International Women’s Day is a battle cry, a rallying call and not an opportunity for performative feminism
Email boxes lit up on the morning of Sunday 8th March as companies sent out their well-timed and ill-thought out communications in the spirit of International Women’s Day 2020.
What should have been a day of celebration, inclusivity and transparency on a myriad of topics regarding women, turned into a performative display of equality, feminism and a surface-level understanding of gender politics. As companies wheeled out their female staff to project the image of a balanced and well-rounded work environment for all, the glaring holes in their #IWD2020 messaging and communications were indicative of a larger problem at hand.
Nigeria is rife with activism for marginalised groups and the feminist movement is growing rapidly as women and allies are working together to free us collectively from the grips of the patriarchy. Be it in the home or the workplace, Nigerian women are being more vocal about their rights and demanding equal and fair treatment that is free from bias.
The origins of International Women’s Day itself has nothing to do with corporations and catchy hashtags. It was birthed from the working women’s movement that was championed by socialists, and essentially, IWD is a call to action. Although the day wasn’t officially recognised until 1977 by the United Nations, the history of the celebration can be traced back to the early 20th century, thanks to labour movements across North America and Europe.
Members of the women’s movement in Russia during World War I celebrated the first International Women’s Day on March 8, 1913 to peacefully protest the war. A year later, women across Europe held rallies in solidarity on that same date.Following World War II, countries from all continents began using March 8 as a marker for advocating women’s equality. The day was a recognition of the disparities and injustices which still impact the lives of women across the globe and the reminder that we will not stop marching until real equality has been achieved.
While International Women’s Day may now be severely de-radicalised and lost its revolutionary edge, it seems it’s never been more prominent in our consciousness thanks to branding and the commercial value that has now been attached to the day.
Although we applaud companies for participating in such an important day, it has become increasingly clear that there is a disconnect between corporate bodies, their female staff and the female demographic at large. Yes, campaigns are good but they run the risk of encouraging performative feminism which walks and talks like the real thing but with little substance or actionable points to enforce real change. Their politics are performative whilst their practices remain exploitative and pertinent women’s issues are reduced to social media posts and a box of cupcakes.
Any male executive who values himself or his company would no doubt participate, it would be bad for optics if they did not. However, few understand how their daily actions and the impact of negative work culture hurts women. From doing little to prevent workplace harassment, failing to enforce favourable maternity policies, making assumptions based on appearance, asking women to perform emotional labour and skipping over women for promotions and high-level positions; these are the issues we need you to start candid conversations about. We needed these campaigns to be more real, more relatable and instead of performing support of women, we needed you to commit to actionable plans. In all aspects, women were failed, yet again.
The truth is International Women’s Day has become more about PR than politics and has been watered down beyond recognition. Women participate in breakfasts, luncheons, panels and workshops which pay a lot of lip service and little else. Although it’s an opportunity for companies to display their brand values in a public way and stand for something that matters, lack of representation in communications teams and ironically, less involvement from women themselves means that IWD messages, particularly in Nigeria, have been worryingly tone deaf. From Firstbank’s distasteful ‘lipstick and spanner’ imagery to Wema Bank’s blame-shifting email, it’s obvious that sensitivity and knowledge of gender politics is severely lacking at a corporate level which is inexcusable.
As we reflect on what could have been done better for IWD, we need to ensure that the very real struggles of women are being actively challenged. As we look towards other significant days in the 2020 calendar which call for action, we need to understand the importance of impactful corporate communications and enforcing sustainable policies which can improve the quality of work culture in Nigeria overall.
Companies should spend time on the actual issues, rather than putting on events for one day a year and doing nothing tangible for the rest. Women’s empowerment is often discussed in broad and general terms with little reference to specific issues facing women, like sexual violence or reproductive rights. It’s a distasteful form of diet feminism’, a feel-good, more palatable brand of feminism which is popular because it is non-threatening; it does little to tackle the deeper problems caused by capitalism, misogyny and sexism. Furthermore, talking about ‘women’ as a homogeneous group is problematic and allows companies to avoid talking about the spectrum of women’s experiences in the workplace and in society at large.
My advice to corporate bodies in Nigeria: DO THE WORK.
If your brand does not uphold women’s rights, stand up for gender equality, or promote diversity and empowerment, then it’s best to rethink how you choose to approach IWD, if at all. Unless the campaign is about solving those problems, in which case, make sure you lay out actionable points on how you plan to enforce that change.
Inspirational messages, empty think-pieces and social media campaigns aren’t enough anymore. To have any hope of succeeding with your IWD campaign and championing women in an authentic way, brands need to back it up with their commitment to reevaluating their own behaviour, and to society as a whole.