools, roads, safety and the way taxes are spent locally are mainly made by men.

Women experience harassment, sexual violence, and domestic abuse-related crimes at a higher rate than men. (A shout out here to charity Llamau, using this year’s #breakthebias theme to raise funds for women desperate to escape abusive relationships. Another example of how you can use calendar days to work towards meaningful change). 

One of my favourite parts of IWD this year was the genius Gender Pay Gap Bot. This Twitter account targeted businesses tweeting about #IWD2022 and shared data on their gender pay gap. The result? Many big brands publicly shamed for pay gaps that extend beyond 40% in some cases. The message couldn’t be more explicit. If you think your strong social media game makes up for the fact you pay your female employees less than their male counterparts or that you disproportionately employ women in lower-paid roles, then jog on. It’s the type of direct action I wholeheartedly endorse. 

In a sea of eye-roll-inducing social media posts yesterday, I saw just one whose message was bang on the money, from a Welsh business called Yellow Sub Geo:

“Today, ask your male leaders and colleagues, what are YOU doing to realise social, economic, political and cultural equality for women everywhere? It may feel uncomfortable, but that probably means it’s worth doing.Because cupcakes and banner-waving are great, but it takes a lot more to move the needle.

Sincerely, the women tired of writing w*nky posts on International Women’s Day”.

Amen to that, sisters. 

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Hello. I’m Sara. This site is home to my writing for the Western Mail, a newspaper kind enough to publish my internal ramblechats. In 2022 I was named Wales Media Awards Columnist of The Year for this column. Madness. You’ll find me spaffing opinions on feminism, inequality, festivals, tech, art and whatever else pops into my head at 3am the day before deadline. There’s also bonus content, when the muse takes me (WHERE IS SHE TAKING ME? I DIDN’T ORDER THIS CAB! Etc…).

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