International Women’s Day: What’s The Point?

Published: March 23, 2017

“We’ve known for 50 years that providing people with information alone does not change their behaviour.”

Following the phenomenal popularity of events like Blue Monday and Movember, awareness campaigns of one kind or another now take up nearly every day in the calendar.

And yet, simply raising awareness is overrated. We’ve known for 50 years that providing people with information alone does not change their behaviour. It’s not enough to say: this is a problem and we need to do something about it. We want to know what needs to be done to effect change in the actual, physical world.

Each year on March 8th people around the world observe International Women’s Day to commemorate the struggle for women’s rights and celebrate the political, social, economic and cultural achievements of women throughout history. Although the day was only adopted by the United Nations in 1975, it was marked for the first time in New York in the early 1900s, and every year more conferences, gatherings, exhibitions and other initiatives spring up around it.

The day itself sends a message. People are encouraged to talk about the issue; to share their opinion; to join a global community that cares. That’s the awareness raising part. But what responsibility do we individually and collectively hold to do something about what we’re now aware of? What role should governments, charities and companies play in actually getting people to act? As Charlotte Harvey, Director of Communications at Amey, explains: “it’s good to feel celebrated but IWD can feel a tad twee at times.”

We have worked with Grant Thornton to produce research on gender diversity in business for many years. Every time IWD rolls round, we contribute global statistics on the extent to which the dial has shifted. This year we learnt that the proportion of women in senior roles has risen just one percent in the last year – from 24% in 2016 to 25% in 2017. At the same time, the number of organisations with no female participation at a senior level has risen from 33% in 2016 to 34% in 2017.

Societies need to be aware of the glacial progress in our hike towards gender balance. But our commitment shouldn’t and doesn’t stop there. In addition to awareness-raising, Grant Thornton uncovers and investigates a new part of the debate each year to add new insight that will further our understanding of and solutions for greater gender diversity.

This year we helped to unpick some of the knotty issues surrounding risk. In business, risk is male-dominated, stereotyped and under-researched. It’s also absolutely critical, particularly with continued unknowns about the pace, breadth and scale of changes such as Brexit.

Strikingly, the findings dissuade a black and white analysis popularised by the media that men are risk loving and women are risk averse. Instead, businesses should actively promote neutral terms like ‘risk aware’ to avoid gender stereotyping, while creating a culture where taking calculated risks is part of a successful strategy, not something to be penalised. Crucially, companies have got to build mixed gender teams for effective risk management because, as Francesca Lagerberg, Global leader for tax services at Grant Thornton, says: “many of today’s companies are still run by male-only teams and they are in danger of myopia when it comes to risk.”
So, you’ve got some informed content. What next?

Keith Brookbank, Director at Linstock, comments on the importance of the messenger: “Spokespeople should convey authority and command of the topic but should also be accessible. This is crucial so that, particularly with the prominent issue of women in business, people consider them ‘real’ models, rather than role models, and feel they are, essentially, ‘people like them’.” A campaign that provides a window into what a real person thinks and feels is “key to how calls to action are received”. Charlotte Harvey agrees, explaining that “I prefer the human-interest stories about how women actually make their lives work – not ‘having it all’ stories but those that are useful and inspiring. I’d like to see more men talk on this issue, too.”

There’s a very real responsibility when working with organisations on issues such as women in business. Contributions to the issue and debate, and the actions called on people to make, must be well evidenced and constructed if they are to be effective. But of course, the best guidance and insight in the world is wasted if nobody notices, listens or engages. So, the real point is to get your point across.

Jessie Nicholls
Senior Consultant

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