International Women’s Day (IWD) is upon us again- a day which has been officially recognized by the United Nations as a time to pause and to pay homage to what women have done and continue to do in order to make our world a better place.

It is described by Wikipedia as a global holiday celebrated annually on March 8 to commemorate the cultural, political and socio-economic achievements of women. Indeed, there is every good reason to designate a day to record the astounding successes of so many women who, when given a chance, have shone and risen to the top of the pile.

But we at Symmetra believe that that IWD stands for more. It is a day to take stock of where women stand in the world – how far they have come and what still needs to be done to ensure that they enjoy, in truth and without any qualification, the rights and opportunities which the other half of humanity assume is their natural due.

To be sure, women can look at the past year as one where the remarkable achievements of so many of them have left a profound imprint on societies, communities and institutions in every corner of the globe. A review of the year will reveal noteworthy accomplishments by women in the areas of government, politics, business, the arts, sport, science, medicine academia and economics.

Here are just a few examples – arbitrarily selected just to illustrate the range of activities in which women have excelled:

  • Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors (the first female head of a major motor vehicle manufacturer) has been described as possibly “…one of the most significant business leaders in US history…” and has recently astonished observers by promising to phase out production of all petrol and diesel vehicles by 2035
  • Gita Gopinath, chief economist of the IMF has done fundamentally important work in calculating the global costs of the covid crisis and has shown that its economic effects can be overcome by vaccinating 40 per cent of the world’s poorest by 2021 and 70 per cent by 2022
  • Frances Haugen has demonstrated huge courage and moral probity in one of the most significant whistleblower campaigns exposing the darkest secrets of Facebook’s “surveillance capitalism”
  • Chloe Zhao, film director, became the first woman of colour, and only the second woman in 100 years to win an academy award for best director for the film
  • Ursula von der Leyden, president of the European Commission, is instrumental in preparing laws which affect the lives of more than 700 million people. She has been powerful and unflinching in stating the resolve of the European Union to support the resistance of Ukraine against the Russian invasion

Women have continued to explode the myth that they do not share in the same natural talent for STEM subjects:

  • Jennifer Anne Doudna won the Nobel prize for Chemistry in 2020 and has continued to do groundbreaking work in CRISPR gene editing which provides huge advances in treating disease
  • Archana Chugh led a 6-woman team which developed a unique anti-fungal strategy that can cure serios eye infections
  • Sumita Mitra was honoured with the European Inventor Award for the application of nanotechnology in dentistry.

And of course, women continue to reach the pinnacle in political leadership. In 2021 some 26 countries had woman heads of government. These include Norway, Denmark, New Zealand, Finland, Slovakia, Taiwan and Bangladesh.

The fact that women are at the top in so many areas no longer evokes any special comments and that is of itself an extraordinary advance. However, the reality is that virtually nowhere have women overall been able to reach true formal and substantive equality. In many countries they remain subjugated and oppressed.

We are reminded of the famous essay of English philosopher, John Stuart Mill: On the Equality of Women, where he opined:

For what is the peculiar character of the modern world – the difference which chiefly distinguishes modern institutions, modern social ideas, modern life itself from those times long past? It is that human beings are no longer born to their place in life and chained by an inexorable bond to the place they are born to, but are free to employ their faculties and such favourable chances as offer, to achieve the lot which may appear to them most desirable.

And later:

If this principle is true we ought to act as if we believed it and not to ordain that to be born a girl instead of a boy, any more than to be born black instead of white or a commoner instead of a nobleman shall decide a person’s position through life.”

The reality is that we are still very far from a point where Mill’s fundamental premise is accepted.  Even in countries where nominally women’s rights are apparently guaranteed by law, all manner of impediments often blocks their way. In other countries they are condemned by the law itself and by social mores to be forever subservient to powerful men.

It escapes the rulers of many male-dominated societies that holding women back means inevitably that their society as whole is also held back. This has been amply proven over and over. It was eloquently articulated in a leading article in the Economist Magazine (Sept 11, 2021), Why nations that fail women fail. It demonstrated quite clearly that societies where women are overtly oppressed are the same societies which are economically backward and manifest a high degree of instability.

But even in the most highly industrialized countries, women often struggle to realize their full potential. In most of these societies, men still predominate in positions of power. When making decisions that affect the lives and careers of women overt or sometimes unconscious biases come to the fore. In consequence of these women are detrimentally treated in multiple ways. Moreover, when women enter the workplace they often encounter inbuilt structures which inhibit their working lives.

Added to this is the fact that by most assessments, women in rich as well as under-developed economies have borne the greater impact of the pandemic compared to men. A McKinsey report of August 2021 indicates that one in four women is considering downshifting or leaving the workplace entirely.

So, looking at the past year in retrospect for women it must be adjudged a mixed picture. There have been wonderful successes but some setbacks as well. But women are not strangers to setbacks. The women of the world and their male supporters can take the time and opportunity on this day to savour the advances that have been won and ready themselves for the challenges that await them.