What is International Women’s Day and why it matters in 2018

On March 8, people around the world gather for International Women’s Day, a celebration of the social, political, cultural and economic achievements of women everywhere and a call to action to raise awareness about the ongoing fight for gender parity.

How it began

International Women’s Day has been observed since the 1900s in the United States and Europe. On February 28, 1909, activists held their first national Woman’s Day across the United States. On that day, feminist Charlotte Perkins Gilman told a New York City crowd that, “It is true that a woman’s duty is centered in her home and motherhood but home should mean the whole country and not be confined to three or four rooms of a city or a state.”

In the following years, the movement would grow global as a way to raise awareness of women’s labor conditions. Millions of women and men rallied for an International Women’s Day in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and Denmark on March 19, 1911.

The United Nations has recognized March 8 as International Women’s Day since 1975 when it proclaimed that year International Women’s Year.

Although it is not affiliated with any one group or country, many groups, countries, and companies now recognize and celebrate it. This year, for example, Nike released a new commercial starring tennis player Serena Williams where she proclaimed, “I’m proving time and time again that there’s no wrong way to be a woman.”

Why the ‘Press for Progress’ theme matters

This year’s theme is “Press for Progress,” a push to accelerate gender parity. In their explanation, IWD organizers noted that the gap between how men and women are treated at work and outside of it is still progressing too slowly. In fact, this year’s World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report found that at the current rate of progress, equality between men and women is 217 years away.

In the workplace, this difference is seen clearly in who gets paid, who gets promoted, and who gets heard at work. On average, women earn 79 cents to every man’s dollar. This pay difference gets exacerbated by race and ethnicity. A 2016 Pew Research Center study found that while white women earn 82 cents for every dollar earned by a white men, black women only earned 65 cents and Latina women earned 58 cents.

And the pay gap starts at a young age for female employees. Right out of the gate, women start earning less than men in jobs. One study found that millennial women will make less money and achieve slower career progress than their male peers despite equal qualifications in the first five years of their jobs. This disadvantage will follow them throughout their careers, creating cycles of being underpaid that are hard to break. In salary negotiations, women who did not disclose what they made previously got lower offers than men who did the same.

Women not only have to fight on an individual level, they also have to deal with external forces on a structural level that are outside of their control.

Women can get promoted less, for example, for reasons that have nothing to do with their job competence. One study found that men at one firm were getting more promotions than women who had the same documented track record of equal success and networking meetings.

They get interrupted more in meetings. On average, women get interrupted more than men while speaking, even at the highest levels of power.

Their work can get judged more harshly. In the technology industry, female engineers said they face more scrutiny than their male peers about their code. Even their appearances get linked to their competence. One study found that men judged women’s leadership abilities based on the color of their hair.

These motivating statistics and stories are why International Women’s Day matters. Until every employee’s voice is heard equally, the fight for gender parity must press on.