International Women’s Day: Not just Who? What? Where? When? Why?

Welcome back to summer semester 2020! It’s been an interesting start with cornonavirus now becoming a part of our first week of course conversations. To get back into the semester mood though I chatted with our own Professor Ella about this upcoming International Women’s Day (IWD). Let’s first get to know Ella before diving into the when the IWD started, what it stands for, and how Ella relates it from her professional and personal experience to now being at the Karlshochschule…

Prof. Dr. Ella Roininen, Vice President of the Karlshochschule and Professor of International Management with focus on Gender, Diversity and Inclusion

Dear Prof. Ella, Who are you and what do you do at the Karlshochschule?

I have several roles at the uni which nicely complement one another and in which I learn and grow every day:

  • Professor of gender, diversity and inclusion. I teach feminism, diversity and cross-cultural management, critical organization studies, ethics, and social responsibility;
  • Diversity and equal opportunities representative working towards even more equal and inclusive organization;
  • Student counsellor particularly on the aforementioned topics, but also further personal and study-related themes;
  • Part of the decision-making bodies as the Academic Vice President and member of the university Senate.

Thank you for that. Now this Sunday, March 8th we have IWD. This has been an official UN holiday since 1975, but did it really only start then? Where does the day really come from?

IWD is a worldwide event, which aims to achieve full gender equality for women of the world. This has proved to be tall order, and hence the IWD also recognizes and celebrates women’s social and political achievements globally. In central Europe, IWD was celebrated for the first time in the year 1911, after the suggestion of Clara Zetkin: then leader of the ‘Women’s Office’ for the Social Democratic Party in Germany. The United Nations recognized the day in 1975, and ever since they have nominated a specific theme for each year’s IWD. There is no particular instance that is responsible for the organization of the day, but governments, women’s organizations, corporations, and charities together create the content. These have been, for instance, arts performances, talks, rallies, conferences, and marches.

Year 2020 marks an important milestone for gender equality. It is the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action – the blueprint for achieving gender equality around the world –, the 10th anniversary of the establishment of UN Women, and the 20th anniversary of the UN Security Council resolution 1325 on women, peace and security*1

What is the significance of celebrating such a holiday? 

In some countries I have lived in, I’ve observed an unfortunate effect of this day being reduced to a lightweight celebration of womanhood: women get roses from their partners and businesses, and womanhood — whatever that is considered to be in any particular context — is celebrated in a kind of liberal and commercial fashion. It’s a bit like Valentine’s day or other popularized holidays. We’d get congratulated or congratulate one another for being a woman, and corporate workplaces would be advocating this type of womanhood celebration. To me this twist works to hide and neutralize the real topics that are connected to our working and living environments, such as women’s underrepresentation in corporate boards, gendered career paths, and pay gaps.

I have to admit I haven’t been a huge fan of the day. I’ve felt it’s a missed chance and a great reduction of the original idea of the day. When the day is used to mark the gender difference in a culturally appropriate manner, rather than challenge gender relations and highlight those areas where women are left behind, it does not provide a conversation. Additionally in my opinion, we can and need to talk about these topics on other days of the year too, not just on and around March 8th.

The gender equality topics that occupy my mind are: mental and physical violence against women; underrepresentation of women (and other other minorities) in positions of power; women’s reproductive rights and right to decide for their bodies; women’s unpaid work*2; access to education and health care; and of course social and cultural systems that support and substantiate all these, including politics and politicians that ignore, degrade, and reduce women’s rights. These issues are closely researched documented by different scholars and institutions, and we should not take it for granted that, despite huge rise of awareness on feminist topics in recent years, gender inequality is still very much a topic in our world. According to the World Economic Forum, with this phase, it will take about another 170 years to close the global gender gap consisting of political, economic, health and education indicators.

In general, speaking about “celebrating” women, when we talk about gender equality, the focus should be less on what women are or do, more on the power relations that determine the role of different beings in society. I don’t want to shy away from exposing and talking about these power relations, even if it may sound provocative and threatening to some people and raise strong emotions in them. My aim is not to polarize any poles of the discussion, but with the tools I got to work with, work to highlight the situation and improve equal opportunities in society—in an understanding that any person in their right mind would agree that no-one should be limited or suffering in life because of their gender. And obviously this goes for men, too. In many ways women’s rights are human rights. Men are positively affected when our understanding of gender role increases, and just as well by concrete increases in gender equality.

So I would like recognize IWD as a chance to openly talk about these power relations and how they affect girls and women worldwide, and also how girls and women in different social positions are affected. For instance, how poverty and racialisation or age or single motherhood are interconnected, or war, displacement of people and sexual violence or women in a vulnerable position and the global climate crisis. These topics are not pretty, but they are there, and we need to have the courage to see and act upon them. 

How does the Karls support women?

Each year the UN dedicates a specific theme for IWD, this year it is #EachforEqual*3, recognizing the actions we can take as individuals to challenge stereotypes, fight prejudice and celebrate women’s achievements. This closely connects to my gender, diversity and inclusion teaching at Karls, and to our different actions to advance the belonging of each individual in the Karls community. In and out of the classroom we talk a lot about the social construction of difference, how we create gender and difference in our everyday actions, and how our attitudes and perceptions of different people get formed and with what effects. By understanding these mechanisms, we can start envisioning alternative ways to think and talk about people. This allows more possibilities for greater inclusion at different levels of action.

For instance, I want each person who studies here to feel safe to express themselves in and out of the classroom. Even more, I would like our students to become empowered to fully live out their talents, and have such a strong insight into the theories I teach that they can handle their lives, emotions, and potential situations of discrimination constructively. I really believe that theoretical understanding and an open, respectful sharing of who we are and what we experience, spiced with a touch of vulnerability, are the key factors in achieving these. Some courage is needed, too. In this way we can learn as we grow while finding and holding our own place in the world.

International Women's Day Karlshochschule
Second semester International Business students showing what IWD means to them

We further support women and all individuals too, in multiple areas of the uni. These include: supervising research on feminist topics; organizing events that highlight different topics related to diversity and inclusion; supporting student initiatives that address their particular passions and concerns by having channels to address discrimination, prejudices*4, and sexual harassment; being a flexible employer when it comes to working arrangements. Maybe I neglect to mention other important actions here, but the idea is that students and staff feel free and encouraged to raise their concerns relating to equality in our institution. We do our best to address them in a knowledgeable and sustainable manner.

In the light of the above, every day is an international women’s, men’s, queer, racialised, and in any way marginalized people’s day to me!

What does having IWD mean to you?

It means more to me than I can express. I have the chance both everyday personally and academically develop these topics in my current work. Mental and physical freedom and security, autonomy of the mind and body, the chance and ability to use one’s voice – these are my working motors. I come from a relatively privileged background when it comes to gender equality, yet I’ve experienced a thing or two as a result of being born into my gender. And yet, I have all this freedom and power to decide for myself. This has always meant very much to me, and I keep celebrating it in my life. I would like to work towards others being able to see and access the same autonomy, in their own unique way, in their specific socio-cultural context, the way it works for each……  

After taking some time to reflect on what Ella relayed, I feel a greater awareness for the importance of this day and the uni. At the Karls we have learned in our first semester the importance of self reflection in the process of becoming educated individuals in a multi-international, polylinguistic university and world. This starts by asking questions to not just answer the basic “Who, What, Where, When, and Why”, but rather to to go further. Understanding the implications of how such an event affects others and not just ourselves can allow us to empathize with others. This is a vital aspect of uni life, which will later affect our personal and career lives later on. Now in our second semester of International Business me and fellow classmates are working on putting this knowledge into practice.

Creating a conversation on why International Women’s is an international day starts with us as self-reflective, informed individuals. I cannot wait now for IWD and to work to make it not just a commercialized holiday of roses, but rather something which can spark change in my own and other’s lives around the globe. Our conversation here is now ending but hopefully you can continue spreading the message in your own homes and communities.

Article by Reilley Wehrstein *RW (KarlsStorytellers

Supporting Data and Statistics:

* ; 
*4UNDP News report on gender prejudices

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