Words by Catherine Fox
It's unlikely you've reached this point in March and been unaware of the many annual International Women's Day celebrations. You may have even attended an event or two.
While many women in the media join together in support of their gender, IWD and the job of reporting on it can leave some as cold as last night’s leftovers.
It’s certainly hard to avoid. The weeks around IWD spawn morning teas, panel discussions and corporate breakfasts, with plenty of talk about women’s worth and diversity efforts.
Historically, it’s worth remembering that IWD commemorates the protests for the right to basics such as the vote, better pay and conditions for women. It's a time to recall the women who died in a New York garment factory fire in 1911. Their deaths resulted in international legislation for improved working conditions.
It’s a reminder too that there’s still plenty to do in many key areas of women’s rights, such as closing the gender pay gap and addressing disturbing levels of violence against women.
Then there’s tackling the worrying lack of women’s voices, revealed in recently released data by Women in Media. Research revealed only about 30% of experts and sources quoted in the Australian media were women, and much lower numbers of women's versus men's bylines in sports, politics and financial coverage.
This imbalance was seen even in the female-dominated sectors of health and retail.
Perhaps one of the main reasons IWD rubs some people up the wrong way is the discrepancy between this faltering progress to gender equity, and slick celebratory events, along with the feeling that attention on one day a year does not compensate for a lack of it during the remainder of the year.
But let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater. The attention, as any campaigner will tell you, is precious.
And reporters, who have plenty of IWD credentials, can see the media has a key role in making sure IWD coverage is fit for purpose and a springboard for more action.
There’s certainly room to improve the diversity on display. A few weeks ago, a survey by the More Voices, More Representation campaign found that nearly 70% of women, trans and non-binary people did not feel represented at IWD events or in the media.
Disability advocate, and editor-in-chief of Missing Perspectives, Hannah Diviney was happy to join the campaign. Missing Perspectives covers a range of social impact areas and was founded to challenge the lack of young women in news around the world.
“Joining was a no-brainer and hopefully makes people stop and think and consider the line-up of their IWD events. There are so many women here in Australia who need to be heard from more.”
"For all its flaws, IWD does provide a platform and a chance to make an impact, and earn some income," Diviney says.
“But I’m conscious the media treat it like ticking a box and we are fighting the other 364 days of a year for the things that are said on the 8th of March.”
"The problem with some of the conversations at events, and coverage of IWD, is it feels commodified, and touches on problems such as domestic violence in an ‘airbrushed way’," Diviney adds.
“It’s an excellent opportunity but, instead of using it as a springboard to address structural and systemic issues, it’s used as a distraction.”
Wendy Tuohy, an experienced journalist at The Age and the SMH, who focuses on social issues and those impacting women and girls, has similar reservations.
“To me IWD has gone from being a day of protest to a corporatised 'celebration' without nearly as much punch as a result," Tuohy says.
Like Diviney, she sees the networking breakfasts and feel-good events predominating now, in Australia at least. Previously, there was more rage evident at ongoing inequalities across the economic, political and domestic settings, Tuohy adds.
“Call me cynical, but I feel many employers want to be seen to be doing something about enhancing workplace equality, but rather than do stuff such as make pay transparent and equal out women's wages in cases where they are inferior, they do some themed cupcakes once a year.”
For those of us (this writer included) who often tend to be asked to comment or speak on IWD, there is a sense of trying to do something different and potentially leading to more sustainable change.
A long list of problems can also turn audiences off, says Tuohy.
“I tended to do op-eds each year virtually listing the ‘work still to be done’, but I feel there is a lot of fatigue around those kind of ‘why is change taking so long’ approaches. We know governments are trying, but still statistics, such as the pay gap and toll of violence against women, persist," Tuohy says.
Her approach is to try to elevate women's issues all-year-round.
“The Age and SMH do a pretty good job of supporting continuous coverage of issues; in journalism and also in political coverage (Jacqueline Maley is excellent),” Tuohy says.
“I think individual women's stories are a powerful way to get people to connect with the issues, and I try to focus on larger issues through the lens of individual women with whom readers can connect.”
For all its problems, IWD still offers a way to tell those stories, including the experience of women from all cohorts, while showing that growing audience appetite for this content exists well beyond March 8.
It’s also a reminder of the essential work of women in the media – whether reporting directly on women’s issues or not – in providing insights and experience that would otherwise be ignored.
At a time when women experts and their bylines need a boost in the media, IWD can offer a platform to help focus on the stories that matter, and the need for broader and more sustained change for all women.
Women in Media editorial consultant Catherine Fox is an award-winning journalist, author and leading commentator on women and the workforce. A former writer and columnist at the Financial Review, she is now freelance, has written or co-authored five books and
regularly speaks at events, particularly during IWD season. Catherine will be working with Women in Media in 2023 to develop content for members, supported by the Meta News Fund.