On the weekend before International Women’s Day, Helen* was asked to shoot a video for the university where she works, describing the ways in which it was a leader in feminism. She declined due to the fact that she disagreed with its policies.
“I was asked by one of my supervisors whether I was ‘really a feminist’,” Helen says. As a result she panicked and, fearing for her job, she directed the shoot anyway, during what was meant to be her time off. “I kind of resent being complicit in their corporate definition of feminism,” she adds.
Helen’s is far from an isolated incident. Across the UK, women have reported being asked to work extra hours – effectively working for free – to produce International Women’s Day-themed content, all in the name of promoting their employer’s brand image as being pro-woman.
For 27-year-old Maura*, who works as an analyst for a multinational firm, International Women’s Day work wasn’t part of her job scope. But as the only South Asian woman in her office, she was instructed to find a POC speaker for an International Women’s Day panel after one of the organisers realised that it was composed entirely of white women.
“I ended up spending time after work the whole of last week sending out requests which no one would accept,” Maura tells VICE. Unlike Helen, she was expected to do it without question because she’s known as “a bit of a feminist” at work, having previously brought up issues such as a lack of diversity in the office, and felt unable to decline.
Founded by a migrant socialist who sought fair pay and working conditions, International Women’s Day has its roots in intersectionality. But in recent years, the occasion has been increasingly co-opted by brands and firms to shill products and initiatives under the guise of working towards ending gender discrimination.
In reality, many companies aren’t doing enough to improve women’s workers' rights. A 2019 paper on “genderwashing” from business academics at Weber State University and Western University found that “superficial attempts to address gender inequality within organisations fail to create structural change or disrupt engrained power dynamics.” Companies create a “positive public image by proclaiming their commitment to gender equity,” the paper further states, “but this often masks practices that hinder women’s advancement at work and in society.”
“At the rhetorical level, organisations are talking about equality and how ‘We value women; we value diversity, and we can see that diversity is good for business,’” said Wendy Fox-Kirk, one of the paper’s co-authors, in a press statement. “But there's a big contradiction. When they go into these organisations, women and marginalised individuals experience the opposite. That’s the result of genderwashing.”
The failure of such policies and work culture to truly enact gender equality is reflected in the fact that, in the lead up to International Women’s Day, it’s women who have to do more work, and therefore end up working more hours than men. Kathy*, 30, a radio presenter, says that her station decided on a full schedule featuring an all-woman line-up for International Women’s Day, to have “women empowering women all day”. In the last few weeks, she has regularly worked after hours to record interviews and find local women to join her on air, spending “anywhere from a couple extra hours, to a full work day” on preparation for these shows.
“I think in theory, it's great [to feature women],” Kathy says. “But the reality is that the men all get the day off, while we end up being on air, working for many more hours.”
Hannah*, 27, similarly found herself putting in extra hours for questionable reasons. A freelance London correspondent for a European television channel, her male editor tasked her to prepare a segment for International Women’s Day, requesting footage of “suffragettes”, and an interview with a feminist singer to be delivered on her weekend off, with just two day’s notice.
“I honestly think the editor just came up with the idea at the last minute and thought it would be cool,” she says. “I also tried to explain several times that we’re in a lockdown in London so there won’t be marches and demos this IWD, but that doesn’t seem to deter him.” As for the interview, “there’s not really [an IWD] story behind it,” Hannah points out. “It would just be an interview of a singer simply because she’s famous and a feminist.”
During the pandemic, some of the work women are being made to do not only means extra hours, but also poses a risk to their safety. Helen and several of the women she works with were made to go into the university to organise and shoot the video. “We practiced social distancing and took precautions,” she says, “but it still made me quite uneasy breaking lockdown to do what feels like non-essential work.”
“I felt unable to say no as employment in universities is so volatile at the moment,” Helen adds.
And it seems this sentiment is shared by those in other industries. Women who VICE spoke to said they would hesitate to speak out against being assigned such work – even if they disagree with their employer’s approach and motives – as they fear it would lead to repercussions during a precarious time for employment, or jeopardise their chances of promotion.
Even beyond the demands of International Women’s Day, women already work for free for an average of 63 days of the year as a result of the gender pay gap, according to analysis from the Trades Union Congress published last year.
The situation is equally bleak for campaigners and speakers, for whom International Women’s Day is one of the busiest times of the year for speaking engagements. After campaigner Gina Martin spoke up about receiving no less than 11 unpaid requests for speeches and appearances at conference panels, hundreds of women in the same situation responded.
Dr. Meenal Viz, an NHS doctor and campaigner, tells VICE that she had seven requests to speak on IWD panels this year. When she tried to negotiate a fee, many people “just didn’t get back to me or felt that I was asking for too much,” she says.
“[The organisers] make you feel that you are the one who’s ridiculous,” Dr. Viz continues. “It does make you feel quite bad being on the receiving end of these emails, like, ‘how dare you ask for such a fee’. Well, this is what my white male counterpart is earning, so why should it even be a question?”
While employers need to radically rethink their approaches to International Women’s Day, and implement policies to ensure a more equitable workplace, Kathy’s request to her employer may be a reasonable start: “Can a girl get some extra money or time off while also featuring and uplifting women, please?”
*Names have been changed