Not too long ago, I gave a keynote address at a large international organisation. As I approached the podium to upload my presentation, USB stick in hand, I was accosted by one of the organisers who said something along the lines of “sorry, we need to get started can you move out of the way, our speaker, Dr Fulu, is arriving soon.” They clearly imagined me as an intern or someone who was not supposed to be at the front of the stage. “I am the speaker,” I said to their quickly reddening faces.
This is not the first time this has happened to me, and I’m sure it won’t be the last. The fact that I’m small, brown, a woman, look younger than I actually am, and (as I’ve written about before), love fashion, means that I don’t represent what society says leadership and expertise look like, i.e. I don’t come in a white, male, middle-aged, grey suit-wearing package.
Today is International Women’s Day and the theme for 2017 is Be Bold for Change. An important part of that change is having more women of colour in leadership positions around the world. However, while being individually ‘bold’ is important, it is never going to be enough. We cannot achieve gender, racial and economic equality through some self-empowerment, lean-in, work-hard-and-all-your-dreams-will-come-true, model of change. No matter our efforts, we still earn 30% less than men for the same work and continue to do more of the unpaid care work outside of formal employment. One in three of us will still face physical or sexual violence in our lifetimes, and in some places in the world, the rates are even higher than that. In many countries, we don’t have the same rights or access to property, resources or education as men and boys. Since the U.S. President’s reinstatement and expansion of the Mexico City Policy (i.e. the global gag rule), which bans financial support to foreign organisations that provide access to safe abortion or information about abortion, many women and girls will have restricted access to life-saving sexual and reproductive health services. And globally, we are witnessing a broad backlash against women’s rights, and a normalisation of divisive, racist and misogynistic language.
Fortunately, this backlash against women’s rights seems to have inspired bolder action around the world. I believe we are seeing a new era of collective resistance focused on bringing about structural change. For example, following the history-making women’s marches in Washington and around the world, a network of local grassroots teams have formed to enforce the child marriage ban in Malawi, to combat female genital mutilation in Ghana, and fight for women to be safe in public spaces in India. In the U.S. and elsewhere, there has been a rush of women pledging to run for office. Private donations to Planned Parenthood have risen dramatically. In response to the global gag rule, She Decides, a new global initiative on sexual health and family planning, was established.
Today is also A Day Without a Woman, where women and allies will refrain from paid and unpaid work, refrain from shopping, and wear red in solidarity. This action aims to recognise the enormous value that women and gender non-conforming people add to the socio-economic system – all while receiving lower wages and experiencing greater inequities, vulnerability to discrimination, sexual harassment, and job insecurity.
In part we must demand greater investment in caregiving and basic workplace protections—including benefits like paid family leave, access to affordable childcare, sick days, healthcare, fair pay, vacation time, and healthy work environments. At the same time, as Tiffany Dufu has recently argued in her book Drop the Ball, we will only achieve gender equality in the workplace and public sphere by ensuring we achieve gender equality in the home. That requires men stepping up to take on an equal role in unpaid care work. Fortunately, there are positive examples of successful change, even in places that have historically held highly rigid gender roles and norms. For example, Sonke Gender Justice’s flagship programme in South Africa, One Man Can, engages men in confronting harmful aspects of masculinity and as partners in addressing gender-based violence and HIV and AIDS, with the ultimate goal of achieving gender equality. It is being evaluated by the UK aid-funded programme What Works to Prevent Violence.
This is the kind of work that needs to happen, and that needs our support. Gender equality and a celebration of diversity in society and leadership will only occur when we achieve real structural and institutional change. For me, being Bold for Change means working to create a shift in the gender norms and expectations that award power, agency and resources disproportionately to men and that promote a dominant and rigid model of masculinity. It also means no longer trying to squeeze myself into that model of leadership, and working with others towards a new system where inclusion, equality, and compassion are central and valued. Collectively, we can create this bold change.
Happy International Women's Day!