The changing place of International Women’s Day in the modern world

I was honored when the MBA office invited me to write a blog entry for International Women’s Day. Despite how far we’ve come in the last several decades, in both my work and personal life, I still see the many (many) ways in which women across the world are fighting for equal opportunities to be heard, acknowledged, and recognized as equal contributors to society.

However, in the last few years, I’ve started to question the importance that International Women’s Day, and other women-specific initiatives, continue to hold in society – especially for the next generation of women leaders.

As a professor of leadership, I regularly hold special gatherings or topical sessions for the women in the class (who are, more often than not, the minorities in the room). Five-plus years ago, these were always extremely popular and well attended. But in the last few years, a couple things happened.

  • First, more women expressed dissatisfaction at being part of such special programs – they felt that they were unnecessary, unproductive, and even, reverse discriminatory.
  • Second, more men requested to join these programs. I always allowed men to join and was initially delighted about their enthusiasm to be part of the conversation. But each time, having a mixed-sex group changed both the focus of the conversation and tenor of the sessions (even in sessions on women’s leadership, more often than not, the men ended up being the ones who talked more than the women).

I’m not sure to what these changes can be attributed. Perhaps it is the move to recognize more than two genders in society, and the accompanying attitude that people should be recognized for who they are rather than what gender they are. Perhaps it is the fear of being labeled as a “feminist” and the sometimes negative connotations that go with the label (e.g., that you prioritize women’s issues over other important issues of human rights). Perhaps it is a natural change across generations to see themselves as distinct from the needs and wants of the generations that precede them. Or maybe it is the new trend for more male-championed equality initiatives in organizations (e.g., see the latest women’s leadership program at the oil company, Chevon, which is led by the male, not female, leaders in the organization).

I’m also not quite certain how I feel about these changes. On one hand, I still see the huge distance that women across the world need to come in order to take their rightful place in society (e.g., as of 2016, only 14 of the 350 largest publicly-traded companies in Europe (the “S&P 350”) have female CEOs and according to UNESCO, worldwide, there are 4 million fewer boys than girls who are out of school before the end of primary school). But on the other hand, I also see the dangers of recognizing women as separate and unique from other genders and seeing their aim for equality as something that they are solely responsible for initiating. I also see the many ways in which men are discriminated against. Maybe not when it comes to getting to the top of the corporate ladder. But certainly in how they get to the top or in wanting something besides the corporate ladder to strive for; throughout the world, we still want our men to be strong, traditionally successful, and several pieces of research show us that we are far more likely to accept the arrogant man than we are to accept the vulnerable man.

Thus, if we have an International Women’s Day, should we also have an International Men’s Day?

But at the risk of seeming like a classic Generation Xer, I am still proud and delighted to see an International Women’s Day – and to see that IMD is taking a strong stand in recognizing it and supporting women to overcome barriers to leadership – both visible and invisible.

I come from three generations of strong women. My grandmother did not get an education past 13-years-old,and yet managed to ensure that her daughter went to university and then law school. And my mother struggled to be seen as legitimate in her profession as a lawyer in the mid-1970s US. I am extremely proud of the struggles that women have gone through to get where we are today, and think that these should be loudly celebrated. I am also aware of the journey left to go. In this push for continued change, I am open and curious to see how International Women’s Day will transform (and be transformed) in the years to come.

Professor Jennifer Jordan

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