By Kat Vella
I was recently invited to speak at an International Women’s Day event in my town. I snorted an embarrassed reply over the phone, “No way. I’ve done nothing noteworthy in my life. No one wants to listen to me speak.” I had flashes of the key note speaker a few years prior – an international human rights lawyer that had grown up in our town. She has literally tried war criminals. Yeah, I’m not going to follow that. Thanks.
Somewhere along my life I have been convinced that women must be extraordinary in order to be valued by others, while men can just be ‘good enough’. Hand up if you know at least one woman in your life that is employed in paid work, has children to keep alive and thriving, probably studies at nights to advance her career or pay grade, takes responsibility for the majority of the household management (cause you know, men work all day poor things), and, most likely, volunteers hours at their kids’ school or sports club? How exactly have we normalized this as being an average woman’s life?
There is a very clear reason why I think of my life’s achievements as “nothing noteworthy” and why none of an ‘average woman’s life’ is considered extraordinary while objectively, it clearly is. Women’s work and contribution is simply not valued at a cultural, societal and historical level. In paid work scenarios, anything women touch seems to automatically devalue that field or sector. Sectors and industries that are women-dominated demonstrate poorer working conditions, lower pay, fewer opportunities for advancement, and less economic security.
And while Australia’s national pay gap seems to be decreasing, there are still industries where it is rife. An outrageous example of this is the STEM industries – which happens to be the focus of this year’s official UN Women theme, Cracking the Code: Innovation for a Gender Equal Future. Globally, women only hold 2 in every 10 science, engineering and information, and communication technology jobs. UN Women says,
“This glaring underrepresentation limits our ability to find inclusive, sustainable solutions to modern problems and build a better society for all. We must crack the code to women’s full and equal participation in STEM fields.”
International Women’s Day was founded on collective action. Women in the labour movement, ordinary working women, cooperated through strikes, marches and rallies toward achieving dignified working conditions, recognition of their contribution to the economy, and a livable wage for all female workers. And they did it while raising children and running households where there was so much more at stake for them to lose by stepping out of line.
I question where this history fits now with the way we seem to commemorate this day in Australia, particularly in our country towns. I have been invited to three morning teas. No strikes, marches or rallies surprisingly. When you consider how gender inequality is magnified in our regional communities when there are diminishing social and health services, a general teacher shortage, a rental and housing crisis, and limited, under-resourced and overcrowded domestic violence services, it’s quite unbelievable that women have not yet been pushed to the point of rioting in the street!
I suppose it shouldn’t come as a surprise when websites like internationalwomensday.com have appropriated the day with their meaningless hashtags and cringy grabs for likes and shares on socials. Now let’s all smile while we scrub the reputations of international arms manufacturers everyone! (READ MORE: Please Don’t Embrace Equality this IWD)
We have all internalized the idea that an individual woman’s success indicates progress for all women as a whole. International Women’s Day seems to have become another reflection of this. Perhaps my instinct to decline the speaking opportunity was right in the end. IWD is not about me and what I have done, what lessons my short and privileged life have taught me. It’s about understanding that no one woman can be truly free if there exists a woman somewhere else in chains. And really the only way to truly address this is NOT through asking individual women to be exceptional and to carry the rest of womankind on their backs, but through demanding structural change through hundreds, thousands, even millions of ordinary, “average” women working together for each other’s futures.
About Kat Vella
Kat Vella is one of the founders and the non fiction editor of Mona Magazine. She is an educator, activist and journalist who lives on Wiradjuri Country in Griffith, NSW. She is national committee member of Rural Australians for Refugees and is passionate about social justice, feminism and education. Apart from finding her work at Mona Magazine, she has been published in regional mastheads and The Guardian Rural Network.