• However, in recent years IWD has become more about corporate breakfasts hosted by male champions for change and predominantly white female leaders. (Getty Images)
To be truly powerful, International Women's Day needs to remember women at the grassroots.
Amira Aftab

8 Mar 2019 - 9:05 AM  UPDATED 8 Mar 2019 - 10:56 AM

International Women’s Day (IWD) has always been about reflecting on the state of women’s rights today – celebrating how far we’ve come, but also recognising the continuing barriers to equality.

We speak of equal pay and “breaking through the glass ceiling” yet often fail to recognise the many women outside the corporate world who remain excluded from IWD conversations and events. 

We need to acknowledge the women who work in lower-paid jobs, for example, our nurses and childcare workers – but also the migrant women who face earning disadvantages and additional barriers to employment opportunities and advancement. 

This year’s IWD theme - ‘More Powerful Together’ - calls on women to come together to tackle gender inequality in our community. It's a reminder of the importance of reaching across divides, and how powerful women can be when supporting and coming together to achieve change.

We see this historically, with the international feminist movement making great strides in seeking greater rights and protections for women.

It's a movement that led to the creation of the key international legal protection for women’s rights and equality – the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women. In Australia, the efforts of the ‘second wave’ feminist movement, which focused primarily on equality in the workplace, and sexual harassment, successfully led to the introduction of the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth).

These achievements have led to formal protections of women’s rights, but it is important to recognise they are not extensive, and most significantly, they do not always translate into equality in the everyday lives of many women.

Women are not a single, homogeneous group with the exact same wants and needs.

We need to recognise the ongoing issues faced by women, such as gender-based violence, the fight for equal pay, and the lack of women (especially minority women) in leadership roles.  With the many challenges to women’s rights and equality that still exist - we also need to acknowledge the differences that among women themselves.

Women are not a single, homogeneous group with the exact same wants and needs.

Not only are women continually faced with gendered institutional structures, but the inequalities that arise from this are experienced differently by women from different backgrounds. 

Equality and rights mean something unique to each woman, shaped by their political, cultural, social and economic background. 

This disparity in experiences is particularly evident when looking at women in different employment industries.

For example, there is a tendency to under-appreciate childcare workers and their role as educators. It is estimated that approximately 97 per cent of childcare workers are women and earn considerably less than their counterparts in other professions.

For migrant women, not only are there issues in terms of equal pay and access to employment opportunities, but they face additional barriers in terms of language proficiency and education.

For some women, this can lead to them being taken advantage of and being illegally underpaid. However, this disparity in experiences is not just confined to lower-paid jobs. There is also a lack of diversity among women in leadership roles and senior positions. Minority women can face a “double jeopardy” based on their gender and cultural background, that presents extra hurdles in accessing these positions. 

Ultimately, there is a failure to recognise that for many women discrimination is not experienced on the basis of gender alone. The reality is that there is a privilege that can be racial, class-based, ableist or heteronormative, often invisible to those reaping the benefits of that privilege.

It often leads to ‘dominant’ groups of women defining what women’s interests are, with minority women silenced or spoken for. We see this in the many IWD events that have become defined by corporate interests.

We need to be aware that not all women are being heard or represented within these movements.

There is power in coming together to demand change, evidenced historically and recently in movements like #MeToo. But we need to be aware that not all women are being heard or represented within these movements.

There needs to be greater recognition that women’s experiences vary – shaped by a variety of factors that intersect, whether that be race, culture, religion, or sexual orientation.

To be ‘More Powerful Together’, we need to acknowledge the privilege and inequalities that exist among women. We need to deal with the historical, cultural, ethnic and economic barriers that still impede progress for certain types of women over others.

We need to be more inclusive - engaging with the women that are often forgotten and excluded, that may not have a voice or platform, in order to empower them to speak for themselves. Only in learning to respect each other’s views and experiences (accepting that we won’t always agree) and working towards an equality that includes all women, can we truly be powerful together.

Dr Amira Aftab is a researcher at the Macquarie University Law School. She is co-author of the ‘Is Australia Sexist?’ report commissioned by SBS and conducted by Macquarie University. You can follow her on Twitter @amiraaftab.

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