Celebrating women

Last week was a week for celebrating women, with International Women’s day on Thursday and Mother’s Day (here in Ireland) on Sunday.

I had a wonderful Mother’s Day. As a mother, I adored being the focus of lots of gorgeous expressions of love from my children. Breakfast in bed, hand-made cards and showers of kisses and cuddles made me feel a lovely warm glow. As a daughter, I enjoyed trying to make my own mother feel special too, by letting her know how much she means to me, offering small gifts and a card as expressions of love and by spending time with her and the extended family. It was a really lovely day; one which I have tucked carefully away in my brain to be retrieved when I want to think about the high-points of my life.

International Women’s day felt a bit different. I saw adverts for lots of events organised to celebrate the day … women’s breakfasts, lunches, dinners, coffees, drinks, discussions, fora, online groups … you name it. Anyone who knows me, knows I’m a great one for celebrations. Last Thursday however, the celebrations didn’t feel right and I partook in very few. I would even go so far as to say that the idea of many of these events made me feel uncomfortable.

My discomfort arose from the gender imbalance at many of these organised events. Generally, Women’s Day events involve panels of women speaking to audiences of women about women. They are often sold as fora in which women’s issues are discussed and progressed – such as women on boards, women in politics, women in business, women in power… all of which are noble causes. At these types of events, the conversation generally centers around the under-representation of women in these areas and the need to achieve greater gender-equality. I don’t disagree. However, I can’t help feeling that a gender-skewed event is a somewhat ironic approach to the gender-equality issue. In fact, if I’m honest I think it’s a bit counter-productive.

We need action from both men and women on the issue of gender equality and, if anything, we need to work harder to engage the opposite gender when we’re trying to progress the cause of one, rather than exclude them. We need meaningful debate and focused collective action. I suggest that if we are going to achieve gender equality, we need to start from that position of equality, not by perpetrating the very inequality we seek to conquer.

The event in which I was most interested was that of my employer, the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland who, much to their credit, fielded a gender-balanced panel of high-profile speakers, with three female and three male contributors. It was the only gender-balanced event that I saw, although of course that’s not to say there weren’t others. Unfortunately the event was scheduled to take place one week ahead of International Women’s Day, and ultimately was cancelled due to the Beast from the East (For international readers, that was the name of the weather system that blew in from Siberia bringing blizzards with it!). It was a shame that it didn’t go ahead, as I believe more gender-balanced discussions are needed.

I’m fortunate that I’ve never experienced a situation where I felt my gender created any advantage or disadvantage for me. I have benefited from the support of many men and women along the way, in my career and in life more generally. Gender equality is an important issue, and never one to forego a celebration opportunity, I celebrated international women’s day in my own way this year:

I called my Mum and Dad, and thanked them for raising me in an environment where my gender was never considered an issue;

I rang the principle of my old secondary school and thanked him for the school’s ethos of creating the right conditions for girls to flourish, and for ensuring that  gender was never considered an issue (which is an impressive feat in an all-girl school!);

I bought flowers for each of the team in work and thanked them for the role they play in supporting the women in their lives;

I thanked my husband, for his role in creating an equal partnership between us;

I called some of the people who have really supported me in my career, and let them know how much their support meant to me and how they need to keep up the great work for others;

I spent time talking about the topic of gender with my children. Their views on the topic are refreshingly untainted and I enjoyed the conversation and learnt from it;

I made a conscious effort to encourage women I met, particularly those at an early stage of their journey;

I unregistered myself from the Women in Pharmacy facebook group because they decided to restrict men from joining the group;

and I marked International Men’s Day in my diary, so that when the time comes, we can celebrate men too!

These gestures, small though they may be, were my way of celebrating the day and trying to make a difference in the world. Finally, although the celebrations have passed, I’m attending an event this evening, with an all female panel and, most likely, an all female audience … because it’s important that I try to understand this issue from other perspectives too!  🙂

Reflect to prosper

My last gesture to mark International Women’s Day is to prompt you to reflect on the issue of gender equality. How do you contribute to this agenda? If/When you see gender inequality, what do you do about it? And is there more you could do, today, to contribute to a future where nobody feels excluded or overlooked because of their gender?