TODAY is International Women’s Day 2017 – a worldwide event celebrating women’s achievements in all areas and calling for gender equality.
This has been taking place since the early 1900s and it isn’t affiliated with any one group.
It brings together women’s organisations, corporations and groups through a series of performances, rallies, networking events, conferences and marches.
I know from past experience that on this day there is usually at always at least one ‘joker’ who sarcastically asks when it is ever going to be Men’s Day.
I always delight in his embarrassment when I explain that it takes place on November 19 and – throughout my working life – I’ve encountered even less kind responses questioning what we are actually celebrating.
Debating that point reminds me of the infamous scene from Monty Python’s The Life of Brian when – after much arguing – it’s agreed that: “All right, but apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh-water system, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?”.
The truth is that International Women’s Day is as relevant and necessary now as it has ever been.
Its original aim was to achieve full gender equality for women across the world – and that hasn’t happened.
There is still a clear gender pay gap and many areas of society where women are not proportionately represented and where we are disadvantaged.
Take a look at this week’s news if you want some depressing evidence.
On Monday an MPs investigation into work dress codes said it had found “widespread discrimination”. They heard stories about a woman who was told to dye her hair blonde, and one woman sent home from her temp job after refusing to wear shoes with a “2in to 4in heel”.
On the same day the Football Association was desperately trying to drag itself into the 21st Century. Faced with a threat of losing £30-£40m in funding unless it reforms, Greg Clarke had to outline ‘controversial’ plans to reserve three spaces on its board for women.
That’s just two examples from one day’s headlines.
Clearly we have some distance to go and there’s a very genuine logic as to why this all really matters.
Anyone who sees these issues as a ‘zero sum game’ – where change only benefits one gender at the necessary expense of the other – is totally missing the point.
Look at local government.
At Oldham Council I’m proud to be part of what is currently the only all-female Council Leader and Chief Executive team in Greater Manchester, but Carolyn Wilkins and I are just a snapshot of the amazing work done daily by women in our borough. Some are working at the most senior levels, some are working in finance, IT, social care, catering and as gritter drivers. Their contribution is vast and varied.
In local government we are there to work for an amazing array of people from all demographics, backgrounds, beliefs and barriers to achievement.
So if we don’t ensure they are represented when decisions are being made then it can’t be a surprise when a policy fails for them.
That then weakens trust in the institutions that are supposed to represent them, which doesn’t improve things for anyone.
I would be the first to say that there have been improvements, but when you are faced with stark reminders of how far we still have to go it’s very clear that some things haven’t changed enough.
Last month a Northern Powerhouse conference in Manchester launched with an all-male line-up of 15 advertised speakers. Only 13 of 98 named speakers in total were woman and many panel sessions had no female faces at all.
The organisers’ apology was suitably unreserved and regretful, but given how many women are operating at a senior level across all sectors in Greater Manchester they should never have got into that position in the first place.
I’m not planning on being around until 2186 – which is the date when the World Economic Forum predicts the gender gap will finally close(!) – and these things matter to me now because diversity benefits everybody.
I’m proud that Oldham has been blessed with some inspiring women who have made a real difference to so many people’s lives.
One shining example, of course, is Annie Kenney. This is the Springhead woman who went on to play a key role in winning voting rights for women and that’s why I am delighted to be supporting a new campaign to raise funding to erect a permanent statue of her outside the Old Town Hall. You can find out more about that here.
We’ve had many other pioneers too – have a look at these examples on the Oldham Council website – but we can’t all make the big breakthroughs.
Small ripples – shows of compassion or empathy, incremental changes that unblock stalemate or change outlooks – are just as important in the overall picture.
Everyone can play a part, big or small, in achieving change.
We recognise that and it’s why we’re appealing for you to tell us this week about women that have made a difference in your community, your street or your home. If you want to nominate an unsung heroine like this, please email firstname.lastname@example.org with her name, the reason why you think she deserves recognition, and your contact details.
Finally, I’d say the real value of International Women’s Day, for me, is to serve as an annual point of reflection about where we have come from – and where we’re heading as a society.
We shouldn’t forget there has been genuine progress in many areas.
We’ve seen great changes on things like maternity rights, equal treatment for part-time workers (the majority of whom are women), and expanding career opportunities that weren’t previously open to us.
There’s also now more women in work, but they’re often still paid less than men, and in part-time jobs or informal employment with insufficient rights and protection.
Women are also still drastically under-represented in senior management roles, board positions and Parliament.
Add to that a range of societal issues, including poor access to free childcare, and you can see there’s still much to do.
Almost 64 years after her death, Annie Kenney might have been encouraged in 2017 – but she’d probably also dismay at how much remains to be done and how long it is all taking.