Row of women
  • Laura Hay, Leadership |

What difference can a day make? That’s a natural question one might ask as we paused to recognize International Women’s Day (IWD) on March 8th.

In my opinion, a day makes a huge difference. That’s because this single day stands for the thousands of days over the past 111 years in which countless brave and dedicated women worked, marched and fought for the level of gender parity we now enjoy.

That means that this particular day, March 8th, is a great opportunity to remember those women who came before us, celebrate the women who continue to support our advancement, and encourage the next generation who will strive for progress in the years ahead.

Remembering women who came before:

It’s easy to forget that IWD has a long history, dating back to the early 1900s when women began campaigning for equality in the midst of industrialization. In 1908 15,000 women marched through New York City to demand better work hours, pay and the right to vote. On February 28, 1909, the first National Women’s Day was observed across the United States.

While IWD shifted to March 8 – to mark historic moments in women’s activism – it continues to hold symbolic importance for women around the world. And there are countless stories of women’s courage as they championed equality in diverse spheres of our society and economy.

Celebrating today’s female leaders:

The hard-fought efforts by pioneering women laid the groundwork for the many women who have now reached leadership roles, in financial services and across many sectors. 

Despite the challenges they often face, women are making their presence felt at all organizational levels. Over the past year, I’ve had the privilege of chronicling some of these women’s achievements in my Mind the Gap blog series. While each chose a distinct path, they are testaments to what women can achieve when we take risks, speak up, and apply our own strengths in a traditionally male dominated field.

Although women’s advancement certainly could be happening at a faster rate, IWD is a day to celebrate these accomplishments. For example, a 2018 study found that 40 percent of newly appointed directors to Fortune 500 companies were women.[1] That’s more than double the rate from a decade ago. I see these numbers as a reason for great optimism about the trajectory for women in leadership roles.

I’ve also seen this shift in attitudes first-hand in recent years, as more companies make diversity and inclusion a priority. In fact, I’m amazed that, during my client meetings, top executives of major organizations are pro-actively raising the need to improve diversity on their leadership teams.  These executives understand how diversity in the c-suite is not only “the right thing to do”, but it also leads to better decision-making and business performance.

What’s next?

While it’s wonderful to mark the progress made by women to date, it’s also important to remember that IWD doesn’t have the same celebratory meaning for women everywhere. As a white woman in western society, I appreciate that women of other cultures have different experiences, and there is still much work to be done to build gender equality, globally and locally.

Thus, IWD should also remind us that we must continue our day-to-day efforts to accelerate women’s advancement. Although there remain systemic issues that must be addressed – including changing corporate cultures and embedding hiring, training and promotional practices so we can build a pipeline of talented women to assume leadership posts – there is much that we can do as individuals each day.

For example, today’s women must support one another, whether through mentoring others or networking to help each other access new opportunities.  And we must be visible role models, by being ‘loud and proud,’ to showcase our own achievements and the skills that we can bring to the table. It’s also important that we build bridges with our male colleagues who can be incredible allies and champions for the inclusion of women in leadership.

By doing so, we are laying a solid path for the next generation of women to create even greater balance in the leadership ranks. Thanks to the hard work of women past and present, I am hopeful that they have carved a slightly easier and more inclusive path to leadership for today’s young women. They are ready to push ahead, be their authentic selves and beat remaining cultural bias or barriers.

As many of you know, my dream is to arrive at the day when women have attained equal representation in the leadership of top corporations; a day when diversity just happens naturally without us needing to discuss it. When I reflect on International Women’s Day – the incredible gains made by women over the past century, the innovative approaches taken by today’s women, and the potential of tomorrow’s females – I feel optimistic that this dream is attainable. International Women’s Day reminds me that great progress is achieved, one day at a time.