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International Women’s Day is a great opportunity for corporate laundering

Emily Yarrow and Julie Davies argue that International Women's Day suffers from corporate capture by all types of organisations - including universities
This article is more than 1 year old

Emily Yarrow is Senior Lecturer in Management and Organisations at Newcastle University Business School.

Julie Davies is Deputy Director (EDI) and Director MBA Health at the Global Business School for Health at University College London

According to the International Women’s Day (IWD) web site, the colour purple signifies justice and dignity.

IWD is a great opportunity to celebrate women’s achievements, educate and raise awareness about women’s equality and to advocate for gender parity as well as to fundraise for charities which support women.

But it is also a chance to highlight injustices such as violence and abuse against women globally such as the horrors that are currently occurring in Afghanistan and Iran.

When I am an old woman I shall wear purple

The first IWD took place in Copenhagen in 1911. As part of women’s rights movements, IWD has its origins in socialist countries like Cuba, Mongolia, Russia, and Ukraine where even today IWD is a national holiday.

Arguably, however, beyond the purple prose and posturing during IWD, there is a risk of wholesale corporate gender washing, hypocritical behaviours which do not advance women’s rights.

We have a feeling that IWD is being celebrated in earnest this year following setbacks for women’s parity during the pandemic.

On IWD, many employers globally showcase all the great work that they’re doing to support, empower, and champion women and girls. This year’s theme is #EmbraceEquity. As management scholars who publish research papers on gender, we have both been interviewed enthusiastically this year for our views in preparation for IWD events. We are also chairing and facilitating a half-day IWD conference.

Amongst the purple prose and IWD event pack bunting, genderwashing, the dark side of IWD, persists. Some cynics claim that IWD is a fantastic marketing opportunity for ‘faux feminism’ and corporate gender/purple washing in the context of chronic gender pay gaps and inequitable systems.

Ironically and unsurprisingly, McKinsey found that it is mainly women who take on the burden of organising equality, diversity and inclusion activities. Venues around the world are full of women and girls at IWD events annually where a few senior men participate to open the event and/or display their commitment to policies with various acronyms like DEIB – diversity equity, inclusion and belonging.

The problem is that IWD suffers from corporate capture by all types of organisations, including universities, which make empty claims for reputational gain.

Painting the town pink/purple

IWD this year happens to coincide with another colourful celebration, the Holi festival, the traditional Hindu festival which celebrates the coming of spring and good overthrowing evil. The significance of Holi with reference to International Women’s Day lies in the role of women in both events. Women play a crucial role in the celebration of Holi, similarly, women have played a critical role in the struggle for women’s rights and gender equality, and their achievements are celebrated on International Women’s Day.

Furthermore, Holi and Women’s Day both represent the importance of inclusivity and diversity. Holi brings people of different backgrounds, religions, and castes together, promoting unity and harmony. Colourful support – or virtue signalling – for IWD is evident in manifestations from pink beer to “McFeminism” where McDonald’s infamous golden arches were upturned to make a ‘W’ for women, to “empowering scents” blended to make women feel confident and empowered. Marketing and gender washing and ultimately profit-making opportunities for IWD are endless.

On the one hand, we congratulate those who do benefit from any systems changes resulting from awareness raising and celebrating successes for women’s inclusion. On the other hand, we are daunted by showboating and the lack of concrete systemic changes where vast gender pay gaps are the norm.

Women in healthcare

The saying ‘if you educate a woman, you educate a nation’ drives our work as educators. We assume this also applies to health. However, the 2019 World Health Organization’s report Delivered by women, led by men reported that women represent 70% global health workforce but hold only 25% senior roles.

According to the latest figures from Statista 2023, the share of women in leadership positions in India in February 2022 in healthcare was 18%. All women panels during IWD suggest that NHS employers still think that women’s issues are only women’s issues.

Empty claims

“Gender washing” happens when organisations make empty claims about gender equality while perpetuating the myth of gender equality and positive changes for positive spin at the same time as allowing inequalities to continue.

Gender washing is a legitimation exercise which enables organisations to conceal their illicit practices. Clara Zetkin would turn in her grave, if she witnessed the unfettered marketisation, misappropriation and gender washing that proliferates on and around annual IWD activities.

In higher education, gender washing is also common. Even in enlightened institutions, the work for gender washing falls on women, who are also then taxed accordingly. Symbolic equality charter marks such as Athena SWAN are appropriated by men in leadership positions, and organisations for reputational benefit.

This further contributes to both gender washing, the systemic denigration of women, and the ongoing entrenching of gender inequality in a context that is continually beleaguered by sexism. Little has changed in recent years. We have previously written about the low proportion of women faculty and women students in top business schools which are evident in the FT MBA rankings. After all, these train top leaders.

There are also high levels of virtue signalling through gender equality charters such as Athena SWAN and publicity promoting women. Evidence to support positive change is thin on the ground. As organisations increasingly close offices and the effects of home working on women are largely ignored, IWD celebrations about new opportunities that arise for women will today no doubt be emphasised.

On every day of the year, many people will shout orders and requests into Siri, Alexa, or Cortana, requesting the labour of their “digital wives, mothers and assistants” ready to serve and help. Yet organisations such as Apple, Microsoft, and Amazon, amongst many others, will celebrate their contributions to women’s equality, whilst preserving the pervasiveness of the gendered public voice. This is genderwashing.

The Double X Economy where women’s systematic exclusion from economic participation continues will today be denounced, deliberated, and critiqued. But tomorrow normal service will resume. The balloons will deflate with women continuing to work for free until women’s pay day. The moral detergent of organisations is ready for a hot wash today. Tomorrow we’re back to the usual 30-degree economy spin cycle where women are subordinated.

4 responses to “International Women’s Day is a great opportunity for corporate laundering

  1. This is a great article, and I’m pleased to see other researchers building on our paper ‘Genderwashing: The myth of Equality’ (Fox-Kirk, Gardiner, Finn & Chisholm, 2020). A major danger of genderwashing is that it looks like organisations have achieved justice and equity for women, when in fact, as Yarrow and Davies say, discrimination and sexual violence continue. If there is a belief that all is fair, then those who speak out are more likely to be perceived as ‘troublemakers’. What then occurs is victim silencing, and self-silencing. Thus, injustice deepens. For more on genderwashing go here

    1. Thank you for your comment, and also for your great paper, which has inspired and underpinned this post. Thank you for sharing the link for readers also. Indeed, being perceived as a ‘troublemaker’ is a driver for further injustices to become further entrenched. Solidarity, Emily

  2. Thought provoking, thank you. I would also like to raise the fact hat for IWD in universities we laud high achieving academic women, whilst ignoring the (largely female) undervalued support services, including the canteen and cleaning staff. These people are never free to attend events – as they are too busy serving others needs. I can’t quite get past the irony!

  3. This article reminded me that I saw a video on TikTok recently where it was pointed out that it’s very unclear who runs the website, which is where the ‘Embrace Equity’ theme comes from. The creator of the video said that the annual themes on this website never match the UN theme (which this year was ‘DigitALL: Innovation and technology for gender equality’) and are instead always perfect for corporations who want to look like they’re doing something without having to really engage with the serious issues facing women and girls.

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