The time has come: March 8th, 2022

Here we are again. Today is International Women’s Day. By tradition in Italy, we will run to buy small mimosa twigs for the women we know. Whether at the florist or at the supermarket, they will be wrapped in squeaky plastic, tightened at the base by a coloured ribbon. We will spend 2, 5 or maybe 10 euros. We will give them to the women close to us: partners, mothers, daughters, friends and colleagues.

On social media, the feeds of most companies will be swelling with female-friendly posts accompanied by specific hashtags, seizing yet another occasion to contribute to a trending topic and create flow to their website, to draw attention. They will do it for the 8th of March, as well as they did it for Christmas, for Friendship Day or for World Pizza Day. In 2022, it seems like there is a dedicated celebration to anything, and every day is special for some reason.

In some way, this phenomenon is a double-edged sword. On one side, it is fair and positive that global society is raising attention and awareness on new issues that need to be faced. On the other side, the risk is that the meaning of important celebrations such as Women’s Day may lose relevance and be reduced to a simple remembrance of past achievements, distractedly observed between International Colour Day and the Hamburger Day.

In fact, after posting or giving out mimosas, we oftentimes go back to living our normal lives, reassured of having honoured women on their special day. We do not stop to think of what was being celebrated, why, and what we should think about on this day.

International Women’s Day

International Women’s Day finds its roots in two feminist protests in New York, one in 1857 organised by women workers in the textile industry and another in 1908. Here, 15 thousand women marched in the streets, protesting their inhumane working conditions. In 1910, the socialist Clara Zetkin proposed a first International Women’s Day, an annual celebration that could foster and advance women’s emancipation. The politician intended it as a growth path that could elevate women’s conditions and sensitise the global society towards more equal objectives.

And so it was, at least for the better part of the twentieth century. Increasingly, numerous nations adhered to International Women’s Day and the first great results arrived: the right to vote, the access to public education and university, reforms to improve working conditions.

If at the turn of the millennium global interest seemed to fade, several new associations were born in the wake of globalisation and the birth of the information society, reviving the feminist fire. Among these, International Women’s Day was one of the first, engaging in projects and initiative for inclusion and gender equality for the past two decades. In 2010, even the United Nations created a specific branch specifically dedicated to women, UN Women, dedicated to women’s empowerment on the global level by accelerating change in member states.

Never have we discussed gender equality, both on the academic and the social level, as much as in recent years. Not only feminist organisations, but also businesses and economic actors worldwide, seem to be increasingly invested in the conversation on the feminist issue. However, when looking back to the great achievements of the past, we might ask ourselves a series of questions. How are things really going right now? Are we really contributing to change, or are we just talking more about an issue that remains stagnant? Is this increasingly larger debate fuelled by genuine interest, or is it guided by algorithmic, S.E.O. logistics? How can we change our words and accompany them with concrete and consistent action, so that we can rescue ourselves from the curse of pinkwashing?

Once again, the answer is the same: we need to observe problems in a comprehensive way, not limiting ourselves to biased points of view that inevitably lead to partial (if not useless) solutions.

Women, career and emancipation

Let us consider one of the aspects most intertwined with women’s emancipation – career. In this context, however, we need to clarify what we mean by the term career. In fact, it would be extremely reductive and just as discriminatory to suggest that emancipated women are only those who manage to climb the corporate ladder and have a successful career. Here, the meaning we wish to convey with the term career is the union of education and occupation. These elements become indicators of emancipation when women are offered the same opportunities as men. Whether it is becoming an astronaut, a housewife, a politician or an artist, emancipation comes when women do not encounter differences, impediments or stereotypes to which men are not subject. On the contrary, opportunities, freedom of choice and means available are the same, independently from gender.

Although gender equality is one of the most frequented areas of global conversation on inclusion, we can all presume that disparities still thrive worldwide. But if we try to analyse the situation in depth, we may find the dynamics of such disparity quite surprising.

Step 1: childhood stereotypes and education

Let us start from the beginning, from our childhood toys. Since our earliest year, we are victims of gender biases on what interests we should have and what our aspirations should be. Girls have dolls and toys centred around house chores, whereas boys have cars, superheroes figurines or a football. It is a mainly unconscious and apparently harmless parental choice, supported by marketing choices and advertising around toys and generations of internalised stereotypes.

However, those who have done cultural studies know this very well: not much obstructs integration -whether social, of gender, of ethnicity- like stereotypes. It consists of an approximation that associates certain characteristics of a person to certain behaviours, interests and desires. Internalised and rooted in the culture of every population, such simplifications are dangerous in that they reduce the magnificent complexity of human existence to a series of preconceptions. These, in turn, make the simplification seem acceptable and harmless, a proper interpretation of life around us. But it is not always the case that our bodies or our looks correspond to what is being said about us. A stereotyped body is a body whose right to be unique is taken away, and this process often goes unnoticed even on the part of the victim, who acts by the interpolated stereotypes that have characterised their existence from day one.

So, we go from childhood toys to school. In the era of globalisation, there are 129 million girls and young women that do not have access to education and are deprived of their right to learn, to grow intellectually, to emancipate themselves. Even when girls can study, then, there remains a global disparity:

  • Only 49% of nations worldwide have achieved gender parity in primary secondary education;
  • A mere 42% have reached parity in lower secondary education;
  • A dangerously low 24% have achieved gender parity upper secondary education.

At the foundation of such gap are problems of poverty, conflicts but also cultural stereotypes. One would rather send the boys to school and leave the girls at home with their moms and help managing the house and provide for the family men. However, independently from the causes, initial macro-level barriers to access education already pose difficulties for pursuing women integration into the global society. It gets more difficult for them to pursue, realise, become.

Step 2: the humanities/sciences gap and opportunities for women

And yet, even when access is made possible, stereotypes continue to loom over equality. Mathematical and scientific subjects are more for men and humanities are more for women, which leads to biased choices at the upper secondary level, which in turn increase gender divide. The few women developing their study path in STEM areas are seen as rarities, whereas humanities are populated by a greater proportion of female students. A study conducted by AlmaLaurea in 2021 has shed a light on the figures of such inequality in Italy.

Source: AlmaLaurea, indagine sul Profilo dei Laureati (2021)

Let us observe the different percentages while keeping in mind the stereotypical womanly figure, the angel of the hearth, the nurturing, maternal and protective figure that looks after the house and the children. The correspondences between the choice of university degree and such a stereotype should incite reflections, especially because this data comes from 2020. This data belongs to a society at its highest level of advancement, globalisation and interest -maybe only apparent -towards gender and integration issues.

This is not the only data we should worry about and reflect upon. The research from AlmaLaurea goes in depth and paints an even more dilated divide. For example, even if women perform better -final average score of 103.2/110 vs. 102.1/110 in the case of men- and further diversify their learning experience by working, studying abroad or doing internships, the occupational levels favour men: 72% vs. 67.5% for bachelor’s degree and 72.9% vs. 64.4% in the case of master’s degree. Even salary is affected by gender bias, with women with a bachelor’s degree earning 12.8% less then men, and 16.2% less in the case of master’s degree. If that was not enough, occupational rates put the cherry on top, as especially in the STEM areas we can notice different possibilities offered to graduate students based on their gender.

Source: AlmaLaurea, Indagine sulla Condizione Occupazionale dei Laureati (2021)

Step 3: in the workplace, the situation doesn’t change – or maybe gets worse

Let us get to the last step on the path towards emancipation – occupation. As we have seen before, there are stereotypes around the choice of study paths, together with discrimination towards women who might constitute better candidates than their male counterparts. Intuitively, the situation does not change much when looking at the work environment. Rather, the logic stays quite the same.

Although women are more productive than men, we have seen a significant pay gap in Italy. With the pandemic and the consequent smartworking dynamics the spaces of home-life and work-life have intertwined themselves. This has inevitably brought stronger consequences upon women than men. It is them, in fact, that get interrupted more often and for a variety of reasons -intrusions, distractions, multitasking, surprises and so forth. The totality of such interruptions is believed to be an aggravating factor of work-related stress introduced by the pandemic, especially for women, put to a harder test than their male colleagues.

Last, let us think about apical positions, about the management. A large variety of research has proven how women are better leaders than men, both during crisis periods and in a more general sense. Why is it, then, only 26% of CEO roles worldwide are held by women? Furthermore, this data goes down to 21% in the Eurozone and even gets to 18% in Italy. What got lost in the passage from conversation to concrete action?

This 8th of March, let us give something more: normality

What shall we do then? Should we buy the mimosa twigs or not, this 8th of March? Should we post something, launch the thread or should we avoid that? The feminist debate around integration might leave us a bit confused: we talk about women, but we can’t talk about women, every action can be interpreted in contrasting ways.

There is yet a way to truly be promoters of integration and gender equality, in the workplace as well as in our daily lives -normalising. How so? Here are some suggestions:

  • If you are a parent or a teacher, let your children follow their passions and support them without forcing them into a preconceived, yet meaningless stereotype.
  • If you are a big socio-political actor, try to change society with concrete gestures, like introducing paternal leave.
  • If you are a manager, equalise salary across genders, as well as the board of directors. By giving the same opportunities and means for career development, work towards fixing the broken ladder that keeps women behind men in the workplace.
  • If you are a project manager, give more responsibility and independence to women with good ideas and let them go forward without forcing your interpretation on their projects, but rather guiding them towards unleashing their full potential.
  • If you are a colleague, let go of sexist comments and concentrate on the value that women bring to the workplace. Interpret their advice in term of quality, rather than a threat to your own skils or performance. Ask yourself: how would I react, if a man said these things to me?
  • If you are a woman, make the effort of trying to understand and recognise when you are being a victim of discrimination and speak up, confront. Another big obstacle to gender equality is the internalisation of sexist stereotypes, as if women deserved to be treated in some way, in a logic of boys will be boys. The reality of the facts Is completely different and you need to demand respect.

The only way to truly bridge the gender equality gap is to stop considering women in a different way from men. Normalisation should be our guiding principle, our culture, and where we cannot take a decision on what to so, let us go to the origin of the problem. Let us ask our women how we should behave, without the fear of appearing ignorant, but with the sound, heart-felt interest of building a society based on true, profound, sincere gender equality.