Blog | 28 Feb 2018

International Women's Day

This opinion piece forms part of our IMPACTxAsia blog series

International Women’s Day 2018 has been galvanised by action. Over the last 6 months, women across the globe have joined together in solidarity and created movements from which there will be no return. #MeToo and #TimesUp have brought women’s treatment in the professional and personal sphere to the forefront of conversations, with the "Me Too" hashtag being tweeted over 2.3 million times across 85 countries and mentioned on Facebook over 77 million times. In response to revelations in the US film industry and the subsequent #MeToo campaign, #TimesUp was established by women as a definitive call to end abuse and inequality: “No more silence. No more waiting. No more tolerance for discrimination, harassment or abuse”. The movement was initially started by activist Tarana Burke in 2016 as a way to help women who had survived sexual violence, and was re-ignited by entertainment professionals, whose work also targets all women who wish to pursue legal action related to sexual assault, harassment or abuse in the workplace but lack the means to do so. To date, the Legal Defense Fund has raised over US$20 million from 20,000 donors and has over 200 volunteer lawyers on its books.

The Western world is increasingly polarised when it comes to women's issues and equality: on the one hand there are increased measures to limit women's access to sexual and reproductive services in the US under the Trump administration; while on the other, traditionally conservative Ireland has announced a referendum on abortion this year, bringing the possibility of reinstating legal abortion for the first time since the constitutional ban 35 years ago. Regardless of the swing, the time has never been riper to discuss women’s place, position and rights in society and these movements expand well beyond the conversation in the West. Across Asia, we see women’s groups harnessing this global momentum and applying it to a local context. This is important when examining true equality and the specific needs of women across the world. While inequality and abuse may be universal experiences for women, they are not unified experiences and it is vital that communities address the issues that face them specifically.

When Chinese women began voicing their own #MeToo stories across the internet, the government response to the wave of dialogue was overt censorship, highlighting the struggle Chinese citizens face when advocating for change in their home country. When news of the Harvey Weinstein scandal broke, Japan's Twitter activity related to #MeToo was substantial and subsequently, Japan's related traffic was noted in the top ten countries commenting globally. This outpouring contrasted with the resounding silence from Japanese officials, however, with commentators noting that the lack of statement or public action from the government in Japan is a marker of how far the country needs to progress in its policies for women.With no official recognition of a problem, change at the institutional, social, and personal level will be difficult, if not impossible.

In India, women's rights to safe living and equality have already been under scrutiny following the 2012 gang-rape and murder of a young student in Delhi. #MeToo has refocused the spotlight on the issue of women’s safety in India, however many see this as an opportunity to shine a light on those excluded by the debate. Ruchira Gupta of the charity Apne Aap Women Worldwide has noted “[#MeToo is] a fantastic campaign, and it’s really given women a voice. But these are women who are heard anyway”. India's most vulnerable women – lower caste Dalit women or those outside the formal economy - are among the most exploited groups in Indian society and do not have access to or the ability to contribute to debates online. The struggles and dangers facing these women need to be recognised and addressed, and the intersectional nature of sexism in Indian society must be taken into consideration when uniting for social change.

With the launch of the UN HeForShe campaign in 2014 came a global understanding of the need to engage men as allies. By labelling gender diversity and inequality as a woman’s issue we overlook the potential for progress among half the population. Movements like HeForShe, Male Champions of Change and Male Allies are creating an environment for male leaders to drive institutional change, take personal action and work beside women to collectively build a gender equal world.

Given this increased global momentum, it is fitting that events over the last half year have culminated in this year’s International Women’s Day rallying cry #PressforProgress. Poetically, 2018 and the #PressforProgress movement marks 100 years since women progressed in their struggle for suffrage in the UK and were granted (albeit selective) voting rights. This anniversary is celebrated by women not just symbolically, but with their renewed struggle for equality. The parameters of the issues faced by women today may have changed, but the overarching need to strive for progress remains just as strong as it did for Emmeline Pankhurst and her comrades in the early 20th century.

At Community Business, we have observed this global awakening and revival of the struggle for women’s equality and applied this lens to our own research. Emerging from these movements, we see the perfect circumstances to gain traction in the pursuit of truly diverse board representation. The prevalence of sexism and unconscious bias across industries shines a spotlight on the complacency and lack of committed action from the current leadership. We already know that diversity at the board and senior executive level leads to stronger, more innovative, and resilient companies. In the wake of such visible global movements, we must harness the social pressure for institutional change and seize this opportunity to spark transformation within Hong Kong’s boardrooms, where only incremental progress has been made over the last 9 years. Our annual Women on Boards Hong Kong report will be released next week to coincide with International Women’s Day and we hope that Hong Kong’s business community will take our findings as a call to action and #PressforProgress in the boardroom and beyond!

Author: Emily Moss Manager, Marketing & Communications, Community Business.