Why does International Women's Day matter? It’s a fair question to ask of an annual event that has been celebrated for well over 100 years as an internationally recognized day to celebrate the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women.
For IOE&IT fellow member Jenny Butler, shipping director at a global shipping and logistics firm, it’s an important day to reflect both on the progress towards gender equity and equality that has been made, but also to look ahead at what still need to be done.
“It's a day that marks a call to action on gender parity,” she tells me over a Teams call. “It's a day to raise awareness for equality and to show where the gaps are. It's a call for positive change and for endorsing women's advancement, supporting other women to attain leadership positions and break the glass ceiling in traditionally male-dominated industries. It highlights how far women have come and how far we've got to go.”
Butler admits it is a complex issue and can be quite an emotive topic. “I hear a lot of comments when women speak at events referencing standing on the shoulders of great women from history. It’s brilliant that things other women had to fight so hard for in the past, we take as an automatic right today. But we need to discuss how these changes were achieved and how they came about. And how hard they had to be fought for. By highlighting how far we’ve come, we mustn’t undermine the fact there is still a parity gap.”
Time for younger women in trade
Butler is an evangelist for the role of trade in the world and for the part women can and do play in that.
“Trade is in everything we do, it’s part of our daily lives,” she says. “But it can feel like a foreign language if you're not involved in it. But take this big thing and bring it down to my field, which is shipping and logistics.
“There’s an almost endless selection of niche focus areas with that you can go into. Young women considering trade should look to women who are successful within the industry and see how achievable it actually is."
She adds that too often women don’t have enough confidence or self-belief. “Young women should believe in themselves more. But then I don't know many women who do on a day-to-day basis, no matter how old they are or successful they appear to be.”
Butler agrees that we need more female role models. “Women willing to be in the public eye, who have been fortunate and successful enough like to succeed in the way I have, need to be seen. If I can be a role model for anyone wishing to come into trade, I would consider it a massive success and a huge achievement.”
Butler’s message is simple. “Believe in yourself and believe the industry is changing. Believe you can do it and understand that it is involved in everything we do every day. I know this is easier said than done.”
Trade remains heavily male dominated. “You go into a room at any trade event and there are maybe 15% or 20% women. It is better than 5% to 10%, which is what it was 10 years ago. But it is still a very male-dominated club, with people who have known each other for years. Women are often the newcomers.”
Butler adds that women who do succeed and take on senior roles often put themselves under more pressure to achieve than male contemporaries. But, she says, even this can be seen in a bad light, “A woman having a desire to be extremely successful is still to some extent seen as a negative. It's not a soft, stereotypical gender-appropriate response.
“As a result, women feel they have to be faster, smarter, work harder and come up with more complex solutions. And my evidence and experience is that in highly emotive or charged situations, women are scrutinized more closely for their emotional reactions. It's a lot more complex than just saying women must work harder. It's a big, complex, generational and societal situation.”
Time for equity and equality
Butler is passionate on the importance of equity. “Equality is a state of being equal. That can be in status, in rights or in opportunity, so everyone is given the opportunity to achieve. But equity is about more than that. It is about fairness and justice, and the way people are treated. Just because you have the opportunity you don’t start with the same preferences, ability or background. It's an acknowledgement not everyone starts in the same place and people need different things to address imbalances that make opportunities possible. That can be poverty, health, food security, education or just location.
“There are still plenty of people out there fighting for what should be considered basic human rights. The distinction between equity and equality is relevant, but equity is a far more complex issue, which can't be addressed with a simple approach.”
As a senior female figure in a traditionally male-dominated industry, Butler says she has seen progress, over the 15 years of her career so far.
“Significant strides have been made towards equality in terms of women in international trade, but in terms of equity, not so much. Trade is generally still a male-dominated industry and representation of women isn’t great. That could be historical or cultural, or it could be the fact that trade is an industry not seen as attractive for women.”
Butler started 15 years ago and says she used to be something of a rarity as a woman at trade events. As a result, she says she experienced plenty of inappropriate behaviour, even being groped and manhandled at conferences. “It used to be considered standard practice,” she says. “Before attending conferences and even some customer meetings, I would be warned about staying away from Mr X because he was ‘a bit handsy’ or I’d be told ‘make sure you don't wear a low-cut top’. I had to adjust how I acted and go out of my way to avoid drawing inappropriate attention.
“Even in the last 10 years, I've had a senior member of management tell me I should consider myself lucky to be groped at events, because they would give anything to be in the same situation. He then followed up that by asking if I would mind making him a cup of tea!
It’s something I should never have had to deal with.”
Butler admits that she has chosen to specialise in a male-dominated niche of a male-dominated industry. “I used to get blank stares and sarcastic remarks when I'd sat across the desk. The only way I'd get people to take me seriously was to just talk over them in a practical, pragmatic way. Then they’d realize that I was serious and knew what I was talking about.”
Butler says things have improved and that women in the industry appear to be being taken more seriously now.
“There has been some addressing of these issues from businesses and entities, where the pay gap is better than it used to be. Equal opportunities seem to be more readily available, and women are considered for roles that historically would only be given to men. There's a fair way to go, but in my time in the industry I would we have seen huge leaps forward. It’s heading in the right direction, which is fantastic.”
Time for practical action
In terms of what needs to change, Butler points straightaway for the need to focus on the pay disparities and the disparity in rights when it comes to child-rearing. “We need equal opportunities and equity in terms of opportunities.
Somebody who is in a position of leadership, who has a young child to manage will have familial obligations they’re expected to manage. There's still a lot to do, as businesses and a country, but also as a culture, to understand that women can have both.
Likewise, she says, there is a need for more frank and open discussions of issues such as perimenopausal and menopausal and even menstruation. Support is, she says, starting to come as these subjects come up more often in regular conversations. “That's something practical that can be done that doesn't need to be a huge, heated topic.”
Women’s health is, she says, still considered a taboo and uncomfortable topic to raise. She compares the lack of progress to the area of mental health where there has been a major shift with more open discussion of problems.
Time for the old order to move on
Lastly, when it comes to necessary steps and action, Butler suggests as well as celebrating the positive it is also necessary to call out the negative. “From a purely personal perspective and not associated with any affiliations I have, I would like to see a lot of the misogynistic decision makers be called out, phased out and moved on.”
She says that if people who feel this way are controlling an organisation, they’ll control its culture:
“Their business culture can only be influenced from the top down and if it's lived. If you live and breathe with a culture where the ultimate decision maker thinks that there is a reason why women are paid less, or that we’re not suitable for senior roles and decision making because we’re too hysterical or whatever, then that doesn't fit anymore.
“It's done. We're past that. And I would like to see it more publicly called out. I would like to see people held accountable. The world has changed so much from one generation to the next.
“I'm sure some beliefs I hold will probably be outdated and inappropriate by the time I reach the age some senior folk are now. But there is plenty of evidence from around the world that women can make perfectly capable, competent and fantastic business decisions. There are no more excuses about why women aren't appropriate for those roles.”
Ultimately, Butler says she is hopeful for the future, but acknowledges that change takes time.
“We're talking about fundamental cultural change on a scale which is almost incomprehensible. It’s a challenging and lengthy process and has to be discussed regularly in order to continue to facilitate change. We can do lots of little things, we can make sure we act with equality and equity in our internal and interpersonal relationships and engagements. But we can also do bigger things such as speaking out about inequality and injustice and unfairness in the world.
“When we become decision makers, we should make equality and equity a cultural norm. It should not be something we have to celebrate. It should just be accepted as normal. We should be examples for the next generation of how we want the people around us to be treated.”