You know what’s better than flowers? … POWER.
Last year, on International Women’s Day, the CEO of the company I worked for at the time sent a mass email in honor of the day. In it, he encouraged employees to show their appreciation for the women in their lives by buying them flowers. The sentiment was a positive one, seemingly, but it struck a nerve.
At the time, in the local office where I worked, there were no women of color in management positions. There were fewer than proportionate numbers of women in leadership roles, and the media projects that I worked on had an overtly sexist message. In that same week, I had been accused of being “overly emotional” by a male lead when I called him out for not delivering work on time. Another lead in my office had previously told me I “tended to overreact” because I asked him not to discard his used toothpicks on my desk.
So, when I read the email, encouraging male coworkers to show their appreciation for me by giving me a bouquet of flowers, something snapped. I responded to the CEO with an email of my own asking him to clarify his position on equal pay, and whether he planned to implement programs that would directly promote women, and specifically women of color, within his organization. To his credit, he responded by indicating that we had a diversity program in place and directed my inquiry to the lead of said program who was courteous and thoughtful in her responses.
Still, the facts remain: globally, 62 million girls will be denied an education. Only 32% of parliamentarians in the world are female. By 2020 men will outnumber women 4:1 as employees in the ever-growing technology sector. Women currently hold only 4.8% of CEO titles on the S&P 500. Every statistic for female representation in positions of power looks worse when we splice by ethnicity or gender-identity. Even if we control for the fact that a lower proportion of working-age women is in the workforce than working-age men, these numbers are grossly skewed.
I have been working at a new start-up for almost ten months. The organization creates more neutral products and is, on the surface, more committed to the elevation of women. Yet I have spent the better part of a year being spoken over in meetings where I held the most subject-matter expertise. I was overlooked (not the same as being selected against) for leadership roles that I was more qualified for than male team-members. Most of all though, my ideas and strategies were frequently ignored until they were delivered by a man. Imagine, then, my perturbation when an executive came into the office carrying bouquets of flowers wrapped in tissue with specific women’s day messaging to give to all female employees.
I think that it is important to recognize that International Women’s Day is not a holiday. It is a day of advocacy. If you want to show the women you work with that you appreciate them, shut up when they speak. Give them credit for their work. Pay them equal salaries to their male counterparts. Put free sanitary products in their bathrooms (including gender neutral ones). But most of all, elevate them to positions of leadership. We didn’t come here for your flowers or shallow gestures. We came here to exist as equals.
Header image illustrated by Marcy Gooberman