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What is Women’s Day? Is it really necessary?

Published: 13/03/2015

Gemma Tracey ponders what international women’s day, and women’s history month means in the higher education sector, 100 years on.

‘What is women’s day? Is it really necessary?’

That is the question that Russian revolutionary Alexandra Kollontai asked readers of the Russian journal Pravda 100 years ago. It was while studying in Russia as an undergraduate that I first celebrated International Women’s Day and I have been marking it annually since. Kollontai’s questions still get raised each year. ‘What about men’s day?’ a former boss once asked me incredulously. More meaningfully people often query whether a single day focused on women’s issues is sufficient to change sexist attitudes and behaviours.

ECU_Mini_Stats_with_Branding25There is certainly plenty of evidence that shows us why there is a need to mark women’s day, even if we just look at the higher education sector. ECU’s Know your numbers booklet shows that only one in five professors are women.
I have attended some events recently that have reminded me why women’s day is necessary, and what needs to be done to hopefully reduce the need for it in the future.

Compliance as a lever for change

In February I attended an event at Dundee University as part of ECU’s Attracting Diversity project. The project supports four Scottish universities in their work to ensure that their admissions are more inclusive and better target underrepresented groups. There were lively discussions about the levers we can use to achieve change. Should we convince university leaders to support work on equality and diversity by highlighting the importance of complying with the law? Or is it more powerful to point out that there is a real business case for diversity within higher education?

I think it is vital to return to the moral case for equality and diversity, as so clearly stated by Professor Colin Riordan, President and Vice-chancellor of Cardiff University in ECU’s report, The rationale for equality and diversity.

‘It is wholly unfair that 50% of the population (ie women) do not get the same life opportunities and that this still exists in universities. It is a real failure of democracy and a real failure of opportunity.’

Gender equality isn’t just for women

At a recent event hosted by the Association of Commonwealth Universities, Tricia Wombell from the Leadership Foundation shared insights from Aurora: their women-only leadership development programme.

One of the questions from the audience was whether the issue is simply that women don’t apply for leadership positions. But I think that often too much of the onus is placed on women to change their behaviours and attitudes in order to improve their representation in leadership roles.

There is certainly great value in supporting women to develop their leadership skills, but it’s also important that institutions consider what changes they need to make to their culture and working practices. Is there a culture that welcomes and supports women returning from maternity leave? Has the university acknowledged that there is inherent bias in the recruitment process and put in place unconscious bias training for those involved in the recruitment process?

Women’s day can be a valuable tool for drawing attention to what we can all do to advance equality, rather than leaving it to individual women to advance equality.


But it’s vital that in any work to tackle gender inequalities and discrimination we don’t take a simplistic approach. I am struck by two more statistics from ECU’s Know your numbers report:

  • Only 1.3% of UK professors are BME women. And the number for men isn’t much higher: 5.8% of UK professors are BME men.

And that means we need to have an inclusive answer to the question what is women’s day? This certainly informs ECU’s work. We are expanding the Athena SWAN charter, which previously focused on advancing women’s academic careers in the STEMM fields. From April the charter will broaden its focus to cover gender equality more broadly and will ask applying universities and departments to consider intersectionality, and also work to improve gender equality within professional and support roles. ECU is also currently conducting the Race Equality Charter Mark trial, using our successful charter mark model to tackle the discrimination and inequalities faced by BME staff students in UK universities.

Much work clearly remains to be done. But I’d like to return to the words of Professor Riordan:

‘This whole area of diversity is a bit like the environment. We have to boost our efforts occasionally and remind ourselves of our successes.’

And that’s a big reason why International Women’s Day is valuable – it’s a chance for women to celebrate their own successes and the great strides we have made in advancing gender equality.