Blogs / 06 Mar 2024 5 min

Why I’m reconsidering International Women’s Day

Where does Inspiring Inclusion lead us this year?

By Sharon Peake, Shape Talent Founder & CEO

Growing up in South Australia in the 1970s, in the driest state on the driest continent in the world, I recall a simple but happy childhood. Riding my bike after school through a quiet town that wouldn’t receive its first traffic light for another twenty years, dodging the swooping magpies during mating season and playing canasta with my grandmother. This simple life, in a remote part of the world, belied its progressiveness.

It turned out I was born in one of the most progressive places on earth. South Australia was one of the first places in the world to achieve full women’s suffrage in 1894, only a year after New Zealand become the first country in the world to grant women the right to vote.

It is hard to believe, 130 years later, we are still a long way off achieving gender equality around the world. According to UN projections, at the current rate of change it will take a further 286 years to achieve gender parity.

This frustrates me enormously. I am passionate about gender equality and grew so tired of the slow pace of change that I started my own business in order to be part of the solution. It is a topic I care deeply about.

So why then, am I reconsidering International Women’s Day? A day that recognises and celebrates women’s achievements.

Not that long ago I was an enthusiastic advocate for the IWD hashtag themes and poses, taking the day to celebrate the amazing women in my personal and professional life, and those that had paved the way before us. After all, women the world over have overcome fierce resistance and obstacles to achieve equal rights (though sadly not yet everywhere) and to advance the rights for those who have followed in their stead. What is not to celebrate?

I’ve been on a personal journey on this topic over the last few years. My discomfort has slowly increased over time and it centres on the growing commercialisation of the theme without a corresponding increase in substance and impact. In the last few years women’s representation in leadership has stagnated in the UK and has gone backwards in some places. I found myself wondering, are we (as a society), becoming so wrapped up in creating a memorable celebration day that we are losing sight of the ongoing work that needs to happen throughout the year?

Does this matter? Maybe it does, maybe it doesn’t. But the reality is this site of unknown origin – with its annual hashtags and catchy photos – is what now dominates International Women’s Day celebrations. This commercialised, profitable enterprise overshadows the far more thoughtful and official IWD theme set up by UN Women which is set as part of a four-year agenda exploring a specific area of gender equality.

Invest in Women: Accelerate Progress – supporting the UN’s gender equality targets

This year the UN Women theme is Invest in Women: Accelerate Progress, focusing on the fifth sustainable development goal of achieving gender equality and empowering all women and girls by 2030.

I’m guessing most people have heard of the Inspire Inclusion commercial theme, but fewer have heard of the far more robust UN theme. The UN IWD theme derives from the annual Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) where the UN’s four-year agenda on gender equality is set. CSW is an important event and is to gender equality what COP is to climate change.  CSW is the principle intergovernmental body setting the agenda for gender equality and women’s empowerment around the world. Its agenda is based on research, evidence and the best minds in the business focused on solving what is a complex and nuanced challenge of our times.

Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with inspiring inclusion! This is an admirable goal and I applaud anyone who is truly aspiring for this and taking the hard actions to drive this. Similarly, I don’t begrudge anyone who wants to recognise and show appreciation to the women in their lives and those who have come before them. This is an important act and should never be minimised.

There can be enormous power in creating grassroots movements that help amplify voices and display solidarity. After all, such movements enabled the suffragettes to achieve significant advances for women’s equality.

I know our clients, and many organisations, are thoughtful and focused on the positivity that International Women’s Day generates. They want to recognise, value and celebrate the achievements and contributions of women, inspire progress and drive change. I want that too and recognise and applaud the excellent work I have seen in accelerating positive change.

But no matter how you choose to celebrate International Women’s Day, and whichever theme you choose to adopt, if you are doing the 365 day a year work of accelerating gender equality, then I salute you.


Sharon Peake is the Founder and CEO of Shape Talent Ltd, the diversity, equity and inclusion experts for complex multinational organisations who are serious about gender equality – and what it can achieve for their business.

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