It’s International Women’s Day, so don’t buy me flowers

March 8 is International Women’s Day. On this day, many organizations will have installed members of HR and communications teams in marble-clad lobbies, handing out chocolates, single roses and pink pens with the company logo.

But here’s the thing. It’s not Valentine’s Day.

Despite an initial boost from gender pay legislation, the dial has barely moved in the last 40 years for women in the workplace. 

Facts may be out of fashion right now, but I’m going to share some anyway:

  • One in five Canadian women has experienced sexual harassment at work, but 94 percent of executives don’t think it’s a problem at their organization

  • In Canada, women with the same experience, socio-economic and demographic background earn on average $7,200 less than their male counterparts per year, and at the C-Suite level, that kicks up to $950,000 less.

  • It’s estimated that it will take at least another 100 years at the current rate for full pay equity to be achieved.

Chocolates might seem like a nice gesture, but for many women, they’re going to feel like a pretty poor consolation prize when what they really want is fair recognition and meaningful work.

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Why does this matter to business, beyond what we would call in Australia, ‘not being a shit bloke’?

Some more facts to answer that question: 

  • Senior women leave organizations at twice the rate of senior men

  • The cost of replacing a senior team member can be up to 213% of that person’s annual salary

  • Companies with diverse executive teams are more innovative and more profitable than those with only male leaders.

So it makes business sense as well as human sense to build a workplace culture that genuinely values women, and takes substantive action to demonstrate that. 

This is obviously not a one day a year effort. Women know that, and don’t expect overnight change. But International Women’s Day does provide an opportunity to open the dialogue and take steps toward genuine improvement. 

Here are just a few ways to meaningfully engage women, and involve men in the conversation, on International Women’s Day.

Publish gender pay gap data

There’s nothing like honesty for building a culture of trust. In the UK, companies are required to publish their gender pay gap data, but that’s not yet the case elsewhere. Companies that show leadership in this area, making information available before legislation makes them, are taking a big step to demonstrate that equality is important to them. 

Picking IWD as the day to publish the data is an important symbolic gesture that shows the organization is focussed on improving pay equity for women.

Talk about the fix

IWD is an ideal time to launch a longer-term campaign that shares the initiatives you’re working on to address the gender issues your company faces, whether it’s a pay gap, lack of female executives or lack of women in technical roles.

As we’ve said, all reasonable people understand that the causes of pay and other forms of inequity are complex and take time to fix. But starting the conversation and focussing on progress over perfection will help women employees feel that they have a meaningful future with the business. Just make sure it doesn’t stop there: a single intranet article on March 8 with no follow-up is going to be a pretty transparent indicator of how much women matter to the organization. 

Hot tip: if one of those initiatives is ‘mentoring’, you’re going to want to think very carefully about how you communicate that. An offer to mentor women can make it seem like they have performance issues, whereas what they usually lack is the opportunity to demonstrate their already good performance.

Invite women to participate in the solution

Many organizations will have a working group looking at ways to retain women and improve gender parity. Often, this places the problem solidly inside HR, with perhaps one senior woman providing oversight. Gender parity is an organization-wide issue, not an HR problem, so it’s time to ask women at the coalface how things can be done better.

IWD can be a chance to launch a survey, hold focus groups, or ask managers to gather and report feedback.

This might mean being prepared to hear some uncomfortable truths, but it will also provide a huge variety of innovative solutions to complex challenges, and give younger team members a chance to lead on high-profile change initiatives. 

At the risk of sounding like a broken record… you have to do something with the information too. Asking for feedback and then filing it away will have people shutting down faster than a Sears store. 

Speaking out is everyone’s job

Gender equality needs to matter to the whole business, not just women. A number of organizations have highly successful LGBTQ allies programs, which employees of any orientation can join to demonstrate their support for LGBTQ colleagues. Visually, this often means wearing a pin or carrying a coffee mug indicating that the person is an ally. Practically, it means speaking up when you witness discrimination or harassment, and educating peers. 

LGBTQ colleagues I’ve asked about the allies program have said it makes them feel safe, welcome and like their organization truly values them as a whole person. The impact is tangible. 

White Ribbon runs a similar initiative, where visible male leaders pledge to speak up for women’s equality. This could easily be adopted by organizations seeking to tackle unconscious bias and build cultures that allow women to thrive, not just survive. 

So instead of handing out chocolates and pink merchandise on March 8, why not hand out ally pins, with a card inviting men to raise their voice for equality, and inviting women to share their ideas for a fairer tomorrow.


Thank you to a friend I like and admire, a senior leader in the financial services industry, for sharing her thoughts on International Women’s Day, that inspired this post.