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Celebrating International Women’s Day

Today, the 8th of March, is a date that is of historical significance to women in business – International Women’s Day! To celebrate this day, we have put together for you a review of its history, while also highlighting how the international gender equality movement changed Britain’s economy and workplaces for the better.

International Women’s Day – a history

Following a march against inequality in the workplace by 15,000 New York women in 1908, the following year saw the Socialist Party of America declare the last Sunday of February National Women’s Day. A year later, Clara Zetkin – then leader of the Social Democratic Party’s ‘Women’s Office’ – spoke at the International Conference for Working Women. Her plans for a yearly international celebration to press home the demands of women received unanimous approval from the hundred-strong crowd, and was held for the first time as International Women’s Day (IWD) in 1911.

Although initially only Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland honoured the holiday, a week after this event the tragic ‘Triangle Fire’ – wherein 140 working women died in New York.  Men died in the fire as well, but if any good was to come of such a tragedy, it simply was that this event brought the plight of women in the workplace into the international consciousness.

In 1913, with World War I about to break out, a large group of Russian women held their own IWD in aid of world peace. Subsequently, a decision was made to hold the event on March 8th every year for maximum impact.

Meanwhile in another part of the globe: A series of events  unrelated to those in the U.S– yet reflecting the same strong sentiment– were making world history as well. Russian women wanted to end inequality, ‘legal’ spousal abuse, and more.  They held a strike in the February of 1917 in protest over the death of two million of their own soldiers in the war. Despite opposition, the strike continued for four days. The demands of those Russian women on International Working Women’s Day in 1917 were finally met when the working class as a whole, women and men, came together to overthrow the hated Tsarist regime , and with it both capitalism and feudalism.

Since this point, IWD has grown and grown, with the United Nations holding annual conferences to coordinate women’s rights and involvement in social, political and economic processes. But how exactly have this and other gender equality movements changed the working landscape?

Women and the workplace

Undoubtedly, IWD has had a hugely positive effect on creating gender equality in the workplace. However, there is much debate as to whether the day should be used to highlight successes so far, or if it merely acts as proof that men and women are still not seen as equal in modern society.

In British society, it is undeniable that the situation has improved drastically. During the industrialisation period, women became prominent in many sectors as they were much easier to employ than the highly-unionised male workforce of the time. This helped to change the role of women at work and in the home, giving them more influence within their families due to their new-found wage earning abilities.

While women were finding much less resistance when seeking low level employment, at this time supervisory roles were still almost exclusively taken by men.  This meant that while more women were now working, a significant pay gap between the sectors developed. Coupled with this was the explosion of heavy industries such as ship building, mining and engineering – all of which utilised male labour almost exclusively – and the male breadwinner ‘ideal’ was reinforced.

However, due in no small part to the work of Emmeline Pankhurst and the Suffragettes, women received the vote in 1918. This coincided with the First World War, wherein women were required to take on many of these traditionally-male orientated professions while the majority of the male population were engaged in battle.

From this point on, slow progress was made, with female MPs, diplomats and professors coming to the fore. In light of the continued pay disparities between the genders, the Equal Pay Act was introduced in 1970, followed shortly after by the Sex Discrimination Act which aimed to ensure that men and women received the same rights in employment, education and advertising from 1975.

As a result of such laws, the situation has improved, with women now being more prominent in boardrooms and at the top of companies than ever before, but there is still a lot of work to do. The European Commission reports that women still on average learn 17.5 per cent less than men across the European Union, and only one in ten board members of the EU’s largest public limited companies are female. In fact, between 2001 and 2011, only a four per cent increase was noted in the growth of female board members.

On a final note: there is a significant number of people that feel we are still some way off having true gender equality in the workplace.  However, with situations clearly having improved over recent years,  IWD can be best used as a viable platform to highlight the confirmed success stories from the quest for parity; as well as to also raise awareness for any inequalities that still prevail.  Build British Business hope that this quick step back in time makes for a good point of context for moving forward even more progressively.

If you haven’t already done so, make sure to read up on Why you should join women starting their own businesses; as well as future articles on Women In Business and other trending business issues and trends in the coming months.

Want to find out more about starting your own business? Our knowledge hub and blog are full of useful information.