Yellow tablecloths and champagne mimosas – how will you be celebrating International Women’s Day?
Ruth Morgan of Scotland’s independent legal watchdog reflects on what International Women’s Day (IWD) means for her workplace and wonders why the day passes so many of us by in the UK, almost unnoticed.
March 8 is International Women’s Day
Its roots go back to 1908 when 15,000 women marched through the streets of New York demanding shorter hours, better pay and voting rights.
Today, it’s celebrated all over the world.
In Cuba – where IWD is a public holiday – it means a day off. In Portugal, a bit of a street party (after the strikes and demonstrations). Iceland – considered to be the most gender equal country on earth – celebrated IWD 2017 by making history on equal pay, by making employers prove they actually do it.
In Italy, “La festa della Donna” has its own cake – champagne sponge with Italian lemon and cream, if you were wondering – an official cocktail, the Mimosa, and free entry to museums and galleries, lest history be forgotten in all the eating and drinking. Everything is yellow – the colour of the Mimosa – from flowers sold on street corners to restaurant tablecloths. In the evening, women get together with friends, relatives and colleagues for one of the biggest nights out of the year. The streets of cities from Milan to Palermo buzz with women-only dinners and parties.
By contrast, IWD falls fairly flat in the UK. Commercially and culturally, it’s doesn’t seem to be on our radar. But are we missing out? Not just on a (spectacular sounding) cake but on time to reflect on the way forward and to draw energy from past achievements.
Globally, there has been enormous progress in the last century – universal suffrage, legislation on equal pay – yet, according to the World Economic Forum (WEF), gender parity is still over 200 years away. The WEF also notes that no nation on earth has yet closed the gender gap. Iceland, Finland and Norway come closest.
In the UK, the pay gap currently stands at just over 18%. At the BBC, the top-paid male star is paid more than four times the salary of the highest-earning woman. Women make up less than a quarter of UK board rooms and remain massively underrepresented in politics. Most importantly, globally, domestic violence remains a leading cause of premature death amongst women.
A point made by the IWD campaign is that March 8 isn’t owned by any one group. It belongs to every workplace, family and community. It also involves taking an honest look inside our own organisations.
We’re an independent ombudsman scheme – the first point of contact for all complaints about lawyers in Scotland. We’re the people to get in touch with if you feel that you’ve had inadequate service or you’re unhappy about the way a lawyer has behaved.
Something we’ve noticed recently is that women are much less likely than men to make a complaint to us about a lawyer. 57% of those who complain are men and just 42% are women. That’s despite the fact that men and women in Scotland are almost equally liked to have used a solicitor or advocate in the last year.
What’s interesting is that other ombudsman schemes have noticed the same thing.
So why is this? Does it reflect different thresholds for what’s acceptable? Or is it an impact of other disparities?
We don’t have the answers, but because we know it’s an issue, we can start looking at ways to address it. We’ll be making a bigger effort to let women – and the other groups who are less likely to come to us – know that we’re here, that our service is free and that we’re independent.
Shining a light on an issue is often the first step to doing something about it – that’s one of the ways we’ll be recognising IWD in 2018.
For my part, I also like the idea of celebrating the women in our own lives and the marks that they’ve made on progress. We all know a few who deserve a toast, even if they’re not in the history books.
I’ll be making one to my grandmother – who took on the Bishop of her diocese in Derry in 1949 and refused to give up her teaching career after getting married – and another to my colleague who made a tiny piece of history last year when she became the first woman at the SLCC to take advantage of shared parental leave.
Because it’s not just the heavy bricks of history that help balance the scales. Every tiny fragment of change has a weight of its own.
So I might not have a yellow tablecloth on March 8, but I’ll definitely be raising a few glasses.