International Women’s Day was first celebrated in 1911 – 110 years ago and before women had the vote in many countries around the world. The campaign initially focused on rights we probably take for granted today – the right to vote being one, but also about access to fair pay and safe working conditions at a time when women were often poorly treated in low paid factory jobs.
It’s worth noting, of course, that many women around the world still don’t have access to fair and safe working conditions. This is particularly the case in the fashion industry, where an estimated 90% of workers are women and, as we saw from the tragic Rana Plaza disaster in 2013, working conditions are not always safe.
But this year I want to talk about the subject that’s been dominating our lives for the past year – COVID.
It’s been widely reported that COVID has knocked back women’s progress significantly. This McKinsey paperreports that ‘women’s jobs are 1.8 times more vulnerable to this crisis than men’s jobs. Women make up 39 percent of global employment but account for 54 percent of overall job losses.’
Women have disproportionately picked up the mantle of home schooling, been more likely to have reduced hours at work, requested to be furloughed, or fear discrimation at work for needing flexibility. At the beginning of 2021, the TUC conducted a very comprehensive survey on how parents were coping (or not!) to enable them to lobby the government for better support.
The government’s assessment of self-employed income, which is used to calculate the benefits they are able to claim, takes an average income over the past three years. This discriminates against women, who are more likely to have taken significant periods of parental leave that have reduced reported income, and therefore affects entitlement to financial support.
Women are also more likely to be in front line, caring roles and therefore more likely to be exposed to the virus, which is particularly relevant when you reflect on the lack of PPE available at the beginning of the pandemic.
Global consultancy, PWC, has termed this a ‘shecssion’ to note the disproportionate effect the whole pandemic is having on women and the possible long term consequences of this, even when the pandemic is over.
So 110 years after the first International Women’s Day, the event remains as important as ever to highlight the challenges faced by women around the world and to highlight the need to fight for equality.
P.S. and in case anyone asks – International Men’s Day is 19th November, as it always is.