In our special feature to mark International Women’s Day, Mirella Visser, president of the European Professional Women’s Network, focuses on how far women have come and how far they still need to go since this day was first celebrated in the early 1900’s.
" ...a day to stop and think and focus on the topic of women’s progress"
Annalisa Gigante, Vice President DSM
What started as a movement for women’s rights and universal suffrage has turned into a global day of celebrating women’s achievements. International Women’s Day has become an institute, not only for human rights activists but also for corporations, organisations and society as a whole.
More than half a million hits on the internet, including 200 videos, announcing thousands of events being organised around 8 March are testimony to the fact that IWD is very much alive today.
“International Women’s Day gives us the momentum to analyse what is behind the hype and the success stories that are widely communicated, and assess what is still to be done,” says Cécile Demailly, international strategy consultant and board member for the ThinkTank Groups of the European Professional Women’s Network. Annalisa Gigante, Vice President at DSM, adds: “It is a day to stop and think and focus on the topic of women’s progress”.
The ways to celebrate are as diverse as women are. From small scale individual actions in local neighbourhoods and fund raisers for local initiatives to marches and demonstrations to ban violence against women and raise awareness of women’s underprivileged position in parts of the world where women still lack access to education and health care; highly politicised in some countries, barely on the radar screen in others.
In Italy, men give women special flowers, mimosa, not romantically, but more out of friendship and as a sign that spring is approaching. In France IWD 2008 revolves around the plight of Ingrid Betancourt, the courageous French-Colombian presidential candidate, who has been captured and held by a terrorist organisation since 2002.
Marijo Bos (photo on left), president of EuropeanPWN-Madrid, comments on the celebrations across Spain: “With 50 percent of President Zapatero’s cabinet being women, it’s a day that should get a lot more recognition than it does; there is visibility of this day in politics although a lot less in the business world”.
In the Netherlands IWD is celebrated by an increasing number of companies, which provide women and men with a programme with outside speakers. Accenture’s conference featuring former Dutch minister Sybilla Dekker and advocates for women’s progress in business is a clear example.
Celebrating women’s success in business
EuropeanPWN’s networks in Nice, Vienna and Frankfurt, are organising large scale events with inspiring role model women, demonstrating women’s success in business. UK national Marie Clair Williams, president of EuropeanPWN-Frankfurt, notices the differences between the ways countries celebrate. “IWD seems not to be widely known in Frankfurt, despite the fact that it is almost 100 years old, as an initiative.... That in itself is probably a sign! Certainly, in the UK, it gets more coverage,” she says.
EuropeanPWN in Frankfurt cooperates with The European Space Agency, which has been organising events every year since 2003 in all locations.
Angela Head, management support engineer at ESA says that ESA sees International Women’s Day as “an ideal occasion to bring everyone together to share different experiences, and promote equal opportunities and diversity.”
Last year, EuropeanPWN chose 8 March as the day to publish its seventh book in the Women@Work series, ‘Mentoring - A powerful tool for women’.
At the launch on IWD, Co-author and editor Thérèse Torris reinforced the message of women learning from each other to the benefit of women themselves and the companies they serve. “Mentoring gives a precious boost to a woman’s career. And, by opening mentee opportunities to women from all levels sustainable links are created changing corporations’ DNA to fully utilise women’s talents,” she says.
Symbolism with content
The eighth of March is a symbolic day for official announcements on women’s issues. The EU traditionally publishes relevant statistics, about the equality between men and women, and this year the focus is on women and men in decision-making in politics, economy and public service. An encouraging trend is that the proportion of women in parliaments in the EU has risen substantially from 16 percent in 1997 to 24 percent in 2007. In addition, the quota legislation for corporate boards in Norway has led to an EU record-high of 34 percent women on boards.
Signs of change
Indeed, there is a lot to celebrate in Europe. Here are my top three reasons why:
- Booming networks
In the past 10 years the number of professional women’s conferences has at least quadrupled and literally hundreds of networks, including corporate women’s networks, have been established successfully and are growing fast. The need for women to connect and share experiences and passions has never been greater, and, what’s more, women act on it and create the organisations they are comfortable with. Women are clearly taking the lead and shaping their own future by establishing the networks of support and inspiration to develop themselves to become the best they can be. Topics such as career planning and ambition, leadership and how to get on a board are firmly on the agenda now. Networks are places to challenge and inspire each other, and to connect and support.
- From equality to economic excellence
Although in most politician’s minds women’s issues are still primarily linked to societal and human rights issues, gradually changes can be observed. Led by the Scandinavian countries, where ministers of Economic Affairs have taken interest, women’s issues in Europe are becoming of economic interest. The effects of the ageing population in many European countries and the ever-increasing competition from emerging economies are translated into goals to raise female labour force participation. Companies, faced with women leaving in droves at high cost, combined with bad publicity around the lack of women in their top management, are actively developing development and retention programmes for female talent, out of economic necessity. In 10 years time the EU’s Equality Unit may have been restructured into the Unit for ‘Economic Excellence’ emphasising the need to fully utilise women’s leadership capabilities. A clear sign that the world is waking up to women as ‘the emergence of the next economic revolution’ like Avivah Wittenberg-Cox and Alison Maitland explain in their recently published book ‘Why Women Mean Business’.
- Shifting images
Professional women’s issues are no longer only reported on by women’s magazines and the ‘women’s page’ of newspapers, but by the business newspapers and management magazines. Women’s issues are no longer issues to be discussed only among women, but by all as part of mainstream economic developments.
There is still much to be done in Europe and even more in the rest of the world before women are equals in all aspects of personal and professional life. But as Confucius said, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step….. “. IWD is definitely one of these steps so women, march on!
Mirella Visser is president of the European Professional Women’s Network (www.europeanpwn.net). She was nominated as ‘European of the Year 2007’ in the category of ‘Campaigner of the Year’ by European Voice (a publication by The Economist) for promoting professional progress of women in the Netherlands and Europe.
EuropeanPWN is Europe’s dynamic fast-growing online and offline networking and leadership development platform for professional women of all sectors and industries. With 3500 members and more than 90 nationalities, EuropeanPWN organizes around 600 events a year in 17 cities: Amsterdam, Barcelona, Berlin, Brussels, Dusseldorf, Copenhagen, Frankfurt, Geneva, London, Lyon, Madrid, Milan, Nice, Oslo, Paris, Stockholm and Vienna. EuropeanPWN has published 8 books in the Women@Work series and has been widely quoted in the media as opinion leaders on women’s professional progress.
Further reading - along with Expatica's Related Links below:
Women's day, a European clause
[Copyright Expatica 2008]