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Una Mullally: How companies can effect actual change this International Women’s Day

The empty rhetoric of female empowerment within corporate culture makes me queasy

It’s International Women’s Day season, and on we go, muddling through gender equality. There are some incredibly worthwhile, fun, and important events taking place. And then there’s the gender-washing, box-ticking, corporate feminism jogging alongside them.

Paradoxically, these activities can act as useful gateway drugs to smashing the systems they attempt to uphold, But they also co-opt modes of thinking and being that were not meant to be subsumed into conference rooms. There are of course many feminisms. It’s not a competition. But the rhetoric of female empowerment within hierarchies of corporate culture makes me queasy. Incredibly, some massively wealthy companies expect some women to speak at these things for free. A great way to “empower” and “inspire” women is to pay them for their work.

Here are some things that companies can do to make International Women’s Day relevant beyond hosting an annual event attended by other women.

Audit salaries to determine what the real gender pay gap is within the company, not merely by comparing job with job, but by examining why there may be fewer women within senior positions, and interrogating the structures that lock women out of certain roles.


End the assumption that women's lives and needs are somehow incompatible with professional success

Listen to women when they raise their concerns. Don’t resist or counter those concerns by elevating the oppositional feelings and opinions of men in the organisation. View working practices and systems beyond a male lens, and take into account the unpaid labour women do across childcare and running households. Create the kind of facilitatory flexibility that works with women to elevate them within organisations, and stop working “around” women in order to maintain male power within organisations.

End the assumption that women’s lives and needs are somehow incompatible with professional success. Recognise the inequities of systems that require women to climb professional ladders in increasingly dexterous and self-sacrificing ways.

Understand that women who do “get ahead” are often typified as “difficult” not because that is an intrinsic characteristic, but because the terrain they’ve had to travel on to get where they are is often much rougher than their male colleagues’ pathways, so it’s no wonder that women are increasingly jostled the further they get.

Understand that concerns women express in the workplace are not invented, not about chips on shoulders, nor about a desire for victimhood (who wants that?).

Appreciate the stress caused and the unnecessarily large amounts of headspace colonised by navigating an inflexible professional world that does not automatically bend to your gender.

Understand that meritocracy is a myth compounded by mirror-tocracy, and that the hiring practices, support, and mentorship that young men receive in workplaces is so embedded in organisations that it’s often not even noticed.

The commodification of feminism is now a strain of merchandising and consumerism

And then, ultimately, we have to take a step back and realise that bettering the broken systems we’ve built is really just a stopgap towards a broader feminist revolution. That feminist revolution is about the end of capitalism, which is a system that is destroying us and the planet we occupy. We should seek to disrupt and undermine the concept of a “working day”, and “work” itself. And we should reflect on why saying that is seen as provocative, even sensational, delusional, or incomprehensible. Why?

The concept of equality within capitalism is fundamentally disingenuous. Capitalism requires people to suffer so that others can be momentarily satisfied. You go up, someone else goes down. The commodification of feminism is now a strain of merchandising and consumerism. Yet, consumerism damages women at all levels in its rotten chain, from the women enslaved in factories, to the communities exporting their children to polluted cities to make things for people thousands of miles away, to the aching Amazon warehouse workers rushing those products out for delivery, to the advertisements for “things” that make us feel inadequate, to the tech platforms on which they’re unboxed and flaunted, to the dull pull of desiring something to fill a hole that will never be satiated by shopping.

In the astonishingly good 2019 BBC series Years and Years, set in near-future Britain (well worth a watch right now, what with the global pandemic and the locusts and the southward-diving stock market charts on the news), the matriarch of the family speaks to her grandchildren and great-grandchildren at dinner about the state of the world.

“We can sit here all day, blaming other people. We blame the economy. We blame Europe. The opposition. The weather. And then we blame these vast sweeping tides of history, you know, like they’re out of our control, that we’re so helpless and little and small. But it’s still our fault. You know why. It’s that £1 T-shirt. A T-shirt that costs £1. We can’t resist it. Every single one of us. We see a T-shirt that costs £1, and we think, ‘Ooh, that’s a bargain. I’ll have that.’ And we buy it. And the shopkeeper gets five miserable pence for that T-shirt. And some little peasant, in a field, gets paid 0.01 pence. And we think that’s fine. All of us. And we hand over our quid and we buy into that system, for life.”

So, as International Women’s Day is celebrated around the world this week, the continuous question of “gender equality” slinks into a spotlight it’s rarely out of. But equal to what? And within what? Is the pursuit to be “equal” within capitalism not illogical? As the great journalist, author and activist Mona Eltahawy says, “It’s too late for equality. I want freedom.”