It’s ironic that the woman behind International Women’s Day has become one of the many ‘forgotten women’ of history – women who, by virtue of being women, have not received the attention by historians that they deserve. Like Ada Lovelace, the world’s first computer programmer, or Gladys Bentley, who challenged norms around gender and sexuality as the pianist at a gay Harlem bar in the 1920s, Theresa Malkiel’s contribution to cultural history has also been long neglected.

 

Theresa Serber Malkiel was born in 1874 in what is now Ukraine. At the age of 17, she emigrated to the U.S. to avoid persecution for being Jewish. Though she was educated, she was forced to take a job in a garment factory where shifts could last 18 hours, injuries were common, and women earned half what their male counterparts did. It was barely enough to pay rent for crowded lodgings. Theresa joined a labour movement, started a union for female cloak-makers, and in 1909, proposed the first National Women’s Day. In time, it would become International Women’s Day.

 

Today, human resources and people professionals help ensure that women are supported and treated fairly in the workplace. Thanks to the tireless efforts of women and their allies over the past 100 years, women today have far more professional opportunities and are leading at the highest levels. Women and men alike are learning to recognize gender-based injustice and growing more willing to call attention to it when we see it. Young people are increasingly unwilling to support businesses they perceive as mistreating people and the planet.

 

But there is still much to do. And though International Women’s Day is a time to celebrate the cultural, social and political achievements of women, it’s also a time to renew our commitment to pressing for progress and building on the achievements of those who came before us. Women around the world were disproportionately affected by the Covid-19 pandemic, for instance, which has widened inequalities at work and at home. Recent Pew Research Center analysis shows that the gender pay gap in the U.S. ‘hasn’t changed much’ in two whole decades. This shows that progress isn’t linear; things can go backwards. International Women’s Day can help prompt us to ask ourselves tough questions.

 

In hiring, International Women’s Day gives us a chance to interrogate our recruitment process. What kind of language are we using in our job adverts? How are we conducting interviews? Are all women represented, or only women of a certain background, race, sexuality, or class? We can also ask if the women who we’re recruiting into our organisation, or already have within our organisation, are being heard. Do they have a sense of belonging, or are they pushed to the margins in discussions, brainstorms, decision-making, or the social life of the workplace? We can question how women in our organisation approach conflict. Do they feel willing and able to speak to us if they encounter something that makes them uncomfortable? And are we taking enough care to understand the context of every dispute, to consider all the contributing factors? Are we thinking deeply about subtle prejudices, unconscious biases, and hidden or invisible forms of discrimination, for example? 

 

It’s vital that we ask ourselves these questions, and that we keep pushing for progress. Even today, for every person in any organisational or national culture who calls out wrongdoing or imbalances of power and pushes for change, there are thousands who don’t, and thousands more who see things as ‘normal’ or ‘good enough’ or ‘just the way things are’. In the future, our descendents will no doubt look back on our own time and see many injustices to which we were blind. Already, we’re seeing younger generations throw light on issues that we’ve previously ignored or failed to notice. This is why our work as HR and people professionals requires constant vigilance: an unceasing effort to help people feel supported at work, that they belong, and that their voices and contributions matter.

 

So on International Women’s Day this year, I say: let’s spare a thought for Theresa Malkiel, who had the courage and charisma to call the injustice she saw around her what it was, and to bring together women to challenge the accepted norms of her time and to demand change. Let’s learn from her shining example, and redouble our efforts to create diverse, equitable and inclusive workplaces where women can thrive. Let’s recognise the extraordinary power that we have in our organisations to create change, and be humble enough to see that there is always – always – more we can do

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