Caroline Pankhurst
Feb 24, 2020

Say no to tokenistic panels this International Women's Day

This IWD, organisations must look beyond the speaker panels to deliver actions rather than words.

Say no to tokenistic panels this International Women's Day

With International Women’s Day just a fortnight away, the emails and phone calls regarding speaker opportunities are rolling in. Whether you’re an organisation sending out the invites or a woman at the receiving end, it’s time we paused and checked our approach and intentions. 

Valuing women’s contribution means putting your money where your mouth is. A slot for a woman to speak or join a panel on one day of the year is not recognising women’s value. Last year, I turned down speaking opportunities on IWD and this year I’m going to be doing the same – because it’s not good enough to be treated as a token. 

While IWD is an important milestone in the calendar, and I’m pleased that achieving equality for women is front and centre of workplace conversations, the same struggles that women face for 364 days of the year don’t magically disappear on March 8. I am still a single parent, I still live outside London, I’m still running a business and still doing a PhD. I’m still part of the 51% of the population under the gender pay gap, under-represented on boards and under-represented in the creative sector, and I’m still campaigning for gender equality. All of which makes it more ironic that I’m being invited on to panels to celebrate all of that, while being asked to put it all on hold – and all for free. I refuse to do it any more. 

Despite women’s hard work, their value is still undermined by the systems and institutional behaviours, bias and injustice they face. Just this week, The Fawcett Society’s new equal pay bill #RightToKnow is being launched in parliament, as pay discrimination is still pervasive.

Given how far we still have to go, it might seem counterintuitive to turn down opportunities to speak and join debates for IWD. Yet, in the context of making a stand, holding others accountable and standing up for the value of women’s work is an act of courage.

Organisations perhaps naively assume that an offer of a platform in exchange for a few social media posts or the chance to "have your voice heard" is a gift to women. It isn’t – it’s exploitative. Exposure does not pay the bills.

Women’s time, experience and knowledge have values. Ironically, women seem more interesting to organisations around the second week of March, and yet those same organisations seem to want to pay them even less than the rest of the year. You want experts? You have to pay for experts. In my own case, helping women strive towards equality and find their power is my work, making it doubly insulting to be asked to give my time free of charge.

So, if you’re a woman being invited to speak at an IWD event, don’t be afraid to assert your worth – in this case, financial. Feel bold, brave and rebellious doing it and allow your confidence to grow, knowing you are a woman who lives and acts by her values. Show the world what authentic leadership really looks like.

Caroline Pankhurst is founder of Be Braver

Campaign UK

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