March 5, 2023
Canberra Times Opinion Editorial

Go hug yourself? IWD cause lost in mindless mush

Brace yourself for a barrage of silly slogans and cutesy cupcakes.

International Women’s Day is on the way and as much as it pains me to say this, big boy marketeers have won the day.

The crass commercialisation and giddy celebration of IWD is distorting the fundamental message almost beyond recognition.

It’s been a gradual contortion, but this year’s campaign theme, #EmbraceEquity, has plumbed a new low. Of nonsense.

Don’t get me wrong. Before you dial up the trolls and order me cancelled, please understand this: I’m all for equity. I’d give my life for gender equity.

Indeed, I’ve spent most of my career channelling my anger over misogyny, sexism and inadequate progress on women’s rights into advocacy and activism.

But over the past few years it feels as if that feminist tomorrow-land to which we’ve long aspired is starting to look a bit cartoonish. Even embarrassing. Thanks to a faceless team of well-financed marketing specialists, backed by weapons and defence industry dollars, IWD 2023 risks being reduced to a glib slogan and infantile gestures.

“Thanks to a faceless team of well-financed marketing specialists, backed by weapons and defence industry dollars, IWD 2023 risks being reduced to a glib slogan and infantile gestures.”

More on the stealth funders in a moment.

First, a warning: by Wednesday you might be wondering why your social media feeds are clogged with women absurdly hugging themselves.

It will be a big across the breast, hands on shoulders, solo bear hug. While to some it might look like an “oops, I forgot my bra” pose, it supposed to indicate how we can all embrace equity. Hug ourselves!

Confused? Me too.

So who is behind this inane posturing? Who decides this theme that every IWD event I’m attending over the next week has enthusiastically adopted?

I’d like to answer that, but can’t. No names, no organising committee, no known headquarters. It’s a mystery as to who controls the slick IWD website that has swept the internet, the corporate sector and alas, many government departments.

Whilst its origin and owner remain unclear, the website is flash with “supporters” and the smell of strategic money from heavily masculinised industries, along with global alcohol companies. The “proud partner” is an agriculture and construction machinery company; while supporters include a number of defence materiel suppliers.

If you flick past the smiling women wearing hard hats and goggles on their equity and diversity pages, you’ll hit the nerve centre.

One proud supporter, HCL Tech, boasts expertise “on major military platforms”, serving an industry “dependent on the nations need for military weapons and systems.”

Why such a need? Perhaps because one macho strongman, fuelled by egocentric narcissism, has picked a fight with another.

Needless to say, but I will anyway, supplying defence solutions that enable warfare could not be further away from caring about gender equity, or the lives of women.

All available research confirms women and girls are disproportionally impacted by conflict: disempowered, physically displaced, violently and sexually abused, and indiscriminately killed. And let’s face it, women don’t start wars.

The deeper one digs, the greater the chasm between some of these corporate interests and gender equity. Indeed, the International Women’s Day website, pulsating with purple font, has the look and feel of a large-scale exercise in what’s best described as corporate she-washing.

But no amount of inclusion and diversity strategies, glossy brochures, or IWD flag waving can disguise an equity fraud.

Proud supporter YPO, a “global leadership community” even fails basic gender equality maths, boasting “unbiased insights”, yet displays a 75 per cent male bias on its board.

Whilst this opaque IWD platform attempts to provide some useful, albeit banal, material it’s mostly groaning with useless fluff.

Such as IWD speakers to teach you “how to brand your hustle and increase your cash flow”, and a shoe expert “on a mission to empower women to feel great in their shoes”.

Whilst I love a good shoe as much as the next woman, I’m insulted by this singular, self-focused, faux feminism and spectacular dumbing down of women’s issues and concerns.

Solution? Go hug yourself.

Well beyond selfies and huggies, the UN in New York is awash this weekend with thousands of women delegates arriving from every corner of the globe for the 67th annual Commission on the Status of Women. Intense, exhausting and important, it’s a power-packed fortnight of exchange focused on eradicating gender inequity.

This is where the really hard nuts-and-bolts work happens, with an annual theme expertly curated around the most urgent issues. This year’s theme is “DigitALL: Innovation and technology for gender equality.”

Right now rapid global advances in digital technology and opportunities are leaving women behind and actively embedding gendered disadvantage. Only one in five AI workers are female, and according to UN Women “a global analysis of 133 AI systems across industries found that 44.2 percent demonstrate gender bias.”

The gender gap in digital access and major underrepresentation of women and girls in STEM education and careers clearly must be a major priority, beyond a cupcake count, if we are serious about embracing equity.

Similarly, the pervasive presence of online abuse and hate directed at females needs more than a few Insta hugs to fix. While recent Australian research revealed 70 per cent of expert sources quoted in media are male, a UN survey of women journalists from 125 countries found “73 per cent had suffered online violence in the course of their work.”

If the very platform that now dominates our work, life and play is excluding women’s voices, shutting them down, and pushing them out, gender equity is not only in danger of stalling, we risk losing hard-fought gains from the very first International Women’s Day in 1911.

Back then when gutsy suffragettes and unionists took to the streets demanding votes, equal rights, fair pay and women’s safety, who would have imagined 112 years later we would acknowledge that fight and women’s unfinished business by embracing ourselves in a bear hug. With a mouthful of cupcake.

Virginia Haussegger AM is a Canberra journalist and founding director of the 50/50 by 2030 Foundation. Twitter: @Virginia_Hauss

This Opinion Editorial was first published in the Canberra Times, 5 March 2023

Virginia Haussegger

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