The fight for equal rights for women began in the early 1900s. Women embarked on various campaigns to demand for basic necessities such as shorter working hours, better salaries, the right to vote etc. In accordance with a declaration by the Socialist Party of America, the first official National Woman’s Day (NWD) was observed across the United States on February 28 but the date was later changed to March 8 each year. International Women’s Day is marked to celebrate and project the achievements of women, raise awareness, sensitize and educate the world on gender parity.
Every year, themes such as, “Break the Bias”, “Each for Equal”, “Pledge for Parity”, “Be bold for Change” among others, have been adopted to provide a formal framework for the celebration. The theme for this year’s International Woman’s Day (IWD) is, “Embrace Equity”.
There have been controversial conversations about women demanding for equality but it is worth noting that the theme emphasizes equity rather than equality. To chart a successful course, we must first understand the distinction between equity and equality. Equity recognizes that each individual is unique, thus, specific resources and opportunities are provided to help them achieve equal results. Equality, on the other hand, means that everyone has access to the same resources or opportunities irrespective of their peculiar circumstances.
Most countries and even organizations have made concerted efforts to create supportive environments and policies for women to thrive. For instance, in Ghana, special provisions have been made in the labor law to protect the interest of women. According to the LABOUR ACT– 2003 (ACT 651), women are entitled to at least twelve weeks Maternity Leave in addition to any period of annual leave and should be paid their full remuneration and any other benefits that come with the job. The law prohibits employers from assigning a pregnant woman to work on night shift or assigning her outside her place of residence after completion of the fourth month of pregnancy. Nursing mothers are also granted two (2) hours to breastfeed their babies until their first birthdays. These laws clearly state what institutions are expected to do, and violations of these laws result in severe consequences for the institutions.
In the United States, one of the most common reasons mothers give for discontinuing breastfeeding is returning to work and not having break time or a private space to express milk. This led to the passing of the Affordable Care Act in March 10, 2010. Employers are required by law to provide nursing mothers with reasonable break time and a place other than a bathroom that is concealed and free from invasion to express breast milk at work, up until a child’s first birthday.
Organizations, through their internal policies, are also playing critical roles in empowering, encouraging, and supporting women. Some businesses try to diversify leadership by promoting high – achieving women to managerial positions. To create a balance, institutions encourage women to take advantage of various opportunities available at the company. For example, when companies advertise job openings, they openly encourage women to apply. Companies are now investing in seminars and mentoring sessions for their female employees. One Organization in Ghana have set up an all-women’s mentorship programme called “The Mentorship Circle”. The programme is coordinated by women in managerial positions to empower other female staff to assist them effectively manage and learn how to juggle their work, family and social lives. Some Staff who joined the session have risen through the ranks to assume some managerial positions and are doing very well. Some Heads of Department have given positive feedbacks about colleagues who have joined the programme. Some participants of the programme expressed their joy of having the program in place. They confirmed that the program has offered them the opportunity to seek for help when they need it and boosted their confidence to do better at their jobs. Some organizations have established nursery schools at the work place for mothers who have to bring their children to work.
Unfortunately, there is still a lot of workplace discrimination against women. Some employers are hesitant to hire women of childbearing age, pregnant women, women on maternity leave, and women with young children. It is alleged, that some organizations coerce newly hired women to sign contracts promising not to get pregnant within a certain period while working for the organization. A breach of this will result in the termination of their contracts. The Equality and Human Rights Commission in the UK conducted a study to investigate the prevalence and nature of pregnancy discrimination at the workplace. According to their findings, about 44 per cent of employers agree that women should work for at least a year before deciding to have children. With such perceptions, the big question is whether the pursuit of equity is a façade!
While there is a strong push to achieve gender equity, women also have a part to play. Women must work hard to bring their talents to the forefront to earn the seat at the top rather than simply riding on the mantra of women empowerment to demand for equity. To achieve gender equity may take time, but as the saying goes, “Little progress is better than no progress at all”. Happy International Women’s Day.
BY PORTIA ANANI
A Catholic and a Communications Officer at the Bank of Africa