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Today is International Women’s Day.
As “days” go, it’s the biggest of all since it celebrates more than half the human race.
The goal of Days is to raise awareness of something that needs more. While there is an International Men’s Day and a World Polio Day, they aren’t given much attention because men don’t need it and polio is a dying disease.
But this year’s International Women’s Day is different from all previous ones since the first in 1975.
Until now, women have been on the march. Every year, they’ve made inroads in education, income, power and glory. This progress hasn’t been linear and some years it’s been tiny. But the march to equality has been cheered on by a sense of inevitability. Some day, in the future near or far, women will be equal to men.
Until now. Or rather, until this year past when COVID and the exposure of systemic sexism and racism suddenly threatened this steady march into the arena of equality.
I can think of only two other recent times when the slowly rising chart of social progress turned sharply down.
The first was following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Life expectancy for men fell from a high of 65 years in 1987 to 57 years by 1994. The reason? Alcoholism, brought on by vast social and economic turmoil. But by 2018, the lifespan of Russian men had bounced back to 66.4 years.
The second instance followed the collapse of traditional jobs and values for middle-aged white males in America, especially those without a college degree. Since the 1990s, their early deaths have risen sharply, defying the trend of Americans living longer, healthier lives.
I’m not saying that the opposite of advancement is an early death, though they are related. I’m saying that the pandemic has hurt women very hard (and racialized women even harder). So many of them work in face-to-face jobs which can’t be done remotely, and so many have had to leave the workforce to care for their kids, and even school them, at home.
Lots of people are saying this. But few do it as well as Angela Merkel who issued a video in advance of today that begins: “We have to ensure that the pandemic does not cause us to fall back into gender roles we thought we’d overcome.……”
But while our Prime Minister will also issue an International Women’s Day video later today (last year’s gives you a sense of what he’s about), the difference is that Germany is actually doing things to ensure women are equal, while Ottawa is largely saying things.
Let’s just take one area where women still huddle in small numbers: in senior management and as directors of public companies.
Tired of women never breaking through even the 20% ceiling for board members, Merkel in 2015 decided enough was enough. Her government ordered all German public companies to have at least 30% of their directors be female.
Meanwhile, back in 2015 in Canada, women made up 18.3% of board members of public companies. By last year, that had risen to 21.5%. This is not 30% and nowhere near 50%, which is the goal, right?
Then in January of this year, lamenting the glacial progress of the number of women in senior management positions, Merkel’s government mandated that management boards with more than three members must have at least one woman. This is not a company’s board of directors, but their most senior management team. In other words, the C-Suite officers with the real day-to-day operating power.
Women on Boards and on management teams make up a tiny fraction of Germany’s 42 million women and Canada’s 19 million women.
But their decisions carry huge sway and have an enormous power to change things for women for the better.
Just ask the woman running Germany.
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