Today, March 8, is International Women's Day (IWD)! Deck yourself out in the day's colors of purple, white, and green, join a march, celebrate some famous women on Twitter, demand a pay rise, donate to a charity focusing on women's issues: it's a celebration. But along the way you may encounter an annoying question that many people celebrating IWD hear at some point: "Why isn't there an International Men's Day? Isn't that sexist?"
So how should you respond in a more nuanced way to "why isn't there an International Men's Day/I don't get why women should do all this/it seems unequal" arguments? Here are a few pointers.
1. There Already Is An International Men's Day
First of all, yes, there is actually an International Men's Day. (It's November 19, and it's designed to target issues like the high male suicide rate, male deaths through violence, better birth control options for dudes, and promoting good male role models. All great stuff!) So you can take the wind out of any particularly bloated sails on Twitter if you feel so inclined.
But the two International Days are an interesting exercise in comparison. International Men's Day is trying to deal with the consequences of gender roles and expectations: the huge likelihood that a person dead by violence or war will be male, for example, and the tendency to underplay men's childcare roles or their subjection to domestic violence. International Women's Day is an older, bigger beast, and focuses on systemic, historical, all-encompassing disempowerment, from educational inequality to the gender pay gap to media representation. It's the difference between particulars and generalities. Men have specific, real problems. Women have a specific, real "problem": being women.
2. Plus, Every Day Is International Men's Day
The point of International Women's Day is that it changes the everyday conversation, which is normally directed by, dominated by, channelled through, and directed to men. Women make up only 19.3 percent of the U.S. House Of Representatives and only 20 percent of the U.S. Senate, they constitute only 11 percent of the world's billionaires, and a mere 14 percent of top executive positions in Fortune 500 companies are held by women. (Only 24 of those companies have female CEOs. Only 24.)
The thing that matters here is power. Bias towards men affects where money and influence goes, and what becomes important: a 2014 study found, for instance, that women starting their own businesses in the U.S. attract 80 percent less capital from investors in their first year than men doing the same thing. And in the media, which directs our attention about what matters, it's much the same: according to the Women's Media Center's annual report in 2015, men still overwhelmingly dominate news coverage, opinion pieces, executive places in Hollywood production studios, and almost every position of power in news and entertainment.
The pattern repeats across industries. In healthcare, according to a 2012 study, women made up 73 percent of managers and organizers, but only four percent were CEOs. As for academia, Catalyst, a nonprofit that promotes women in the workplace, found substantial gender gaps in pay and senior faculty status in the universities of Australia, Japan, the U.S., India, Canada, and Europe. In the financial industry, a study that came out today found that, in the UK, women in banking receive lower bonuses and take far longer to climb the corporate ladder than men. It's so on ad infinitum in other industries, from retail (a report was published today indicating that less than 15 percent of senior retail executives in Europe are women) to law (in 2014, women made up only 21 percent of the general counsel at Fortune 500 law companies).
I could throw statistics at you all day, but that's a poor way to spend your International Women's Day, so be assured: men do, in many structural and deep-rooted ways, retain control of much of what goes on worldwide. It's not a conspiracy, or paranoia. It's simply, unfortunately, true.
3. International Women's Day Has An Important History
Part of what makes International Women's Day so particular and powerful is its historical context. The UN's history of the concept traces it back to 1911, where the first International Women's Day was celebrated with huge rallies across European countries from Austria to Denmark. The big focus of those rallies on March 8? The enfranchisement of women and the right to hold office, work, and be trained. (Americans were actually quicker off the mark: they held a National Women's Day in 1909 to protest worker's rights, though it was on a different day.)
International Women's Day has marked significant events in women's rights over the years: suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst's arrest in 1914 on her way to speak to an IWD rally in London, for instance, and a strike by millions of Russian women that forced through their right to vote in 1917. That context is important. IWD isn't just about looking forward and trying to establish new parity between genders; it's also about acknowledging past fighters and the progress that's been made.
4. "Men Have Problems Too" Is Not A Valid Argument Against IWD
I don't have a lot of time for the "but men need special treatment too" argument. Of course they have serious problems (some of them, like the high rate of male suicide that prompted a UK MP's suggestion of an International Men's Day in 2015, caused in part by the nastiness of patriarchy). Of course they should be celebrated and acknowledged! But saying "I don't think there should be an International Women's Day if there's not an International Men's Day too" is like saying "I don't believe in Black History Month unless there's a White History Month to balance it out." There is no need for balance. The imbalance is precisely the point.
IWD is not a diminishment of male issues. It is an acknowledgement of the state of gendered privilege and disadvantage around the world, not an argument that men must have everything hunky-dory all the time because of their empowered circumstances. But yes, frankly, we do need, require, and deserve a "special day" devoted to our gender, in an attempt to correct and bring notice to the "normal days" where business proceeds as usual (i.e. often largely dominated by men).
This comes even more sharply into focus when you take into account IWD's explicit focus on women worldwide. The now-famous Nakheel Mall Girl filmed being beaten in public by Saudi Arabia's religious police, the fact that 80 percent of all currently out-of-school girls in South and West Asia will likely never attend school, the brutal tradition of female genital mutilation (FGM) in various parts of Africa and the Middle East, and the horrible statistic that a woman in Africa faces a 1 in 31 chance of dying from complications in pregnancy or childbirth all add up to an intense and disturbing picture of female inequality on an extraordinary scale. (And those are just cherry-picked examples.) This is immediate. It is happening now. It is not merely a celebration; it is an expression of political anger, horror and empathy, of enormous importance.
I am all for a Stop Male Suicide Day, a Patriarchy Hurts Men Too Day, a Domestic Violence Happens To Both Genders Day, and so on: I will be out there marching for them. But International Women's Day serves a particular, historically contextualized need for empowerment, and men simply do not need a boost along those same gendered lines.